By Adam Reilly
May 25, 2011
BOSTON — When President Obama was elected in 2008, some people hoped it would usher in a new, post-racial age in America. But according to a new study conducted by professors at Tufts University and Harvard Business School, that hasn’t happened — and whites and minorities look at bias very differently.
The study, published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, was authored by Michael Norton, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and Samuel Sommers, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts. They asked 417 people, half of whom were white and half of whom were black, to rate the level of bias suffered by white and black Americans from the 1950s through the 2000s on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 signifying minimal bias and 10 signifying extreme bias.
Their major finding: Whites now believe, on average, that they suffer more bias than blacks do. Whites currently rate anti-white bias in the 2000s as just under 5, and anti-black bias as slightly under a 4 — more than a full point less. What’s more, Norton and Sommers say, whites consider discrimination to be a “zero-sum game.” Put differently, they assume that as anti-black bias diminishes, anti-white bias must increase.
If Norton and Sommers had restricted their research in Boston, though, their findings might have been markedly different. Most people we spoke with today on Boylston Street seemed surprised and even a bit dismayed by the study’s findings.
“I think that’s a ridiculous notion,” Sara-Grace Reynolds of Worcester said of the idea that anti-white discrimination is more prevalent than its anti-black equivalent. “Not to say that it doesn’t happen – but I think that the reasons are behind it are understandable. And I think it’s a little bit simplistic to say that it happens more than discrimination against minority groups.
“When people in minority groups are discriminated against for their whole lives,” Reynolds added, “it’s understandable they may harbor some sort of negative feelings toward the oppressors. Whereas for white people who discriminate against minority groups of whatever color or sexual orientation…it’s more to do with the fact that they just don’t believe in diversity.”
Not everyone thought the attitudes revealed by the study were outlandish, however. “For people that are trying to get housing, and trying to get the resources they’re supposed to get their hands on, people that lived in their country can’t get their hands on it,” said John, a Boston man who declined to give his last name.
“Anybody that’s coming over,” John added, “they get it first. They get first dibs on everything.”
Norton and Sommers suggest that whites’ perception of bias may be driven by affirmative action and by the perceived imposition of minority-friendly cultural norms.
But they also note some surprising shared ground between white and black respondents. For example, both whites and blacks agreed that blacks suffered severe discrimination in the 1950s and that that discrimination ebbed over time — though whites believed it diminished more sharply than blacks do.
What’s more, blacks and whites both saw anti-white bias as almost nonexistent in the 1950s. The difference, apparently, is that blacks believe anti-white bias has risen only slightly since then — while whites now consider it a major problem.
MORE GREATER BOSTON
Subscribe to WGBH News Emails