Subtle Racism Harasses Brain
Decoding 'Ambiguous' Prejudice Interferes With Mental Tasks
WebMD News Archive
Sept. 21, 2007 - Subtle racism interferes with black people's mental
function even more than overt racism does, a psychological study shows.
For whites, who are much less often the targets of prejudice, overt racism
interferes with mental function more.
"It appears that blacks are particularly vulnerable to cognitive
impairment resulting from exposure to ambiguous prejudice -- a level of
prejudice whites may not even register," conclude Princeton University
psychologists Jessica Salvatore, PhD, and J. Nicole Shelton, PhD.
'Blatant' vs. 'Ambiguous' Racism
Salvatore and Shelton enrolled 122 African-American and 128 white Princeton
undergraduates in their study. They were told they were going to participate in
two different studies (in reality, they were two parts of the same study).
In the first part of the study, participants were told they would be
evaluating a company's hiring decisions. They were shown résumés from job
candidates. One was from a candidate who was clearly unqualified because
of mediocre grades from a "mediocre" school. Another was from the
most-qualified candidate, a Yale graduate with good grades, strong job
experience, and impressive school activities.
It was clear from the résumés whether the job candidates were white or
African-American. Half the time the unqualified candidate was white and the
highly qualified candidate was African-American. For the other half, the
conditions were reversed.
The study participants were also shown hiring recommendations from what they
were told were human resource officers for the company. Participants were told
the officer was a white male when the unqualified job candidate was white and
the highly qualified candidate was African-American. They were told the officer
was an African-American male when the unqualified job candidate was
African-American and the highly qualified candidate was white.
Participants were assigned to one of three groups: blatant prejudice,
ambiguous prejudice, or no-prejudice. The no-prejudice group saw
recommendations that advised hiring the most-qualified candidate. The prejudice
groups saw hiring recommendations that always chose the least-qualified subject
-- a person of the same race as the officer.
Under the blatant prejudice condition, the hiring recommendations contained
obviously racist comments (such as noting that the African-American candidate
"belonged to too many minority organizations" or that the white
candidate "was a typical white prep-school kid").
Under the ambiguous-prejudice condition, the hiring recommendations
contained no such racist comments -- the least-qualified, same-race candidate
was recommended without a clear reason.
In the second part of the study, participants then were given a test
requiring full concentration, in which they had to name the color in which
words such as "red" or "blue" were written.
Subtle Racism Wastes Brain Power
Witnessing the blatant prejudice lowered white participants' scores on the
test, but not the scores of African-American participants. However,
African-American participants did much worse on the test after witnessing the
"Blacks are better prepared to cope with blatant prejudice than whites
are, at least in terms of the short-term effects on performance of cognitive
tasks," Salvatore and Shelton suggest. This, they say, is because
African-Americans have experienced prejudice and have learned to deal with it,
not because such prejudice is harmless.
But when African-Americans have to deal with more subtle prejudice --
prejudice that whites tend not to recognize -- it consumes mental
"Targets of prejudice may experience cognitive impairment as they try to
determine the cause underlying the negative events they encounter in their
lives," Salvatore and Shelton conclude.
They report their findings in the September issue of Psychological