The author Sheryll Cashin has a private joke with her husband. Both Sheryll and her husband are black, and on Southwest airplanes (which allow people to choose seats on a first come, first served basis), they often notice that black passengers tend to have open seats next to them, even when it’s a full flight. What causes the evidence of racial prejudice that Cashin points out? Are the passengers conscious of their own racism? Or is there something subtler going on?
It’s interesting that the chapter opens with a non-academic example of stereotyping (and it would seem, racism). This is a sign that Steele will generalize his findings, applying stereotype theory to settings beyond the confines of the classroom.
Assuming the “identity threat explanation,” one might conclude that the white passengers on Southwest flights aren’t actively racist. Rather, they’re afraid of saying or doing something racist during the time they spend with a black person—much like Ted McDougal in his predominately black college class. Ironically, this makes the white passengers more likely to do something that is perceived as racist—namely, not sitting next to black passengers.
Here again, Steele doesn’t suggest that white Southwest passengers are guilty of explicitly racist thoughts. Rather he suggests that, in their eagerness to avoid seeming racist—saying something offensive while sitting next to a black passenger—white passengers actually end up doing something racist: purposefully avoiding sitting next to black passengers. Of course, not everyone would agree. It could be argued that there’s more conscious racism on a flight than Steele chooses to discuss.
With his graduate student Philip Goff, Steele conducted research into the structure of contemporary American society. Goff and Steele wanted to study the factors that cause different kinds of Americans to be “driven apart.” The writer David Brooks has written about the de facto segregation of American society: in contemporary times, Americans have increasingly been divided into smaller and smaller enclaves, based not only on race but also on class, education, and political affiliation.
Some of the most important sociological research of the last few decades concerns the self-segregation of American society. Contemporary Americans tend to associate with people with similar education and interests—and largely by choice.
It’s impossible to deny that Americans are still segregated—sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not—by race. Twenty years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, desegregation in schools was still being hotly debated, and the Supreme Court made other decisions that made desegregation slow and effectively impossible in many cities. In 2000, American schools and neighbors were more racially segregated than they were in the mid-1980s.
In the year 2000, segregation is illegal in schools. However, America still often seems like a de facto segregated society. For example, even if black students are allowed to attend a predominately white school, located in a predominately white neighborhood, black families may be more likely to send their children to a school where most of the students are black, to keep their children from feeling alienated or discriminated against.
It could be argued that group segregation in America isn’t a serious problem. If one assumes that Americans are “independent actors” who can make their own choices in life, then the increasing segregation of American society is just proof that people prefer to be around other people who are like them. But if one assumes, as many social scientists do, that people benefit from knowing many different kinds of people, then group segregation is a serious problem. Not all groups are equal—some groups have more power and access than others. Therefore, if America is segregated by race, income, or education, then certain groups will continue to enjoy a greater amount of power and access, and continue sharing their opportunities for success only with other people in their network.
Perhaps the reason that de facto segregation isn’t seen as a serious problem in the way that legal segregation was in the 1950s is that we want to assume that people are responsible for making conscious, autonomous choices. Steele’s point, however, is that people make their decisions based on a variety of factors that often have nothing to do with their individual autonomy. By this logic, white students who choose to associate with other white students because of a “cloud” of stereotype threats aren’t really making free, autonomous decisions, even if they believe they are.
The sociologist Glenn Loury came to a counterintuitive conclusion about group segregation in America. He suggested that networks of friends and colleagues are the primary cause of racial inequality in America, rather than direct discrimination against blacks. For example, a white applicant may be more likely to get a job than a black applicant—however, this may be because the white applicant has an influential friend who’s recommended him for the position, while the black applicant doesn’t.
Loury’s findings both support and complicate the idea that black job applicants are often the victims of prejudice. Black job applicants may lack a helpful, influential job network, due to structural or historical prejudices against black people. However, Loury suggests that many black job applicants also aren’t necessarily the victims of direct, conscious racism. According to Loury’s findings, it’s possible for qualified black applicants to be denied jobs consistently, without their interviewers being racist in any conscious way.
As Goff and Steele researched group segregation, they developed an experiment that could measure the impact of “identity threats on association preference.” In the experiment, white male Stanford students were brought to a lab, supposedly for a study of social communication. The students were asked to speak with two students, both black. Half of the students were instructed to talk about racial profiling; the other half were instructed to talk about love and relationships. Each student was asked—seemingly as an afterthought—to arrange the three chairs in which he and his two conversation partners would be sitting.
Goff and Steele’s experiment is designed to measure the relationship between racially-charged conversation topics and measurable, quantitative behavior (in this case, arranging chairs in a room).
The results of the experiment suggested that the way the students grouped the three chairs varied with the topic of the conversation. When the topic was racial profiling, the students tended to put the two black participants’ chairs close together, and then sit far away. But if the topic was love and relationships—a less racially charged topic—the students chose to group the three chairs close together.
The experiment suggests that white people feel uncomfortable talking about racial profiling with black people—or at least are made to feel more of a divide between themselves and black people than they might feel in discussing other topics.
To get a better sense for the dynamics of racial discrimination, Steele and Goff included two other groups of white Stanford students in the study. Half of the students spoke to two white conversationalists. The students who spoke to white partners put the chairs close together regardless of conversation topic. Finally, Steele and Goff asked participants to complete a list of word fragments—for example, they were asked to complete the fragment, “rac--t” (which could be “racist” or “racket”). Participants who spoke to black partners about racial profiling tended to complete the fragments with words associated with stereotyping. In all, the experiment suggested that white participants were aware of their own prejudicial behavior, and worried about being seen as prejudiced.
In order to get a sense for what the experiment subjects are thinking before and after the experiment, Steele and Goff ask the subjects to fill out word fragments (although this also seems like a very subjective measurement of one’s thought process). This task is designed to measure the extent to which the subjects are thinking about race-related concepts. In all, the study suggests that white subjects change their behavior because of the fear of being perceived as prejudiced, rather than because of actual, overt prejudice. However, one could argue that white Stanford students aren’t a very representative sample of the way most white Americans talk or think about race.
Goff and Steele conducted a similar experiment. The only difference between this experiment and its predecessor was that this time, participants were asked to complete a test on prejudice a day before the experiment. The test, developed by Harvard social psychologists, was designed to measure the speed of association between images of black people and negative things. Participants who associated images of black people with bad things most quickly (and, thus, could be considered the most prejudiced people) didn’t sit farther away from black conversationalists than any other participants. This suggests that prejudice didn’t have much impact on distancing—the fear of being seen as racist was the deciding factor.
In the second version of the experiment, Goff and Steele obtain evidence suggesting that there’s no correlation between hostility to black people (as measured by the Harvard test) and behavior around the black conversation partners involved in the experiment. Again, however, one might question what, if anything, these findings suggest about the American public in general—after all, it seems reasonable to assume that racist white people also alter their behavior around black people.
The desire to avoid stereotypes is a powerful motivator for Americans. On a Southwest flight, white passengers might want to avoid confirming the stereotype that they’re racially prejudiced, and don’t know how to interact with black people without being offensive. Like many Americans, the passengers simply avoid associating with people who are different from them—which, ironically, could be interpreted as prejudiced behavior.
Steele broadens the scope of his research in this chapter, applying his examinations of Stanford students’ behavior to public settings, such as airplanes. However, it’s not clear if what’s true for predominately liberal, highly educated Stanford students is also true for white Southwest passengers—in other words, it’s not clear if the desire to avoid seeming prejudiced is a more powerful motivator than actually being prejudiced.
Goff and Steele collaborated with Paul Davies (whom Steele introduced earlier in the book) to develop another experiment. This experiment was almost identical to Goff and Steele’s previous experiment. But this time, when the researchers gave the white Stanford students their instructions, they told half of the students that talking about racial profiling with black students was usually very uncomfortable, and that the students should treat the conversation as a learning experience. With these instructions, the white participants moved their chairs closer to their black conversation partners. Furthermore, when they took a word fragment test, they no longer completed so many fragments with race-related words.
The experiment suggests that, at least among white Stanford students, it’s possible to relax stereotype threats by assuring the students that talking about race is uncomfortable for almost anyone. While these findings may be very useful in improving practices on college campuses, Steele leaves it an open question how one would use his findings to reduce prejudicial behavior in American society overall.
Steele’s findings are encouraging. Identity threats may keep people apart, but there are simple ways to minimize their impact. More broadly, people need to begin to recognize that, while they’re autonomous individuals, their behaviors are more tied to social identity, and the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, than they probably realize.
Steele has spent the bulk of his professional career monitoring the behavior of students at some of the country’s most elite universities. How this research could be applied to American society in general is left unclear, but Steele will offer some further thoughts on this matter in the next and final chapter.