When President Barack Obama became the first non-White president in American history many declared our country had overcome its racist past. Chief Justice John Roberts echoed the same sentiment when the high court gutted the Voting Rights Act last year. In his ruling, Justice Roberts wrote, “Our country has changed,” and argued states no longer barred Black folks from voting.
While African-Americans have made tremendous strides since the bad old days of Jim Crow, our nation is far from equal. Black college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed than their White counterparts, and disparities in the justice, healthcare, and education systems leave many African-Americans struggling to survive. Though it should be clear that America remains rife with inequality, hearing about successful African-Americans have left some believing that racism just isn’t a big deal.
Recently, University of California, Berkeley professor Clayton Critcher teamed up with University of Chicago professor Jane Risen to see how people view America’s current racial climate. What they found was quite interesting.
When non-blacks were exposed to African-American success stories—tales of those who defied the odds, like Merck chief executive Kenneth Frazier, Brown University President Ruth Simmons, and even President Obama—they became less sympathetic to more average African-Americans, without even realizing it. They unknowingly reasoned, “If he can do it, so can they.”
Risen and I conducted eight experiments with both college undergraduates and non-students. We had participants complete a supposedly unrelated task before expressing their opinion about why racial disparities persist in modern America. In the first part, participants answered numerous questions like, “Which of the two men shown below do you think is famous author John Grisham?” For some participants, one or two of these questions involved especially successful African-Americans. These key questions appeared straightforward (e.g., “Which of the two men shown below is the CEO of Merck?), but their true purpose was to subtly inform participants (through the provided pictures) that a particular high-level position was occupied by an African-American. As a control, other participants were asked only about whites.
Participants who had been exposed to the counterstereotypical examples of African-American success were more likely to blame blacks for persisting racial disparities. But when we later asked whether being exposed to these exemplars had changed their beliefs about race in America, our non-black participants denied it (inaccurately). That is, exposure to the exemplars changed their beliefs without their realizing it. What’s more, they became just as unsympathetic to African-Americans even when it was highlighted that the exemplar’s success story was an exception (e.g., “Which person is Kenneth Frazier, the only African-American CEO of a Fortune 75 company?”). Thus, people don’t assume racism is on the decline because they believe African-American success is typical; they need only appreciate that such success is possible.
Critcher and Risen’s research suggest African-Americans are in a difficult position. While inequality, racism, and disparities in the most basic systems continue to exist, many feel that Black folks can no longer point to systematic White supremacy as a reason why it’s more difficult to make it in America.