A foundational tenet of the Black Lives Matter and similar racial justice movements is that gaps between blacks and whites on many socio-economic measures are produced primarily by racism. Racial inequalities in educational attainment, financial success, social status, crime, and health are thereby transformed from inequalities to racial inequities. That is, differences between races are not seen merely as a demographic fact but as an indictment of the fairness of our society. Each new inequality uncovered, from the unequal effects of COVID-19 to sentencing in the court system, is offered as evidence for the charge of systemic racism and injustice.
The possibility that inequalities might be a result of black culture, historical circumstance, or heritability is dismissed a priori or even ruled out of bounds. For example, research into the genetic basis of racial IQ differences will not be awarded grants from government or foundations, which makes it very difficult to pursue. The only exception to the prohibition on research into the genetic basis for racial disparities is in the medical area, where genetic explanations for racial differences for diseases such as sickle cell anemia are permitted.
Empirically testing the hypothesis that racism accounts for most or all of black disadvantage poses enormous challenges. However, because this theory has observable consequences it should in principle be possible to find evidence for or against. For instance, it implies that racial gaps will change along with changes in the prevalence of white racism. Has black underperformance decreased as overt racism in our society has declined in recent decades? Is it lower in societies in which there is less white racism (e.g., African societies)?
The problem with these societal tests is that measurement is extremely difficult or impractical. However, recently psychologists have conducted research programs at the micro-level of individuals, in which African American subjects are individually assessed about their experiences of racism or racial discrimination. These same individuals are also measured on some target dimension in which racial gaps occur, such as academic achievement, health, wealth, or criminality. Many of these studies find a positive correlation between black experiences of racism and deficits on the targeted dimension, including crime and incarceration, academic achievement and risky sexual behaviors, smoking, mental health, and physical health. In a 2018 review of the literature, researchers in Texas identified 214 such studies just for minority adolescents alone.1
These studies appear to constitute strong evidence for the popular view that the cause of racial inequality is white racism. In each case, the more racism blacks have experienced, the worse their outcomes compared to those of whites. For example, this year a team of researchers found that racial discrimination experienced by African Americans by age 10 or 11 increases the likelihood of them engaging in illegal behavior and being arrested later in life.2
Although many of these studies are well designed, they suffer from common flaws which call their conclusions into question. The most significant of these is the method used to measure racism or discrimination. Generally, this is accomplished by having the participants answer a survey consisting of items which ask about the frequency with which they experience racism. Two surveys typically used in such studies are the Schedule of Racist Events3 and the Experiences of Discrimination.4 For example, one item from the former is “How often has someone said something insulting to you just because you are African American?”
Notice that discrimination or racism is not directly or objectively measured by the experimenters. Instead, the subjects are asked for their subjective judgment. Accordingly, the experimenters call their independent variable “perceived discrimination” because it is what their participants perceive or remember rather than what is objectively measured. The problem is we know that often discrimination is in the eye of the beholder. This is especially true in the area of “microaggressions,” where there may be sharp disagreements about whether an aggression has occurred at all. An “insult” is likewise often in the eye of a beholder. One person may be “insulted” by a statement that another may not even notice.
More seriously, the subject is being asked to infer motivation—was the insult “just because you are an African American?” This calls for a rather sophisticated judgment about the motives of the other party. In addition, when judging if an act is discriminatory, the respondent has to judge if the perpetrator acts differently towards white people. Perhaps the perpetrator insults everyone irrespective of race. If the respondent has not observed the perpetrator interacting with whites under similar circumstances, it can be difficult to judge if an act is discriminatory against blacks.
Some of the authors of these studies acknowledge this problem but dismiss it. They simply accept whatever their subjects say. As an author of a major recent study wrote to me: “We ask our respondents if they experienced interactions in which they thought they were being treated unfairly because of their race. If they say yes, then… that IS discrimination.” Or as Derald Sue, a major researcher on microaggressions writes, “…the more accurate assessment about whether racist acts have occurred in a particular situation is most likely to be made by those most disempowered rather than by those who enjoy the privileges of power.” These sentiments are similar to the #MeToo slogan “Believe Women.” The notion that the “oppressed” are more trustworthy than the “oppressors” may make for good politics but it is not good science.
Not only are the responses to surveys putatively measuring racism based on subjective perceptions rather than objective observations, but their relationship to perception is also problematic. There can be perception of racism without a report—someone may perceive discrimination but not report it when asked for fear of retaliation or hurting someone else. Conversely, there can be a report of racism without a perception of racism—someone may want to injure someone by falsely claiming to be the target of discrimination. Thus, because neither the subject’s perception of an incident nor the report of discrimination is securely linked to reality, the true independent variable in these tests is not racism or discrimination but the reported perception of discrimination.
Another important problem with these studies is that they are correlational—that is, they identify correlations between reported perceptions of discrimination and some aspect of black underperformance. They cannot tell us anything definitive about causation. They do not prove that racism causes underperformance because both variables may be caused by some third unidentified variable. Nor do they tell us anything definitive about the direction of causation. Perhaps conventional wisdom has the causal explanation backwards. If African Americans are doing poorly in some aspect of life—be it crime, education, or income—they are faced with a choice about how to understand it. On the one hand, they can accept responsibility and resolve to improve. Alternatively, they can blame the racism of white society. Which of these options sounds more appealing?
Psychologists are familiar with the defense mechanism of externalization, in which individuals blame others for their own shortcomings. Externalizations protect the ego—the individual is not responsible for his failures. The greater the failure, the more others are held accountable, even if the externalization is a distortion of reality. Consequently, a positive correlation will be found but the causation is the reverse of what is commonly assumed. Imagine a bright young African American high school student who is admitted under affirmative action into an elite college for which he is under-qualified. Because he is not as well prepared and academically skilled as his peers, he soon finds himself struggling. He is bewildered by this turn of events. He knows he did well in high school. He knows his elite college has welcomed him warmly and showered him with support and special programs. He begins to wonder why he is not doing well. His peers and black leaders supply him with a comforting answer—his underperformance is not his fault, it is caused by the racism of his college. They say that, despite appearances, he is not really welcomed; he is not safe; he is persistently treated as if he does not belong; his peers, teachers, and administrators see him as an outsider.
To the extent that he comes to accept this narrative, he learns to see racism everywhere to bolster his defenses. The campus buildings are named after slave owners; the college vocabulary is suffused with racist terms like “house master” and “brown bag lunch discussion”; the curriculum is almost entirely based on Western history and culture while African studies are neglected. The more poorly he is doing academically, the more he externalizes and learns to reinterpret both his history as well as his current social interactions to comply with a purported racist narrative. He and thousands of students like him will contribute to studies that find a positive correlation between reported perception of discrimination and poor African American outcomes, but in truth the direction of causation will be from the latter to the former. This possibility helps explain the curious finding that the more black individuals identify with their own oppressed minority group, the more likely they are to perceive discrimination experiences and to be sensitive to racial insults.
If there is some truth to the hypothesis that poor performance plus ideological influence magnifies the perception of white racism, what might be the consequences for African Americans? They would plausibly feel angry and resentful towards mainstream society and discouraged from contributing their full potential. Why strive if the deck is stacked against you? Ultimately, this distorted view of society and the alienation from America it produces can easily contribute further to African American underperformance. A vicious spiral is established—African American underperformance plus ideology increase the perception of racism which in turns contributes to further under-performance.
If this alternative explanation is even partly valid, the implications are serious. Fighting white racism becomes pointless because it will be perceived and reported regardless of its prevalence as long as black failure damages black self-esteem and ideologues teach that failure is due to racism. Instead, the remedy for racial gaps is to address black shortcomings directly. Then, as black achievement increases, there will be less need for distortions in the degree of reported perceived discrimination.
Although the alternate explanation for black-white gaps suggested here is unproven, it is congruent with the data generated by the literature. It is therefore incumbent on those who believe that black disadvantage can be explained by racism to disprove alternate explanations before their favored hypothesis can be said to be supported by the data. Blaming white racism is a powerful strategy and it has inspired a nationwide movement. However, it is not clear whether it is benefitting African Americans or if it is needlessly inducing alienation, externalization, and failure to the detriment of its adherents and to society.
G. E. Zuriff is Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Wheaton College and was a clinical psychologist in the Mental Health Service at M.I.T. for 35 years.
1 Benner, A. D., Wang, Y., Shen, Y.,Boyle, A.E. Polk, R., & Chen, Y.P. (2018). Racial/Ethnic Discrimination and Well-Being during Adolescence: A Meta-Analytic Review. American Psychologist 73, 855-883. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000204
2 Gibbons, F. X., Fleischli, M. E., Gerrard, M., Simons, R. L., Weng, C.-Y., & Gibson, L. P. (2020). The impact of early racial discrimination on illegal behavior, arrest, and incarceration among African Americans. American Psychologist, 75(7), 952–968. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000533
3 Landrine, H., & Klonoff, E. A. (1996). The schedule of racist events: A measure of racial discrimination and a study of its negative physical and mental health consequences. Journal of Black Psychology, 22, 144-168. https://doi.org/10.1177/00957984960222002
4 Krieger, N., Smith, K., Naishadham, D., Hartman, C., & Barbeau, E. M. (2005). Experience of discrimination: Validity and reliability of a self-report measure for population health research on racism and health. Social Science and Medicine, 61, 1576-1596. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.03.006
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