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Does racial sensitivity have a price?

We are keeping with the theme of stereotyping, discrimination and inequality for just a few more posts folks! Today I wanted to look at a strange effect that can occur when we show racial sensitivity, or at least believe we are showing it.

Here is a simple question – do you believe an act of sensitivity towards a group entitles someone to, sometimes, behave in less sensitive ways towards that group at a later time? For example, Billy-Bob decided to donate a large amount of money towards a minority scholarship fund. He felt good about himself, and later on that day he made a racist joke to his friends. His friends say, “hey you shouldn’t make such racist remarks,” and Billy-bob replies, “well I’m not racist, you see I just donated all this money to a scholarship fund.” Do you think Billy-Bob believes he is a racist person, or even a bigot? He probably thinks quite highly of himself.

This example is to point out the mental process that some individuals go through. It’s as if we believe we can gain credit by making sensitive gestures and then turn around and make a biased judgement. It is as if we feel entitled to pass judgement when we show any support at all. In 2009, a group of researchers showed this strange effect in an interesting study.

Effron, Cameron, and Monin (2009) authored an article entitled, “Endorsing Obama licenses favoring Whites.” Their scholarly article was even more provocative than this blog posting! The authors devised a simple means to study this rebound effect. They would ask participants if they would vote for Obama or McCain (this data  collection occurred in 2008, prior to Obama taking office). Afterwords, the participants would have to make a decision about which race (White or Black or neither) would be better suited to be a police chief in a fictional town. This fictional town had a long history of racial tensions and the participants simply rated on a Likert scale (a seven point scale) if a white would be best for the job, if a black would be best for the job, or if it does not matter if a Black or White individual did the job.

Stunningly, the authors found that when a participant endorsed Obama, they were significantly more likely to believe that a white person was better for the job in the fictional town. I’m sure you are curious about the paritipants used for this study, so here is a direct quote from the source material… “[i]n February 2008, 99 undergraduates (52 females and 47 males; mean age = 19.28 years, SD = 1.67; 45% White, 23% Asian–American,7% African–American, 7% other races, and 6% multiracial),” (Effron, Cameron, and Monin, p. 590, 2009). The authors did not report that the races listed above had a tendency to answer in a particular way. In fact, it appears that the only thing predictive of the fictional job selection was whether or not they endorsed Obama. This is truly a strange effect.  This study was later replicated in a second version as well.

In the third version of this study, individuals would endorse a white or black candidate, and then allocate funds to different organizations. Basically, one organization would help White students, and another organization would help Black students. The participants were given a budget, and asked to allocate amounts to each group. They thought that if their original theory was correct, endorsing Obama meant that individuals would spend more fictional money on the fictional White student organization.

Effron, Cameron, and Monin go on to say, “[o]ur three studies demonstrated that expressing support for an African–American candidate licenses people to favor Whites at the expense of Blacks,” (p. 592, 2009). This is a relatively stunning conclusion! With the replications, and the change in methods, we still find that the authors supported their original idea.

Once again, this has always been such a touchy subject, at least here in the U.S. After learning of these effects, we often ask, “well how do I keep this from happening to me?” This is an especially hard question to answer, as the process appears to be relatively automatic. For now the best answer I can come up with is that we should be cognizant of the factors that influence our behaviors so that when we make a decision we are making it rationally instead of easily.

For more information about their research, feel free to read the PDF posted here —->http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/jesss/Effron,%20Cameron,%20&%20Monin,%202009.pdf

My next post on the stereotypes will be reviewing the article, “Can an angry woman get ahead,” by Brescoll and Uhlmann (2008). Their article shows what can happen to those of us who fail to meet our gender’s stereotypes!


Effron, D., Cameron, J., & Benoit, M. (2009). Endorsing obama licenses favoring whites. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology45, 590-593.


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