Opportunity & Access

A Better Way to Defuse Racial Discrimination

Research shows why understanding the source of discrimination matters.

October 12, 2016

| by Edmund Andrews


An African American and white person holding hands

How can we ease racial tension? We must first examine its roots. | Reuters/Brian Snyder

If the United States is a melting pot for racial and ethnic diversity, the pot seems to be boiling over in this presidential election. Whether racism is on the rise, there is no question that attitudes toward racial and ethnic prejudice are front and center in the U.S. political debate and activism movements.

Now, a new study offers a fresh way to analyze and perhaps defuse racial hostility. The key: Find out whether people believe that discrimination is mainly intentional or unintentional.

If people believe that discrimination reflects intentional racism, the study finds, they are more likely to favor a “colorblind” approach that urges people to “look beyond differences” and focus on common purposes. Such an approach is akin to dressing everyone in the same uniform and having them march to the same drumbeat as a means to promote unity.

On the other hand, if people believe that discrimination stems mainly from ignorance, they are more likely to favor a “multicultural” approach that highlights the distinct qualities and experiences of individuals of different cultures. This approach is akin to organizing a music festival where classical, jazz, and hip-hop musicians share their passions with the world.

“Many people have a strong belief that one size fits all when it comes to improving race relations in the U.S.,” says Nir Halevy, associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and a coauthor of the study with Evan Apfelbaum and Rebecca Grunberg of MIT and Sonia Kang of the University of Toronto.


Many people have a strong belief that one size fits all when it comes to improving race relations in the U.S. Understanding people’s perceptions allows us to help people by recommending an approach that is more likely to be effective for improving race relations.
Nir Halevy

“We know that racial interactions are often charged, stressful, and taxing,” says Halevy. “Understanding people’s perceptions — whether they view discrimination as intentional or unintentional — allows us to help people by recommending an approach that is more likely to be effective for improving race relations.”

The researchers focused on measuring the “perceived intentionality of racial discrimination,” or PIRD for short. In a series of surveys and experiments with hundreds of participants, they found that people’s level of PIRD shapes how they react to racial interactions and transgressions. The study shows that people’s tendencies to view racial discrimination as intentional is fairly persistent over time, but not as immutable as a personality trait or an ideological worldview. Rather, perceptions of intentionality are malleable enough that they can change following personal experiences.

In one of the studies reported in the paper, people were asked about three hypothetical societies that had the same amount of discrimination but differed on how intentional it was. When discrimination was described as intentional, participants preferred colorblindness as a means of improving race relations. However, when discrimination was described as unintentional, preferences shifted in favor of multiculturalism.

In another study reported in the paper, the researchers asked more than 1,000 people about their comfort in talking about race in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri. For individuals who perceived racial discrimination to be intentional, colorblindness increased comfort with discussing race more than multiculturalism. According to the authors, the preference for colorblindness over multiculturalism when racial discrimination is perceived to be intentional makes sense because making racial group membership salient when PIRD is high may equate to “pouring gasoline on the fire.”

In yet another study reported in the paper, participants were asked to imagine themselves as jurors in an employment discrimination case. The participants were told that the company had already been found guilty of discrimination, and were asked to weigh how much money to award the plaintiff. When the participants were asked to weigh a list of factors that might be important in making their decision, such as whether the employee had a good work record or whether other forms of discrimination had taken place at the company, the most important factor by far was whether the discrimination had been intentional. Those who were told that the judge had found intentional discrimination wanted to award the plaintiff much more than those who were told it was unintentional: $294,000 versus $178,000.

The main takeaway from the study, according to the authors, is the importance of taking into consideration people’s attribution of racial discrimination to intentional malice or to ignorance when thinking about how to improve relations.

“Rather than prescribing multiculturalism or colorblindness as the best approach indiscriminately, we should tailor the approach to people’s perceptions,” they write. “The more that leaders understand what people see as the root of the problem — malice or ignorance — the more likely they are to come up with effective solutions.”

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