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License to ill: When are we at greatest risk for being prejudiced?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | October 26, 2010

My last blog entry touched on recent comments by Yoko Ono and LeBron James invoking racism as part of the explanation for the negative treatment they experienced. At issue is this: how do we know racism played a role in reactions to Ono and James?

Several readers’ comments highlight the ambiguity of deciding whether in fact racism was involved. “Let’s face it,” wrote one reader, “the Beatles were the most popular musical group of all time, and their breakup broke millions of hearts. ANYONE perceived as responsible for the breakup of the band was sure to be vilified. If John had left the Beatles after marrying a blue-eyed blonde, that blonde would have been loathed all over the world.”

I couldn’t agree more; the question is whether, had Yoko Ono belonged to a different group, the degree of heat she would have gotten would have differed. The science of prejudice reveals that when people can justify their negative treatment of others as being “about something else,” we are in fact at greatest risk for perpetuating prejudice.

Another reader drew an astute parallel with Brett Favre leaving Green Bay. The case is beautifully analogous, as both athletes were seen as beloved figures to their towns who then deserted their teams. It’s true that Favre didn’t get a free ride out of Green Bay– but then again I don’t remember fans burning Favre’s shirts in the streets of Green Bay.

Since part of the discussion revolves around Lebron James, let me share an example directly relevant to the NBA. A 2005 study reported by David Leonhardt and Ford Fessenden of the New York Times found that the tenures of black head coaches in the National Basketball Association were systematically shorter than those of white coaches. Over the course of ten years, the Times found that White coaches, on average, lasted 50% longer at the helm of their team than did Black coaches, with an average tenure of 2.4 seasons for the former and 1.6 seasons for the latter.

This analysis was not welcome news for a league that prides itself in being “the best example of equal opportunity employment,” as described by the league’s commissioner, David Stern. The data on hiring certainly leads credence to this claim, as one third of the association’s head coaches are African American. As Stern explained, “I believe that right now each coaching decision is based on a fierce determination made by the owner and general manager that they want to win – and that that decision has become color blind.” In other words, the firing of coaches is attributed to win-loss records.

Yet the statistical evidence of bias remains.

One of the most famous demonstrations in social psychology is Stanley Milgram’s study on conformity (you can watch a three-part summary of that experiment here). Milgram had study participants administer increasingly large electrical shocks to “learners” who got wrong answers in a learning task. Although there were no actual learners or shocks, the participants fully believed they were in fact giving out shocks. The disturbing finding from this study is that, when prompted by an authority figure to do so, the majority of the participants increased the intensity of shocks to fatal levels, even after hearing the learners scream in pain and eventually grow ominously silent

The relevant study for Yoko Ono and Lebron James is not Milgram’s, but rather a less well known study by William Brandt in 1980. In this study, the author simply varied the race of the learner, and found that people were more freely willing to shock Black learners than White learners when the learners got wrong answers.

The point for us here? People could attribute their negative behavior to something else — shocks as punishment for wrong responses, or the fact that “the guy in the white coat kept telling me to do it”– and it is exactly in instances where we feel license to inflict ill that members of stereotyped groups are most likely to suffer from real bias.

Thus, when the breaking of millions of hearts is at issue, people are likely to feel that a negative reaction is justified, and that playing the race card is not justified. Yet it is precisely in these instances that we need to be mindful of unfair treatment.

President ObamaThe same parallel can be drawn with Lebron James. As David Stern himself noted, LeBron’s publicly televised desertion of Cleveland for Miami was “ill-conceived.” But is it likely that given this ill-conceived stunt, fans punished LeBron James more severely as a black man, because we can justify our punishment as resulting from the stunt, rather than racism?

And what does this insight tell us about perceptions of Barack Obama?

Cross-posted from Psychology Today.