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Accusations of discrimination: Finger pointing vs. teachable moments

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | September 14, 2011

So, two guys walk into a bar…

and quite suddenly this story turns unfunny.

As reported here, two African American men sitting at a bar in Georgia were apparently asked to vacate their seats so that the seats could be given to two White women. At issue is whether this is a case of racial bias, or rather a case of Southern chivalry since tradition at this bar has it that seats at the bar be given up for women.

These cases always make for interesting — if difficult — commentary, due to the ambiguity of the intentions. Part of the difficulty is that it’s probably a little bit of both: as I explore in this post, discrimination and bias are particularly likely to occur when people feel like their behavior can be explained through other means. A good example is a 2005 New York Times study showing that African American head coaches in the NBA have significantly shorter tenures than their white counterparts. It is relevant here because people feel they can justify the firing of a coach — any coach — due to a losing record, team chemistry, or “a change in direction.” Yet the systematic bias is undeniable when you look at the trends. In the same way, as a psychologist, I can’t help but wonder if the request to ask African American patrons to give up their seats was more forceful than it might have otherwise been– and the behavior could be unconsciously justified in terms of another set of motivations (i.e., the tradition of asking men to give up their seats at busy times at this tavern).

In 1977, my colleagues Sam Gaertner and Jack Dovidio ran an ingenious study to demonstrate the systematicity of this process. The researchers invited white participants to come into the lab. Participants were told that they were going to be in a study of ESP (extra-sensory perception) with another person (who was actually a research assistant). The pair was placed in separate rooms connected via intercom. Half of the participants thought that only they could hear the person in the room, whereas the other half thought that two other people could hear the audio feed as well. I italicize this detail because it’s important.

As the study progressed, the study participants suddenly heard their partner scream over the intercom, followed by the crash of a tall stack of chairs falling. The idea was to make the participant think that there had been an accident. The results revealed that when the person in need of help was white, the study participants tended to go help the person regardless of whether they thought only they had heard the accident or whether others had heard it as well (about 80% of the time).

When the person in need was black, however, the results looked very different. People who thought only they could hear the accident helped about 90% of the time, but when they thought others had heard the emergency, that percentage dropped dramatically to 40%. In other words, prejudice here occurred systematically, and importantly, only in the condition in which people could justify their behavior in terms of another explanation– that is, that other people could hear and would help.

source: Fantasy Park (Wikimedia commons)

Going back to the tavern in Georgia, it is very difficult to make a definitive case for discrimination without knowing the behavior of the “bouncers” in identical conditions– a crowded bar, and only two men sitting at the bar, sometimes black, sometimes white. In these scenarios, would white patrons be as likely to be asked to vacate their seats? And if they were, would they be asked with a similar level of courtesy and forcefulness to uphold the tradition?

I suppose it would be possible to go ahead and collect this data for the courts, but I wish people would instead take this opportunity as a teachable moment– on the one hand, a moment about the subjective experience of being asked to vacate a seat when one is the only minority at a bar (and all the associations that brings with respect to civil rights and unfair treatment), and on the other, a moment about what it feels like to be summarily accused of racism. But that teachable moment can’t happen over a lawsuit. Rather, it happens in a supportive, open atmosphere, maybe over –hey, how about that!– a friendly drink. If it were me, I’d make that drink on the house.

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved, cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “Accusations of discrimination: Finger pointing vs. teachable moments

  1. I think you make some wonderful points, and you saved the best for last. The kneejerk defensive response that some people have, such as Ubungo above, is one possible response. Another possibility is to try to explain away racism, or say we can’t know the particular situation’s exact details, so we can’t judge similar ones. Much better is to stop and listen and say to ourselves, much as you suggest, “Okay, sometimes we act with bias and sometimes we don’t, but we have the capability to stop and pay attention, have the conversation, and behave better next time.”

  2. Discrimination also occurs in other forms and are based on other factors besides race and gender. We’ve heard about the salary gap between men and women but it also occurs between races. We’ve heard about religious discrimination in various forms (e.g. building a Mosque in a predominately Christian neighborhood). There is even discrimination based on ethnicity within the same race. All forms of examples of hatred arising out of discrimination can be found in the history of man kind. It almost seems that discrimination is a natural trait in humans and no matter what we do or say it always seems to prevail.

  3. Another issue here is gender equality. Tradition may be tradition but the South had a whole bunch of other traditions that were outlawed by the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Act. The bar did nothing wrong in asking the men per tradition of the bar to give up their seats for the women. If the men thought that was a good idea, so be it, but if the men didn’t want to give their seats, the women should wait like every other customer. Since the men were not acting in an disruptive manner, there was no justification for the restaurant to force the men to leave and they rightfully could assume they were a victim of discrimination, if not racial, surely sexual.

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