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Racial bias and bankruptcy: Implications for the 2012 election

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | January 26, 2012

In the news this week, more evidence of discrimination under our seemingly egalitarian noses: A forthcoming study in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies shows that lawyers are about twice as likely to steer blacks debtors filing for bankruptcy towards the harsher chapter 13 than they are other filers, whom they are more likely to steer towards chapter 7. It is crticial to note that in their analysis, the researchers found evidence of the bias even with identical financial cases, and even when accounting for other potential explanatory factors such as debtor assests.

The findings are not easily dismissed, particularly when they occur with regularity in different arenas. as I report in this blog, black coaches in the NBA are more likely to be fired earlier than their white counterparts; and as my colleagues and i discuss in our book Are We Born Racist, even umpires — who are paid to be impartial — are more likely to treat players differently as a function of race.

Another critical thing to note is this quote from one of the authors of the bankruptcy study: “I don’t think there is any overt conspiracy.”

So, then, what gives? Here the researchers have uncovered evidence of systematic bias against one group, yet the authors say that there is no systematic intent? How can both of these statements be true?

An underlying theme in all of these instances is that at the individual level — when judges, or team owners are explaining their behavior, each time they have the ability to justify it as having to do with something other than discrimination. A coach is fired because of a losing record, the team owner says, or a given person is steered towards Chapter 13 because of his/her financial situation, the lawyer says.

It’s hard to argue against such arguments at the level of individual cases. But when you amass the data the patterns emerge, and they tell us this: when people harbor unconscious stereotypes or racist attitudes, negative environmental circumstances allow people to express prejudice covertly. In this way, modern prejudice “leaks out” in ways that allow people to be prejudiced without having to admit to themselves or others that race plays any part.

But this points to a conundrum about how and whether we interpret negative behavior directed at unique minority individuals. In this post, I write about discrimination towards LeBron James. The problem here is that while we are able to have a critical mass of minority versus white coaches or black vs. white filers in bankruptcy, there is only one LeBron James — so the group-level data needed to look at bias trends is missing.

The same is true with President Obama. Because we do not have a critical mass of black versus white U.S. Presidents, we cannot argue with certainty that anger and vitriol directed at the president is racially motivated. But the brewings of a storm are in the air — negative environmental circumstances in the form of a strong recession, job woes for many, and troubled financial markets. And, of course, an election season where negative attacks are the norm. As the New York Times‘ Charles Blow notes here, racist rhetoric is already being cheered on as principled argument in the Republican primaries.

My concern for the 2012 election cycle is not just negativity, but ramped up hate and downright incivility (remember “You Lie!” in Obama’s first State of the Union address?) veiled as politics as usual. And even worse, because there’s not been another non-white president, the continued ability to deny that racism continues to be part of the post-Obama American landscape will remain. And with it, the continued denial of the disenfranchisement that many minorities experience as a result of such rhetoric.

You can follow my posts through twitter or Facebook. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Copyright 2012 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.

Comments to “Racial bias and bankruptcy: Implications for the 2012 election

  1. An additional thought about disrespect. Reagan took a bullet, if you recall. Now that’s some serious disrespect. I like Obama as a person but do not agree with his political philosophy or programs.

  2. According to what I could find on google, Justice Alito mouthed, “Not true!” when President Obama objected to the campaign finance reform. That’s quite different from the outcry, “You lie!”

    • Evidently there was a congressman who shouted “You Lie!” and was cencored for his outburst during the Pelosi reign.

      • This was nothing compared to the disrepect shown Republican appointees by Ted Kennedy during confirmation hearings. If anyone has initiated increased incivility, it’s the self admitted incivil Democrat Debbie Wasserman-Schulz. George Bush had maybe a book and a movie featured his assasination and Obama the great uniter has turned the SOTU into some miserable campaign speech. He disrespected Republicans, lied about their views, distorted the work of the Supreme Court.

        If I was there I would have shouted not only do you lie, but you break all of your campaign promises and you go out of your way to demonize your political opponents in the Chicago style of politics that you learned so well. I think the guy’s name was Joe Wilson who shouted you lie and I think under the circumstances he showed incredible restraint, I would have blown a gasket but as you can see from my posts I am kind of a rocket anyway.

        Also, for the record, I do not dislike blacks. I listen 90% of the time to music either written, recorded or pioneered by black musicians. At times I wish I was black, I think it would improve my playing. My musical heroes are mostly black or white guys who played with mostly black guys.

        Also, Obama does many of the things you think Bush did but you would never criticize him. No, not Obama.

  3. Excellent article. So, it is not ” all in my head” & I am not ” playing the victim role”. These things are actually happening.

  4. I totally agree. I am so sick of all the racist attitudes of newscasters, Republicans, tea partiers, anyone who basically wants to disrespect the President in ways that no one ever would think of doing any other president. It’s just mind-boggling. I appreciate your blog. Check out this article in Ebony about Arizona’s finger-pointing governor. The writer said exactly what I felt when I saw the snippet in the news:

    Ridiculously disrespectful and even though I can’t prove it, it is discriminatory.

    • “…disrespect the President in ways that no one ever would think of doing any other president.”

      Have you forgotten about all the epithet-laden bumper stickers that “disrespected” the previous occupant of the Oval Office? Where was the outrage then? This post appears to be a thinly veiled threat to condemn all critics of the current administration as bigots and racists. Like all administrations, the current one will be held to account by voters for its record on foreign policy, the economy, and other important issues. The ethnicity of the occupant of the office does not confer immunity from criticism. Surely, a professor at the home of the Free Speech Movement will agree that rights to free speech extend to both sides of an argument?

  5. You have provided one more confirmation that the Civil War never really ended, and President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act is being overthrown.

    As soon as President Obama entered office in 2009 Southern Senator and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared “I Want To Make Obama A One-Term President.”

    As history has documented continuously, the human race has created Us/Them dichotomies such as racism to maximize our avarice.

    The latest win by Gingrich in South Carolina proved one more time that Hate is a paramount rule for success in Republican politics, no matter how many Commandments are broken with impunity.

    • Mr. St. John,

      I find Mitch McConnell to be a refreshing contrast to all of those who told us that Obama was the savior, the transformational dude, a combination Mesa Boogie, Paul Reed Smith Hollowbody with a Carl Martin multieffects pedal setup. Instead he turned out to be just a wannabe with a banged up Fender Squier with a Mako amp and not even cheap transistor fuzztone. I’ve had enough of this train wreck.

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