Psychology, Skepticism, and Confronting Racism

Craig A. Foster, Steven M. Samuels

Racism is abhorrent. It is therefore easy for a movement such as skepticism to adopt anti-racism stances, but skepticism must avoid promoting viewpoints because they are politically popular or self-satisfying. Skepticism promotes beliefs that are consistent with thoughtful interpretations of the existing evidence.

Racism is not scientific nor is it reasonable. Racism is essentially a negative attitude toward others based on their membership in a particular race. Racism per se is not pseudoscientific; it is a general mindset toward particular races rather than an identifiable scientific claim. However, racism is typically bolstered by folk scientific claims that do not hold up under scrutiny. The most inflammatory of these types of claims is probably the theory that members of certain races are genetically inferior. This type of folk theory overlooks obvious scientific problems. Racial categories are socially constructed, based more on appearance than genetics. Social and economic factors exert systematic influences that can perpetuate racial stereotypes.

If Racism Is Specious, Why Do People Become Racist?

Skeptics know that people are capable of believing all sorts of unsubstantiated or downright ridiculous claims. A review of all the reasons that people develop prejudiced beliefs is beyond the scope of this piece. At the risk of doing a disservice to the topic, here is a quick overview:

  1. Humans are quick to engage in social categorization; they can place others into racial boxes swiftly and efficiently.
  2. People tend to favor the groups to which they belong (ingroup bias). This can occur because viewing one’s own group as superior contributes to personal esteem. Ingroup favoritism also justifies distributing more resources to the ingroup, which benefits oneself or others who are emotionally close to oneself.
  3. People misperceive others based on race. They can associate traits and behaviors with particular groups that are not really there (illusory correlation). They tend to exaggerate the similarity of outgroup members (outgroup homogeneity effect). They can wrongly assume that members of particular races conform to their impression of the broader group (stereotyping).
  4. Stereotypes that accompany prejudice are difficult to eradicate. Outgroup members who do not conform to the stereotype are easily forgotten or subtyped into being uncommon exceptions (confirmation bias).
  5. Individuals might engage more broadly in a tendency to overestimate the role of character and underestimate the role of the broader situation (fundamental attributional error). Thus, when people see boardrooms full of white men, they implicitly or explicitly conclude that white men must be more intelligent, more industrious, or both.
  6. Individuals can even elicit stereotype-confirming behavior from others (self-fulfilling prophecy). A white supervisor who expects racial minorities to be lazy might unknowingly reveal her or his prejudiced feelings. The supervisor’s employees of color might find this leader unsettling, but the supervisor misinterprets their emotional distance as further evidence that racial minorities do not work hard.

Confronting Racism: Intuition versus Science

Many people recognize the problems with racism without knowing the underlying social scientific principles. Obviously, many individuals have close relationships with people who society designates as representing a different race. Positive experiences in “interracial” relationships belie the stated or unstated claims that accompany racism. Furthermore, even a rudimentary knowledge of history or current events demonstrates the extensive harm that stems from racist ideology. Disagreements about race can therefore become heated. This likely causes individuals to respond in ways that even they might later concede are ineffective.

To wit, yelling at white supremacists seems unlikely to make them less racist. Indeed, it might do more harm than good. White supremacists have likely heard all the arguments that debunk their racist ideology. They will either ignore these arguments or recall ready-made racist responses, much like strong supporters of pseudoscience do. Thus, arguments to the contrary might actually reinforce their racist beliefs. Plus, the conflict between white supremacists and protestors might serve to invigorate the white supremacist community. It gives them a sense of purpose—together they stand against the brainwashed liberals who are taking their country from them.

Of course, not protesting is also dangerous. If white supremacists promote their ideology without eliciting some vitriol, it could make this type of belief system appear more acceptable. Accordingly, protesting against white supremacists and those who promote similar race-based belief systems is almost certainly valuable. It provides an opportunity to demonstrate that most (hopefully almost all) residents of the United States do not support racism. Protesters can improve their effectiveness by thoughtfully considering their overarching goals. Are they trying to influence white supremacists or demonstrate to others that race superiority theories are dangerous and unacceptable? This type of thoughtful approach might be less emotionally satisfying than shouting angrily at neo-Nazis and the KKK, but it will probably be more effective in the long run.

White supremacists are in some ways easier to address because their grassroots race theories are explicit and can be discussed directly. However, racism can also occur in the form of unacknowledged bias. Individuals might disagree with racism, but they unknowingly view members of particular races in ways that are influenced inappropriately by their racial memberships. This type of implicit bias lacks conscious intent but can still cause people to be treated unfairly based on race. Confronting implicit racism is challenging because it can be exhibited by people who do not believe that they exhibit it. Calling these people “racist” is unlikely to be effective because the accusation is likely to elicit defensiveness rather than thoughtfulness.

Furthermore, opponents of certain political views are capable of perceiving racism that might not truly be there. The affirming the consequent fallacy occurs when individuals mistakenly use a statement’s consequent to affirm that the antecedent must be true: All cows have four legs, so an animal with four legs is a cow. Similarly, even though whites who dislike racial minorities typically support certain political views (e.g., limiting immigration), not all people who hold such political views are racists. Equivocating particular political beliefs with racism creates, ironically, a form of the stereotyping that those who contest racism are trying to repudiate. Accusing such people of racism is likely to alienate those who might otherwise be willing to consider whether they are being sufficiently thoughtful about issues involving race.

Effective approaches to confronting racism can be time-consuming and challenging. Those who want to confront racism need to exhibit sustained influence. They should try to remain likable and credible—always useful influence tactics. They must also tailor their arguments for their audience. Too little disagreement is essentially agreement, while too much disagreement can cause others to reject arguments outright. One can more effectively address racism through a discussion where both sides are considering race-based concerns authentically. This is understandably frustrating; it would be much easier if individuals could gain quick insight into their explicit or implicit racial bias, causing it to simply disappear. That just isn’t the way people are, and skepticism is committed to reality, even when that reality is ungratifying.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force Academy, the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.