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Race researchers: Behind the scenes of America's newest conversation

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Jennifer Richeson's most recent study on race found that whites are avoiding talking to blacks for fear of appearing racist. (Courtesy of Jennifer Richeson)

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John Dovidio's research is helping to frame the nation's current conversation on race. (Courtesy of John Dovidio)

He’s 56, Italian and from Boston. She’s 35, black and from Baltimore.

John Dovidio and Jennifer Richeson--friends and fellow social psychologists--arrived at their profession from remarkably divergent paths.

Together, however, they are tackling an issue that’s swirling through the minds of many Americans this presidential campaign season: race.

“People from different walks of life are now having conversations about race,” said Richeson, an associate professor at Northwestern University and a recent MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellow.

Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy has spurred this national discussion. And Dovidio and Richeson are among the social scientists leading it from behind the scenes, as they publish provocative research on a new trend in race relations: Whites avoiding blacks not because they are overtly racist, but because they fear appearing racist.

Armed with data, these academics are hoping to transform the way people think and institutions operate, ever-influenced by their own struggles with America’s most traditionally taboo topic.

Richeson, for instance, first confronted racism at age 4 when a neighbor, also a child, called her the “n-word.”

“I didn’t know what it was and neither did she,” Richeson said. “But I knew something was going on.”

Richeson now understands that she was caught between “multiple worlds.” She grew up in the predominantly white Mt. Washington neighborhood of Baltimore, attending mostly white schools and meeting mostly white friends, until high school, when her classmates were mostly black women.

And then came college, at Brown University, where she returned to the minority, and had “a light-bulb experience.”

“When I got to college, it was so overwhelmingly nonblack, it piqued my interest in understanding how people are able to cross the racial divide,” said Richeson, the daughter and great-granddaughter of civil rights advocates.

This interest ultimately turned into a passion, a doctoral degree and a career, using the experiences that formed her to now inform her research.

“The questions you ask are influenced by who you are and where you come from,” she said. “This is my life story.”

Dovidio’s story is remarkably different.

Growing up in the 1950s in Medford, Mass., a diverse but segregated town just a few miles north of Boston, Dovidio witnessed the beginnings of school desegregation, busing and the ensuing racial strife.

“I watched the subtle racism turn overt,” recalled Dovidio, a psychology professor at Yale.

His Italian community, bordered by the Irish and black parts of town, was on both the giving and receiving ends of bigotry, he said. Dovidio shamefully admits he was not immune to this cycle of prejudice, yet he didn’t realize it at the time.

“I had blinders on,” he said. “I feel so bad that I was so slow to recognize my biases.”

But during college at Dartmouth University, Dovidio finally confronted his biases head on.

He spent a semester living with and tutoring inner-city black and Puerto Rican students who came to rural New Hampshire for high school.

“I was accepted as one of them,” he said. “I could see things I’d never seen before,” a realization that only intensified when strangers assumed his dark skin and hair meant he was Hispanic.

These experiences have been a boon to his understanding of race and “both a motivator and an informer” of his current research on the subject.

Despite the differing backgrounds of Dovidio and Richeson, their research unites them.

After meeting at a social psychology conference, Dovidio began mentoring Richeson--the self proclaimed “new kid on the block”--and soon the two collaborated, often feeding off each other’s ideas.

Most recently, their research has questioned why seemingly unprejudiced white people avoid interracial interactions.

The answer, Richeson said: They have social anxiety.

A study Richeson published in April concluded that some white people avoid interracial interactions primarily because they are afraid of saying something politically incorrect that will be construed as racist.

“I think it’s great research,” Dovidio said of Richeson’s study. “Of course, I’m biased because the ideas are parallel with mine.”

While Richeson’s findings have sparked discussion in blogs and a column on race in the Chicago Tribune, some question whether limited research should be leading the nationwide discussion.

“It’s very problematic to put research out there that just presents a problem, not solutions,” said Tammy Johnson, policy director of the Applied Research Center, a racial justice advocacy organization based in Oakland, Calif.

Paradoxically, Richeson’s research seems to suggest that diversity--a typical prescription for racial intolerance--may inadvertently be encouraging anxious responses toward blacks.

“A solution to a problem often has its own problems,” Richeson said. For instance, fears about appearing racist might not be entirely irrational, she said.

“We need to stop the idea that because someone says something offensive, they’re immoral or racist. It’s not helpful and it’s not true.”

Richeson witnesses this dynamic in her classroom with her undergraduate students, who often abstain from asking sensitive questions, at least at first.

“Going into a class about race, you know it’s not going to be the easiest thing to talk about, said Josephine Menkin, 20, a white psychology major at Northwestern, and a student in Richeson’s stereotyping and prejudice class. “But the fact that she’s always soliciting responses makes people more willing to step up to the challenge.”

Richeson, the only black professor in Northwestern’s psychology department, immediately challenges her students, in the syllabus, and on the first day of class, to “be prepared to be uncomfortable, but be prepared to not point fingers.”

The next step for race researchers, according to Dovidio, is to use their data to influence politicians and the media. It helps that the nation’s attention is already captured as a result of Obama’s candidacy, he said.

“I never thought I’d see a viable black presidential candidate at some time in my lifetime,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity because Americans are going to have to have this conversation at some time. Why not have it now?”

E-mail: bpp2106@columbia.edu