As I’m reading up on the Modern Racism Scale, I came across a fabulous study looking at why people who score high on the scale (henceforward referred to as “modern racists”) oppose race-based social justice policies.
There’s been debate about what the Modern Racism Scale really measures, because some of the questions on the scale could be read as reflecting conservative political ideologies. Maybe the scale really measures political conservatism, not racism; when applied to issues of race, the two just happen to look alike. There’s been some work on separating the two, but Blatz and Ross decided to test this hypothesis directly. They presented a group of high scorers with a scenario in which orphans were seeking reparations from an orphanage at which they were physically and sexually abused. Half the subjects were told the orphans were European; half were told they were Aboriginal Canadian.
I’ll give you the results in the authors’ own words:
Do individuals with higher scores on a modern racism scale oppose race-based social justice policies because of racial antipathy or ideological principles? The results of this experiment strongly support the racism hypothesis. High modern racists resisted offering reparations to members of a minority group, Aboriginal Canadians, who had suffered sexual and physical abuse as children. When European Canadians experienced precisely the same abuse, the resistance of high modern racists to reparations melted away. In the current context at least, high modern racists’ opposition to reparations apparently reflects their dislike for a minority group rather than a principled conservative ideology.
When the only experimental variable that changed was the race of the victims, modern racists’ attitudes toward reparations changed – despite their claims of opposing reparations on principle. The principle was being used as a more acceptable explanation of their opinions.
Here’s what I find especially sad. Because modern racists co-opt the language of conservatism, racism detection becomes a problem. How do you tell the difference between someone who has a legitimate conservative position on topics like these, and someone who is a racist and simply using conservative ideologies to justify it? Unless you’re willing to administer the Modern Racism Scale (and its companion, the Modern Sexism Scale) on a regular basis, it’s hard to differentiate the two.
You may ask, who cares? But I think liberals and conservatives alike should care about this issue. Because modern racists use the language of conservative ideology, it becomes hard to have a meaningful conversation with someone who espouses that ideology. One side feels they’re being unjustly suspected or blamed; the other feels they’re being dealt with in bad faith. Liberals have good reasons to suspect conservatives may be lying about their commitment to ideology, because modern racists are only committed to conservative ideology when it serves their social goals. Conservatives have good reasons to feel offended, because they know whether or not they are being wrongly mistrusted*. Personally, I think this is one of the big unspoken reasons for the difficulty American liberals and conservatives have in talking to each other.
Unfortunately, my conservative friends, the solution to this one is up to you. Racists are using your ideology as cover. You’re the only ones who can make it unacceptable for them to do so.
* Yes, many racists aren’t aware they’re racist, but I’m giving people the benefit of the doubt here.