Not Conservative After All

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.

9 thoughts on “Not Conservative After All”

  1. Brilliant as ever. Slippage is so slimy… and yet, I long for a blog post that exposes my own cover stories. How many of my liberal positions are really undisclosed racism, or undisclosed paternalism? I’m sure many. And what is the answer? How would you have someone who has been disclosed to have such unfortunate prejudices behave? Is there a corrective besides, “Be better” for those who would wish to be?

  2. I don’t know that there’s just one answer, but I’m calling on conservatives because one of the most powerful forces for prejudice reduction is a change in social norms. People inside a group are the most effective people at changing that group’s norms; change can come from the outside, but it’s harder and takes longer because it requires people to see themselves as part of a larger community. (I believe there’s a law of social momentum: the bigger the group, the larger the mass, the more force it takes to get it moving and the longer until it comes to rest!!) I don’t know exactly what that conversation looks like within the conservative community, but people calling bullshit on arguments of ethnic or racial exceptionalism would be a good start.

    Of course, I also happen to think that the conceptual-change interventions I’m working on will help, too. 🙂

    As for liberal cover stories – that’s an entirely different post, but you’ve raised a really interesting question for me. My dissertation is about how to help people move away from individualistic models and toward systemic models of racism and sexism. I wonder if I have to look at what other factors make people likely to hold an individual-centered model. Americans are more likely to do it than people from a number of other cultures – most of those studies compare America to East Asian cultures – but what about other factors? For example, are liberals more likely to accept a systemic explanation of bias, or are they using an equally faulty cognitive model but applying it in a less racist way? I wonder if anyone has done research on this already ….

    1. So interesting… Can people consciously choose to shift paradigms, in your experience, or do the games you develop/research work precisely by circumventing the conscious, literal mind? This is so fascinating! I would think, esp. after the tea party movement, that there is a lens through which liberalism would be MORE likely to adhere to individual bias, since it is in a way a defense of individual rights, vs. collectives, for example. But then, this may just be liberal self-loathing, which should be resisted in these troubled times, I think.

      1. Shifting paradigms is HARD, and there are all kinds of factors that can make people resist it. Yes, my work gets around people’s resistance to change by having them address these issues in a playful format. Basically I turn the “magic circle” of play into a safe space to experiment with different models of racism and sexism, because we sure as hell aren’t doing a good job of talking about it in the real world. I don’t think you have to be unconscious of what you’re working with (though that’s one of the things I’m testing!) but you do have to avoid didacticism and literalism or you provoke immense psychological resistance. It’s the resistance I’m trying to make an end-run around.

  3. Unrepentant antisemites coopt the language of legitimate anti-israel protest all the time. Is it similarly the job of those opposed to Israel’s policies to prove they are not antisemites? In my mind, this insistence is one of the things that prevents any sort of coherent discourse from ever happening.

    1. I’d also point out the same framing could be used to say that the burden of proof is on Muslims to disassociate themselves from radical/fundamentalists.

      “Unfortunately, my Muslim friends, the solution to this one is up to you. Terrorists are using your ideology as cover. You’re the only ones who can make it unacceptable for them to do so.”

      1. Okay, I see how one gets from here to there. I want to make an argument about scale (conservatives :: racists hiding among conservatives versus Muslims :: terrorists hiding among Muslims) but I find that kind of argument really tough to make without ending in “Too much!” and “Too little!” arguments.

        I guess what I would say is that your comparison here is not comparing “people who use a particular set of beliefs as a rationale for legitimate social policies” and “people who claim to hold that set of beliefs, but really have other motives for their perspectives.” The problem is precisely that conservatives’ points of view are legitimate and the social policies they propose are reasonable to consider. You can’t use the outcomes to judge whether the person is dealing in bad faith or not. Terrorism is a lot easier to handle because it’s not really a subject for debate!!

        (That said, yes, I do think Muslims have a hell of a lot more power to change norms in the Muslim community than non-Muslims do.)

      2. Sorry, just thought of the right version of your analogy. It’s not Muslims who have to resist terrorist ideologies as possible explanations for identical behavior, because the behavior isn’t identical. The people who have to distinguish themselves from terrorists, by analogy to what I’m saying, would be people who are advocating for armed resistance to authority for legitimate reasons.

    2. Well .. how about this. I think it’s reasonable for someone not to know whether a person espousing an anti-Israel perspective is legitimate or anti-Semitic. The appropriate response to someone in each of those two categories is VERY different. Then it becomes a question of social risk analysis. Is it better to treat a legitimate protester as an anti-Semite, or vice versa? I don’t think there’s a clear answer to that, but I’m guessing that for psychological reasons (oh, you lied to me!) people are likely to be conservative and skeptical about their assessment of the legitimacy of other people’s motives.

      For the record, it’s not that I think conservatives have to do this on principle because they’re somehow in the wrong – I just think insiders are far more effective at changing group norms than outsiders would be. Similarly, liberals need to be responsible for establishing how it’s acceptable for the liberal in-group to behave. I’m just not talking about liberals here because, well, they didn’t show the same racist effects.

      Obviously legitimate protesters (or political conservatives) only have so much control over the behavior of those who use their language – but it’s in their best interests to find ways to differentiate themselves. I think the conflation of racism/sexism/anti-Semitism/etcetera with legitimate perspectives is far more damaging to conversation around those perspectives than trying to find ways to distinguish between the two.

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