'I Hate It When Black People Do That!'

So there you are, sitting in a tiny waiting room with one white man and one African-American. The latter suddenly says, oh no, I left my cell phone in my car, leaps up and walks to the door, lightly bumping against the knees of the white man. When the African-American is out of the room the white man says, “Typical. I hate it when black people do that.”

How would you react? How would you feel? Would those feelings translate into any action, perhaps affecting which of the two—the white man who made a racist remark or the African-American who brushed against him—you would choose to partner with if you had to do a two-person job?

How about if the white man said something else when he was bumped—such as “clumsy n*****!”

When scientists recently ran just such an experiment (the white man and black men were in on the study; a third, white person in the room observing all this was the actual experimental subject), people's actual reactions were nothing like what they were forecast to be.

Even though racist comments can get you fired, ostracized or booted out of elected office, blatant acts of racism happen all the time. (This morning I woke up to news on the case of white teens who, furious over Obama’s win, went on an Election Day rampage against blacks on Staten Island ). So here’s the puzzle: if many (most?) people condemn racism, why do we let it persist? The experiment being published today in Science hints that although we like to think that we'd be upset over racism and even act on that feeling, in fact we kinda don’t care all that much.

The study was set up as I describe above. Volunteers witnessed a black student bumping into a white one (again, both students were actually part of the experimental team, acting out their assigned roles), and the white student reacting with a mild (“typical”) or extreme (“n*****”) racial outburst. In a few minutes the black student returned, followed by a scientist who asked all three to, first, complete a survey that asked about their current emotional state, and then asked the real participant to pick one of the two actors as a partner to solve a bunch of anagrams. For comparison, the scientists also had a separate group of white students read a description of the bump and the racist outburst, or watch a video of it, and to then predict how they would feel if they were in the room where it happened and which of the two possible partners—the racist white student or the clumsy black one—they’d pick for their anagram partner.

People who read about the interaction or saw it on video and predicted how they would feel if they were in the room when it happened reported feeling twice as upset (on a self-rating scale of emotions) as people who actually witnessed it. Just 10 or 20 percent predicted that, if they had been in the room, they would pick the white racist student as their anagram partner—but of the people who really were in the room fully 60 percent opted to partner with the student making the racist outburst.

It's worth quoting the scientists at some length. “People may erroneously believe that they would reject a racist in part because they overestimate the emotional distress that a racist comment would evoke,” write the scientists, led by John Dovidio of Yale and Kerry Kawakami of York University. “People’s predictions regarding emotional distress and behavior in response to a racial slur differ drastically from their actual reactions. Whereas participants who imagined themselves in the situation anticipated being very upset and distancing themselves from a person who made a racist comment, those who experienced this event did not.” Remarkably, this was so even when the comment included the racial slur considered one of the most offensive words you can utter.

In part, this disconnect between how badly people expect to feel about a racist incident and how they actually react reflects the well-established fact that people stink at predicting how they will react emotionally to something—including, apparently, racism. We think we’ll be upset and righteously indignant. But when we actually witness it? Not so much. That suggests that racism may persist because people who convince themselves that they would take action in the face of racism actually respond with indifference.

A caveat is in order. As with many psych experiments, this was an artificial, contrived situation. The volunteers knew they were in an experiment. It’s therefore possible that when they heard the racist comment, they thought of it as just “an unusual occurrence in the experimental context, able to be reinterpreted or minimized, and so eliciting little negative emotion or action,” as Elliot Smith of Indiana University and Diane Mackie of UC Santa Barbara point out in a commentary.

But that raises the obvious question. In real life, how often do we similarly “reinterpret” or otherwise excuse racism or sexism or other unacceptable behavior, therefore conveniently absolving ourselves of the responsibility to respond?