Open Thread: Thoughts on a Post-Racial America?

According to a new CNN poll around two-thirds of blacks asked indicated that they believed Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had been fulfilled (h/t RaceWire). This is a marked increase (up from 34% ) who indicated similar feelings in a poll taken in March, 2008. Now compare that to whites who only had a small increase from 35% to 46%.

I shared the graph I created from these findings with students in my Ethnic & Race Relations course (hello students who are reading this!).

Prior to sharing these results, I talked about the media discussion of America as post-racial. They listened to the statement by NPR’s Daniel Schorr. I showed this clip from CNN’s coverage (opens YouTube video) of the election (h/t Sociological Images). I also passed around The New York Times from the day after the election which announced: “OBAMA Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.” I then asked students: are we in a post-racial society?

There were a lot of really thoughtful answers. One student asked if it was post-racial (race no longer matters) or post-racist (no longer racist) – indicating we were not the first but moving towards the second. Another pointed out the generational differences, younger whites voted for Obama in large numbers. Still others noted that it seems with his victory that we are judging now on character and not based on race. Largely, the white students in the class gave voice to the opinion that we were NOT post-racial, while the minority students argued that we were (although one young lady had not made up her mind – fair enough, in my opinion). (Of course, students reading this, feel free to comment below about what you think if I misrepresented you).

The remaining class time was spent discussing and showing examples of personal levels of racism (such as Obama bucks, sock monkeys, statements that B.H.O. is a terrorist and the assumptions about Muslims and Arabs these stereotypes reveal). We also discussed Nas’ Black President. At the end, I returned to structural racism and historical causes as the main reasons we are not, and will not soon be, “post-racial” – reasons we will explore in the coming weeks.

Here is the question: Why the difference in perceptions between blacks and whites on the question of fulfilling MLK’s dream? We weren’t sure. We explored the idea of the front stage and back stage as discussed so well by Picca and Feagin. I similarly mentioned Tim Wise’s discussion of white bonding that he brings up in White Like Me (a book we’ll be reading later in the semester). What do you think?

~ Bridget
Sociology Instructor
Midwest U.S.


  1. Joe

    Bridget, welcome to the blog, and thanks for the excellent post. The CNN survey item is pretty general and not very revealing, of course, as many such are. There is , as you suggest, much data (like the implicit association/awareness test) that show most whites still “judge” most black people by the color of their skin, indeed Obama included (as an “exception to his race” probably in the majority of white minds,, including the 43 percent, a minority, of whites who voted for him).

  2. Bridget Author

    I have real problems with IAT and the assumption that it is testing prejudice.

    If you assume that the mind is a neural network with ideas that are closely associated with one another tied together, as many social cognition researchers do, instead what you are finding is that black faces are closely tied to the idea of “bad” or, in one research project, to “ape.” This is not indicating that the person taking the test is prejudiced, rather just that they have internalized our society’s socialization.

    This is very revealing, I think, in terms of what stereotypes still hold sway and are taught. But not necessarily to the thought process of a particular individual. It indicates the high cost of living in a racial society for everyone.

    Now I’m not saying that there isn’t still prejudice, I know there is, just that I have issues with how IAT tests for it. I am much more moved by priming studies or behavioral studies — like the one recapped here just a week or so ago.

  3. Ryon Cobb

    Hi Everyone,

    I agree with Dr. Feagin.

    We must also take into account the following:

    1. Martin’s Dream remains blurred for most Americans (including some black Americans).

    2. The effects the events of the past week (King Holiday, Inauguration, saying goodbye to Bush, etc.).

    Unfortunately, surveys aren’t perfect, and are subject to time and space.


  4. thomas

    Bridget, great post. But…

    The problem with the social cognition interpretation is that it does not take seriously white supremacy. The U.S. is organized as a white supremacy and as such “white” people are going to manifest the white supremacist beliefs, habits, emotions, etc. that they have been conditioned to internalize. [For people of color there is a distinction and lifetime process between internalization and resistance to white supremacy.]

    For “whites,” associating people of African descent (of course all humans are of African descent) as “apes,” they are simply following the white supremacist socialization that people of African descent are sub-human and lower on the evolutionary scale (Joe Feagin has noted that this folk belief was legitimated early on by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia). These beliefs are so deeply internalized and reverberate so strongly in the culture that police violence against African American, American Indian, Latino/as becomes routine. The public manifestation of anger from dealing with white supremacy then gets interpreted as “proving the point” that “those people” are violent, etc. in accordance with the “controlling image.”

    Finding survey questions that “tap” white supremacy is difficult. “However, in my work at a world renown public opinion archive, I have seen various datasets from the 1960s and early 1970s which ask questions that “get at” white supremacy much better than what we have today.”

  5. Joe

    Bridget, thanks. I agree that the IAT tests are directly measuring shared stereotypes that whites and others are taught in society about Black Americans, but they also measure the visual imaging that is in those white neural networks, so this is more than “cognitive.” The fast response times in the IAT research also suggest this stereotyping/imaging is also relatively unconscious and deep in the brain. I agree too that the other kinds of research studies add more knowledge of the many aspects of the frame. This IAT work is just one partial measure of the “white racial frame,” which includes cognitive stereotypes, images, emotions (which seem indirectly measured in IAT?), smells, language sounds, interpretations–a worldview, in effect. And the IAT researchers seem to ignore the systemic racism/institutional racism settings of their data too.

  6. Bridget Author

    Joe, actually I agree. I had a typo above. What I meant to say is that is shows the high cost of living in a racist society. It reminds me of the story in Wise’s book about his grandmother with Alzheimers, that when her control was gone the racism that she had been taught all of her life comes to the fore. I’ve long thought that IAT misframes their findings. Instead of saying that they are revealing individual levels of prejudice, they should be arguing that they are revealing the white racial frame.
    But, I think this misses the core of your argument. Basically, I am arguing that IAT does not say anything about a particular individual besides what is buried in their heads (what associations are there). Individuals do have this underlying cognitive mapping. I think where we are missing each other (or where I’m missing you), is the assessment of the impact of this. That, regardless of individual choices, other socialization and knowledge, the agency to recognize these cognitive maps and act to the contrary — does not remove the fact that it exists. Combined with what Thomas is saying, is the argument that the fact this neural mapping exists work to (re)create systems of racism? Perhaps it does, I haven’t thought about it in that way before. Please let me know if I’m still missing what you are saying. But, if this is correct, I’ll give it more thought.

  7. Kristen L

    Bridget, regarding your pondering about the difference in your students’ perceptions, I think there are a few things that may be at play. (I am also a soci instructor & teach the same topics.) First, your black students are likely first- or second-generation college students – they are heavily invested in the idea that their hard work and sacrifices are going to pay off. They are optimistic. It’s also the beginning of the semester, and you may well see a marked change in their views after you’ve had more time to cover course content. Last term I watched some students of color be hit hard with the evidence of systemic racism. At about mid-semester several were frustrated I had taken their hope away. One African American student told me, “Every day in this class I learn how it sucks to be me.” But, by the end of the term, this same student came to me wanting to change her major to sociology. I now see it as my responsibility to provide students like her – all students, really – with more models of grassroots organizing and social movements and not leave them hanging with the harsh reality of racism. Their initial optimism may be dashed, but we can build from there.

  8. Bridget,

    Maybe you have a different definition of prejudice. I also think of the mind as a neural network, and neural networks model stereotyping quite well. Do you think that the human mind is not socialized?

    Maybe your assumption is that prejudice measures moral worth, whether someone is a “good” or “bad” person. However, these are value judgments, which are extraneous to empirical claims about prejudice.

  9. Kristen L,

    I understand that first-generation minority students think like that, but why are you grouping second-generation students with them? Where is the empirical proof of this? I thought that the data showed otherwise.

  10. Kristen L

    Restructure, I am speaking generally from personal experience with a few students who are not all 1st-gen, not from data. I am not making any theoretical arguments.

  11. Bridget Author

    I am quite clearly saying that the human mind is socialized, and that IAT reveals how. I am also saying, however, that there are multiple sources of socialization and also a human ability to think critically about this socialization and to act contrary to early neural mapping. In other words, we are not automatons passively created, we have agentic capabilities.
    I define prejudice as having both affective (negative feelings) and cognitive (stereotypical beliefs not founded in fact) components. IAT as a method, however, tests connections between black faces and white faces and “good” and “bad” and calls it proof of prejudice. This is IAT, not me.
    I think this discussion has become confused. My previous discussion has been about the METHOD of IAT, and not the existence or non-existence of prejudice.
    As an aside, Joe’s comments are making me rethink my stance on IAT — not a complete reversal, but I am thinking about it more nuanced than previously.

  12. Mordy

    Being a fairly long-time reader of this blog, I am curious why you are posting (mostly)-anonymously? The authors and other academics who post here use their full names.

  13. the question seems to me fairly unfair, in the sense that it cannot really be answered with the data available.

    if you take stats as the proof of what goes in people’s heads, then you kind of miss the whole constructivist critique of what stats do, for whom and to what purpose. if you take stats as one way of gathering some type of data, then you need further clarification: when was this data collected? how did the context matter? how are we to think of the answers people give to a survey taker, if we move away from the transmission paradigm (people transmitting their inner thoughts, which are imagined to be static and quite clear)?

  14. Joe

    Bridget, i think we are mostly agreeing. The iAT folks, psychologists, cannot seem to see their (amazingly consistent) data in the systemic racism context, which as you suggest is where the stereotypes they are really measuring get socialized into individual minds. I do think the quick IAT responses suggest, but do not prove, that the apparent cognitive stereotypes (black face=bad) are linked to racial emotions as well. Their measures, the photos, are actually measures of white (and other) reactions to images–that is, the reactions are more than cognitive (they tap the visual sense). We need to study racial images as much as we do verbal racial stereotypes in my view.

    Also, I was sort of forced into my white racial frame idea by the co-existence, and constant co-appearance of the various parts we dissect as stereotypes, prejudices, discrimination, racist images, racist language, racialized smells and accents, racial intepretations, etc. They co-exist constantly in the “real” social worlds we live in. It seems rare to just find “stereotypes” alone.

  15. Bridget Author

    @ Mordy – I was invited to post. While I’m not truly anonymous (for example, all of my students read this blog), I do want to escape googability at least until I get tenure :).

    @ thinkingdifference: Excellent points! That was one thing I did not like about this discussion, that it was so early in the semester. To truly analyze what these numbers mean (if anything), it would have been much more positive to be able to bring in discussions of history, social cognition, systematic racism and other topics that we have yet to cover (it was only the fourth class).

    @Joe: Sounds like a study to me. It would be possible to get the IAT from the website and include physiological measures. Research in social psychology is beginning to use these types of measures to look at stress. It would be interesting to do so testing questions of racism and prejudice. I also think that the research (or art) on biomapping ( would be an invaluable way to look at this. So, I agree, we are agreeing. I just need more than they currently are offering with their framing and research. But the potential for some really stellar research using IAT is there. I haven’t thought much about racialized smells. That is very interesting. Also, I’m wondering about longitudinal IAT data. Could you, for example, have your students take the IAT at the beginning of a course on these topics and then again at the end? Or even longer periods? To what extent can individuals subvert this socialized mapping? Are there methods of exploring these topics that make it more possible to subvert socialization?

  16. Joe

    Bridget, those are very good ideas for the IAT folks. Send it to them (smile). And thanks for stimulating this good discussion.

    Interestingly, one of the early parts of the white racist frame was that “blacks smell funny,” which one still hears from whites today. (It probably has more to do with the smell of hard sweaty work, like outside in my hometown Houston in the summer.) The dominant racial frame thus includes the sense of smell as well as the visual imagery, both of which are very undertheorized by all researchers in my view. The frame also has auditory assumptions and aspects, as in its accent on “proper English,” which means “white middle class English” and has to do with the hierarchy of accents and language structure (grammar) that is also part of the old white racial frame. This frame is a gestalt, a worldview, not just a set of prejudices and stereotypes– the usual “race relations” approach.

  17. Bridget,

    I did not claim that you made a claim about the existence or non-existence of prejudice. I merely disagreed with your suggestion that the IAT was not measuring prejudice.

    I define prejudice as the cognitive components, so that “positive stereotypes” like “Asians are good at math” still count as prejudice.

  18. Positive stereotypes, like “Asians are good at math” have significant systemic effects, such as on how teachers treat Asian students, for example. The negative-affective component is not there, but it still fits into the “cognitive” definition of prejudice while being relevant to the white racial frame.

  19. Bridget Author

    Yes, I agree. But I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on whether IAT adequately tests these.
    Like I said before, as far as methods go, I think that behavioral and priming techniques more fully capture prejudice than IAT does.

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