Racism may be a quality innate to humanity, with ostensibly smarter people simply hiding their racism better than others.
A new study shows that white Americans with greater socioeconomic status — often perceived to be associated with greater intelligence and sophistication — espouse more egalitarian ideals compared to their lower echelon counterparts. But those Americans are just as likely to support the preservation of social and economic privilege, by rejecting fair housing and other policies relating to racial integration.
Geoffrey Wodtke, a researcher from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, reported survey study findings on Sunday at an annual meeting of the American Sociological Association
"High-ability whites are less likely to report prejudiced attitudes and more likely to say they support racial integration in principle," he said. "But they are no more likely than lower-ability whites to support open housing laws and are less likely to support school busing and affirmative action programs."
Wodtke, a sociology doctoral candidate, analyzed data on racial attitudes from more than 20,000 white Americans participating in the nationally representative General Social Survey. The average study participant was calculated to be a 47-year-old white person who completed 12.9 years of education, answering six of 10 cognitive ability test questions correctly.
In comparing cognitive ability, as measured by verbal intelligence, Wodtke found that "smarter" whites were more likely to eschew outright racism against African-Americans, although the study didn’t consider other forms of racism in an increasingly diverse but segregated population.
Generally, whites who scored higher in cognitive ability professed to support educational integration and reject housing segregation, with strong opposition to racial discrimination in the workplace. In practice, however, most white Americans held similar attitudes — no matter their level of intelligence — with regard to policy that might effectively redress such racial imbalances, such as controversial school bussing.
In some cases, smarter whites reported lower support for racially “progressive” policies, with 23 percent supporting school bussing in comparison to 27 percent of lower-ranking whites, though most white Americans generally thought alike with regard to similar policies.
"The principle-policy paradox is much more pronounced among high-ability whites than among low-ability whites," Wodtke said. "There's a disconnect between the attitudes intelligent whites support in principle and their attitudes toward policies designed to realize racial equality in practice.
Whereas so-called high-ability whites agreed in principle that “whites have no right to segregate their neighborhoods,” nearly half of them would allow realtors to practice discrimination without enforcement by government open-housing laws.
Although stereotypes often depict poorer, insular whites as less tolerant of racial diversity, Wodtke concludes that support for racist practices stems not from variance in intelligence. Instead, support comes from a need to legitimize efforts to protect resources from competitors or, in other words, preserving "white privilege.”
"More intelligent members of the dominant group are just better at legitimizing and protecting their privileged position than less intelligent members," Wodtke said. "In modern America, where blacks are mobilized to challenge racial inequality, this means that intelligent whites say — and may in fact truly believe — all the right things about racial equality in principle, but they just don't actually do anything that would eliminate the privileges to which they have become accustomed.
Such privilege, Wodtke said, becomes so customary as to become invisible, and efforts to identify privilege seem to whites a “grave injustice.”