Research says calling people racist doesn’t reduce racial bias

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Mark Makela/Getty Images

Mark Makela/Getty Images

In 2016, researchers stumbled on a radical tactic for reducing another person’s bigotry: a frank, brief conversation.

The study, authored by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California Berkeley, looked at how simple conversations can help combat anti-transgender attitudes. In the research, people canvassed the homes of more than 500 voters in South Florida. The canvassers, who could be trans or not, asked the voters to simply put themselves in the shoes of trans people — to understand their problems — through a 10-minute, non-confrontational conversation. The hope was that the brief discussion could lead people to reevaluate their biases.

It worked. The trial found not only that voters’ anti-trans attitudes declined but that they remained lower three months later, showing an enduring result. And those voters’ support for laws that protect trans people from discrimination increased, even when they were presented with counterarguments for such laws.

 …It is possible to reduce people’s racial anxiety and prejudices. And the canvassing idea was regarded as very promising. But, researchers cautioned, the process of reducing people’s racism will take time and, crucially, empathy… This will require conversations. Maybe it will be through canvassing by activists, much like the transgender study. Maybe churches and schools can take on public education campaigns. Maybe these and other civic institutions can facilitate public forums in which people can openly discuss these problems.

The key to these conversations, though, is empathy. And it will take a lot of empathy — not just for one conversation but many, many conversations in several settings over possibly many years. It won’t be easy, but if we want to address some people’s deeply entrenched racial attitudes, it may be the only way.

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Our Museum’s Response to Milwaukee’s Recent Unrest

Because America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, visitors to ABHM online have inquired about our response to the recent unrest in a predominantly black neighborhood in our city. Though not immediately apparent on the ABHM website, our museum’s principal spokesperson has been helping local, national, and international press explain these events by supplying interviews and articles. (See links to several of these below.)

Maria Cunningham (center) listens intently to a group member during "Hidden History," ABHM's 2015 film/dialogue series.

Maria Cunningham, ABHM facilitator (center), listens intently to a group member during “Hidden History,” ABHM’s 2015 film/dialogue series.

For twenty-eight years, ABHM has provided a safe place where people of all backgrounds can learn about America’s racial history and talk straightforwardly about race and racism. Online, our museum tells many of the stories seldom told in American history books and documents how that history affects our society today. Offline, we present frequent talks and facilitate interracial dialogs in this community and beyond.

The morning after angry youth burned several businesses following the police killing of a young black man, neighbor residents came out to clean up.

The morning after angry youth burned several businesses following the police killing of a young black man, neighbor residents came out to clean up.

When a group of young people took out their anger and frustrations with local policing and poverty by setting fire to a police car and three businesses, many people seemed surprised. We were not. This was a combustible situation. That car and those establishments represented the complex set of debilitating conditions that have hurt Milwaukee’s African American community for generations. During the 1960’s struggle for civil rights here, there were calls to find remedies for institutional discrimination. Fifty years later, those remedies remain largely unimplemented.

The UN General Assembly proclaimed 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent with the goal of achieving “recognition, justice and development.” Can we achieve these in the USA? We believe that ABHM can be part of the solution.

Dr. James Cameron, lynching survivor, addresses US Senators and descendants of lynching victims, Washington DC, 2005.

Dr. James Cameron, lynching survivor, addresses US Senators and descendants of lynching victims, Washington DC, 2005.

Our museum’s founder, Dr. James Cameron, worked all his life to educate Americans about the ways that ongoing racial injustice prevents America from living up to its stated ideals of liberty and justice for all. Despite being lynched as a teenager, he always dreamed that Americans would come together to form “one single and sacred nationality.”

ABHM is a Site of Conscience, member of a coalition of memorial museums and sites in active and post-conflict zones around the world. As such, we help our compatriots understand how America’s racial history affects our country today and how, together, we can create a bright and fair tomorrow for all America’s children.

If you would like to further understand the issues that sparked the fires of August 13, 2016, please follow links below – and then explore seldom-told stories in American history in ABHM’s galleries.

Residents protest the decades of disinvestment in the Sherman Park area that ignited the recent turmoil.

Residents protest the decades of disinvestment and joblessness in the Sherman Park area that ignited the recent turmoil.

“Milwaukee Shooting: Curfew Imposed in Hopes of Restoring Calm” by Madison Park, Holly Yan and Ray Sanchez, CNN

“Evidence of Things Unknown” by Reggie Jackson, Milwaukee Independent

“Complex Issues Contributed to Recent Milwaukee Unrest” – Central Time Show on Wisconsin Public – Radio Interview with ABHM Head Griot Reggie Jackson

“What It’s Like to Be Black in Milwaukee” by Ray Sanchez, CNN

“After decades of segregation, anger boils over in Milwaukee” by Brendan O’Brien, Reuters

“Why Sherman Park Media Coverage Was Out of Focus” by Reggie Jackson, Milwaukee Independent

“Community Leaders Reject WEDC’s Jobs Claims for Sherman Park Area” by Matthew Brusky, Milwaukee Independent

“Teenage girl stands as park peacemaker despite any tensions” by Shateria Wiley, YouthRise Milwaukee