Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Unconscious Racism at the University of California

Currently, the University of California appears to be facing several unrelated problems that bring into focus the central issue facing all public universities: how can schools maintain access, affordability, and quality during a time of decreased public support. For many people inside and outside of higher education, the solution to this problem is to push states to increase their funding for higher education; however, this necessary correction is only part of the problem: universities need to not only campaign for more money, but they also have to show that they are using their funds in an effective and efficient manner. Moreover, public universities need to actively fight ethnic and racial conflicts that threaten to arise during times of economic downsizing.

While at first glance the question of racism seems to be unrelated to the issue of funding, it is evident from recent events at the University of California that increased racial tensions often occur during an economic downturn. In fact, one obvious connection between racism and economics concerns enrollment policies and decisions. As many people have reported, less than 2% of the undergraduates at several of the UC campuses are African American, and although this low level of enrollment might not be blamed directly on racism, the effects of this situation is to fan racial tensions. Not only do some African-American students feel that they are not welcomed on their campuses, but studies show that when an ethnic or racial group only represents a small minority, the people from the dominant group revert to unconscious prejudices to categorize and stigmatize the minority group.

In his book, The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam reviews the latest studies of how racism works, and he documents some surprising findings. One of the more upsetting discoveries is that children as young as three-years-old will associate positive traits with white people and negative traits with black people regardless of the race of the child or the attitudes of the children's parents and teachers. As Vedantam stresses, these associations are learned through cultural experience and continue to exist in the unconscious of people even if these same individuals espouse tolerant and progressive stances on a conscious level. From this perspective, the only way to fight racism is to openly admit that we all harbor racist associations and that we need to become aware of our unconscious tendencies.

Another interesting finding that Vedantam analyzes is the notion that people equate blackness to crime and welfare on an unconscious level. In reviewing several psychological tests that are based on word and picture associations, we are confronted with the fact that even if politicians do not mention race when discussing crime and welfare, people draw associations between deviance and blackness in their hidden minds, and these associations often determine how people vote.

To read more, click here.

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