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«Prepared for the Frameworks Institute By Axel Aubrun, Ph.D. and Joseph Grady, Ph.D. Cultural Logic, LLC August 2004 Copyright © 2004 – Frameworks ...»

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Thinking About Race

Findings from Cognitive Elicitations

Prepared for the Frameworks Institute


Axel Aubrun, Ph.D. and Joseph Grady, Ph.D.

Cultural Logic, LLC

August 2004

Copyright © 2004 – Frameworks Institute


Recognizing that the topic of race in America has been approached from the widest possible variety of

directions, including various schools of political science, cultural criticism, sociology, anthropology, moral

philosophy and biology, over several centuries, this report does not attempt a comprehensive account of Americans’ thoughts about race. It focuses instead on a particular line of observation and analysis that has been largely undeveloped in previous discussions of the topic. This line of inquiry, we assert, has the potential to lead to important new insights, as well as to concrete, practical recommendations for communicators. This analysis concerns the basic cognitive and cultural models of the world – i.e. basic, familiar and widely shared understandings – that underlie attitudes about race in current American society.

Our experience in investigations of a wide range of public issues in American life suggests that some of the attitudinal challenges faced by advocates stem from patterns of reasoning that individuals do not articulate directly, and may not even be entirely aware of. The goal of this research, therefore, is to surface ways of thinking about race that may be derailing discussions without being directly addressed by those trying to change the public conversation on the topic.

The ultimate goal of the research is to assist the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and its philanthropic partners JEHT Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation as well as their grantees and the broader nonprofit community to be more effective in moving the public conversation about race forward, and the analyses laid out in the report constitute hypotheses which can be the basis for further testing and refinement as additional phases of research are carried out.

Disparities and the Invisibility of White Privilege as Central Questions The ultimate question that research on attitudes towards race must address concerns disparities – more specifically, perceptions about the origins of disparities between the lives and life chances of Whites and minorities. This is the reality “on the ground” that advocates are working hard to change.

A second focus of the elicitations research, less directly related to policy but more fundamental, concerns thinking about the nature of race itself. Here, the research takes its starting point in a hypothesis put forward by FrameWorks research partners Bales and Gilliam to the effect that White privilege and Whiteness itself are key pieces of the puzzle. Bales and Gilliam hypothesize that White privilege tends to be invisible to most Whites (but not to non-Whites), making it less likely that Whites will support racially conscious policies such as affirmative action. In these researchers’ view, attention to this question has the potential to move us beyond some conceptual approaches which have dominated theoretical approaches to racism and racial disparities – in particular, the dichotomy between the “cultural” view that each race has “earned” whatever success (or lack thereof) it currently enjoys through its values and behaviors; and the competing “structural” view, which sees racial disparities as the consequence of external factors such as inherited wealth and beneficial social networks.

One important goal of the elicitations research was to examine the thinking surrounding race with Bales’ and Gilliams’ hypotheses about the invisibility of White Privilege in mind. At the same time, these researchers were also attentive to the dominant explanations advanced by civil rights groups and advocates, such as structural racism, and listened for evidence of this and other explanations in informants’ thinking.


Focusing on the Thinking of White Americans While the study that this report is based on involved conversations with Whites, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Asian-Americans (see discussion of Methods, below), the analysis focuses largely on the thinking of Whites – first, in order to explore the invisibility of White Privilege, and second, because we believe that it is the thinking of the White majority which has the greatest causal effects not simply on current conditions and disparities, but also on the “national conversation” on race.

Furthermore, the analysis focuses on the thinking of racial “moderates.” While there are a number of strong views held by ideologues and by especially thoughtful lay people on various sides of the issues, the most significant problems in current thinking, the stubborn patterns that must be broken if real change is to happen, lie in the thinking of Americans who represent the “center of gravity” that must be shifted. The great majority of subjects we spoke to represent this category – people who are not strongly inclined towards either of the commonly identified patterns of thinking about racial disparities – the view that disparities reflect the shortcomings (and even inferiority) of minority individuals themselves, nor the view that racist Whites are holding minorities down, more or less deliberately. Average White Americans certainly have cognitive access to both of these stories, and reach for them at times, but their subtler patterns of thinking about race are not very recognizable in either of those extremes. It is the patterns in the thinking of reasonable people in reasonable mode which represent the most important and least recognized target for advocates’ communications.

Differences between the thinking of Whites and others are referred to in various discussions in the report – and, equally importantly, data about the thinking of minority groups provided invaluable points of comparison which put the thinking of the White majority into clearer relief.

Subjects The analysis presented here is based on intensive one-on-one interviews conducted by Cultural Logic with a diverse group of 50 individuals in California, Oregon, Illinois, Mississippi, Alabama, Rhode Island, and the Washington DC metro area. Subjects were recruited through a process of ethnographic networking – researchers began with “seed contacts” in each of the target communities, and developed a pool of subjects from which a diverse range was selected for interviewing.1 The sample included 31 women and 19 men.

Subjects’ ages ranged widely – 1 subject was eighteen, 15 subjects were in their 20s, 16 in their 30s, 7 in their 40s, and 11 were 50 or older. The sample included 19 European-Americans, 10 African-Americans, 9 Hispanic-Americans, 11 Asian-Americans, and one Native American. A range of political orientations was also included in the sample (15 conservatives, 5 independents, and 30 liberals), as were a range of educational backgrounds (high-school only to graduate degree) and occupations.

The Cognitive Approach Subjects participated in one-on-one, semi-structured recorded interviews (“cognitive elicitations”), conducted according to methods adapted from psychological anthropology. The goal of this methodology is to approximate a natural conversation while also encouraging the subject to reason about a topic from a wide variety of perspectives, including some that are unexpected and deliberately challenging. This type of data-gathering – and the analysis of transcripts, based on techniques of cognitive anthropology and linguistics – yields insights not available from standard interview, polling or focus group techniques. It does not look for statements of opinion, but for patterns of thought that may even be unconscious. It does not look for familiarity with issues in the news, but for more well-established and long-standing, default reasoning patterns. Some of the clues to these important patterns come from topics that are omitted, moments of inconsistency where one understanding clashes with another, and the metaphors people use to talk about a subject. Furthermore, the method is designed to explore the differences between rhetorical mode – in which people define themselves in opposition to other groups and perspectives, and repeat ideas and phrases familiar from public discourse – and reasonable mode – in which they reflect their own experiences, think for themselves, and are more open to new information. Put briefly, this analysis focuses on how people think rather than what they think. (See the Appendix for a fuller discussion of Cultural Logic's cognitive approach.) Cognitive research works on the premise that unconscious, default understandings of the world (cognitive and cultural models) can guide people’s understanding of an issue in ways they don’t even recognize. One See discussion of “snowball sampling” as a basic technique of ethnographic research in H. Russell Bernard’s Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, 2nd Edition. 1995. (pp.97ff).

of the most important aspects of these default models is that they often lead people to understandings that they might reject at other moments of more careful reflection. For example, average Americans recognize on an intellectual level that America’s fortunes are tied to economic and other developments abroad – yet a habitual conception of America as a world unto itself obscures this understanding, and creates a cognitive “blind-spot.” People who know better on some level, still slip easily into a mistaken view because of wellestablished, default understandings of the world. These hidden, underlying understandings can be very difficult to challenge and displace, and, if they are not accounted for, they can derail communications.

FINDINGS Racism per se?

Most Americans are aware of the problem of racism, and most express strong disapproval of racism. At the same time, most of the people we spoke with, including liberals, had trouble accepting or even thoroughly grasping the kinds of remedies for addressing race-based disparities proposed by advocates. The most basic finding of this research is that the (White) public’s thinking about race and about race-based disparities is limited and distorted by modes of reasoning that have little or nothing to do with traditional notions of racism. While elicitations research confirms that Whites continue to hold counterproductive views with respect to race and racial progress, the findings also suggest that some of the traditional goals of advocate communications may be misplaced. That is, the analysis points to problems that would persist even if racism as usually understood, and even covert racism, vanished tomorrow.

Racial issues are at a stage where a great deal of very hard work has already been accomplished, and the important work that remains is in some ways even harder because it means bringing about change at even deeper levels of understanding. To take an analogy from another issue area, child abuse is a problem which a generation of advocates worked hard to bring to the attention of the public. Now that most Americans acknowledge the problem, though, the dominant image – of atrocities committed in the home – actually places limits on people’s ability to understand the social context that contributes to the problem, and the role of the broader community in reducing it. Likewise on matters related to race, key battles have largely been won – regarding the shared humanity that transcends all races, for example, and the moral shame of bigotry. But there are fundamental patterns of reasoning, and fundamental elements of the American worldview, which continue to drive people to racially damaging views nonetheless.

Confirming the invisibility of White privilege Two of these default patterns do much to confirm Bales’ and Gilliams’ hypothesis – namely, that the invisibility of White privilege for Whites is highly relevant to the cognition of racism and disparities. Elicitations research suggests, first, that Whites’ show a strong “cognitive blindness” to the real causal forces which lead to disparities, and that this blindness is related to default modes of reasoning in terms of individuals rather than larger contexts.

Secondly, we conclude that attitudes toward race are shaped by a cognitively powerful model of the “Self-Making Person,” which relates closely to American understandings of both freedom and success. Through the lens of this model, being White is practically defined as the exemplar of a state of self-determination and therefore an excellent fit with the American model of Success. By contrast Blacks and other minorities are easily seen as determined more by their ethnic qualities and less by their individual will and,therefore, provide a poor cultural fit with American notions of Success. Both of these patterns greatly contribute to the invisibility of White privilege, and neither is based on racism as traditionally defined.

The next sections of the report discuss these two findings in detail.

Confirming the lingering relevance of familiar theoretical models As discussed above, one of the motivations behind this research and the larger FrameWorks project was an interest in moving beyond traditional analyses of the causes of disparities – including the dichotomy between cultural and structural views. Elicitations research, however, establishes that theories which are inadequate from an analytical perspective, may nonetheless be very active in the minds of average (White) Americans. While “Personal Racism” – e.g. a conscious belief in the inferiority of minorities or in the rightness of a social hierarchy that puts Whites above everyone else – is no longer felt to be a major cause of disparities, this prototype is still strong in public reasoning, with counterproductive effects. And while the failure of minority (especially Black) responsibility may also be an outdated construct from the perspective of experts, a version of this model is still easily reached for, and explicitly referred to, by average Americans, both White and otherwise.

Black-White relations as a prototype While the elicitations included conversations with, and about, various different racial and ethnic groups, the analysis reflects the fact that Black-White relations had a special prominence in most of the discussions.

It just seems when people think about race they always immediately go to the Black. (Hispanic lib.

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