If we all agree that racism is bad, why are we still racist?


Thankfully, almost no-one in modern New Zealand thinks (or at least says that they think) that it is appropriate to deny someone an opportunity simply because of their ethnicity or gender. That is, unlike 100 years ago, people would not deny the opportunity of Māori or women to become surgeons.  Yet inequities still clearly exist, because members of those two groups are both underrepresented in that profession, among many others. Studies have shown that women earn less than men for performing the same job, and Māori have worse outcomes on measures of health, education, and employment than the general NZ population.

Each of us has to develop an opinion as to why these inequities exist. It seems to me that they fall into three groups:

  1. Inequity of talent. Some people believe that although each of us should be judged on our talent and achievements, those attributes vary across ethnicities. In this view, members of Ethnicity A have an over-representation of attributes like intelligence, willingness for hard work, diligence, etc., relative to Ethnicity B. People holding this view are happy for members of Ethnicity B who achieve the right grades and have the right experience to get the same opportunities as anyone else; they just assume that there are fewer members of Ethnicity B who will do so.
  1. Inequity of history. Another group think that talents are evenly distributed across ethnicities, and believe that current society is now ethnicity-blind, but accept that this was not always so. As a result of this historical racism, some ethnic groups find themselves less well placed in the distribution of resources than others, and this may affect their opportunities. To resolve this, we need to remove the historical blocks, and when we do so inequities will disappear.
  1. Inequity of opportunity. A third view is that inequities across our society exist because racism still exists. That is, people of Ethnicity B have fewer opportunities than people of Ethnicity A even after historical effects are controlled for. In other words, we may agree that racism is bad, but we (as a society) are still racist.

Determining which alternative is correct is tricky because there are so many factors that determine our success at school, in the workplace, maintaining good health, and securing a decent house to live in. What most of us do is look for evidence that is in accordance with our preferred view. However, using sophisticated statistical techniques it is possible to untangle some of the causal web. In a paper just published in the journal PloS-ONE, Dr Carla Houkamau (Faculty of Business and Economics) and Associate Professor Chris Sibley (School of Psychology) from the University of Auckland set out to examine these issues using a large sample of people who self-identified as being Māori. Since ethnicities are fluid, members of any group vary in how much they “look like” they belong to that group. Carla and Chris exploited this to ask participants how “Māori” they looked, through questions like “I think it is easy to tell that I am Māori just by looking at me.” The question they were interested in was whether responses to this measure of appearance would be related to whether the participants owned their own home (either outright or partially, through a current mortgage).

We know that rates of home ownership are lower among Māori than among the general population. What about rates of home ownership among Māori people who look more or less like they belong to that ethnicity? On the face of it, the likelihood that you’re in your own home should depend on your income, your stability, your age, maybe your relationship status. It obviously shouldn’t depend upon what you look like. So Carla and Chris asked questions about as many demographic variables as they could think of, so that they could take out their influence. Clearly some people in their sample would own homes, and others wouldn’t. So would those differences be due to income/age/relationship status? Or would differences be due just to the person’s appearance?

Carla and Chris used a statistical technique called logistic regression which looks at all the factors associated with an outcome (in this case, owning a home), and then is able to take out the influences of each factor to see what remains. If the only influence on home ownership rates is income, then once you take income out of the statistical model, nothing else should have any predictive power. Carla and Chris were able to show that after taking out every demographic variable you can think of, being visibly Māori still predicted home ownership so strongly that someone who looked very Māori had approximately half the chance relative to someone who didn’t look Māori at all.

So how does this affect my three groups of thinkers? If you consider that Māori fare poorly in social statistics because they are less innately talented than other New Zealanders, you might also be able to come up with a reason why these talents decline the more one looks to be Māori. But that lack of talent would affect all the demographics; these individuals would have lower incomes and lower levels of education, so when you removed those demographic indicators from the analysis you’d remove the effect. Therefore, these results show that you can’t account for low home ownership rates for people who are visibly Māori on the basis of some lack of talent.

If you believe that the system is now fair but once wasn’t, it is possible to interpret these results as showing that historically it was harder for Māori to get mortgages, and we continue to see these effects today since people often live in houses for a long time. So there is some evidence for this view, although as Carla and Chris note in their paper, it is an open question whether these effects still occur; their study was simply unable to address that issue. But note that even in the situation that differences in home ownership are historical, they still have real effects in the present day, because Māori as a group receive fewer of the benefits of home ownership in terms of financial and emotional security and long-term independence, relative to the general population. So by definition the inequities still exist, even if modern society is “fair.”

The evidence is probably strongest for the final group, who see ethnicity as a continuing marker of inequities in opportunity. There is no evidence that people awarding mortgages are explicitly racist in their denial of applications, but these results are very consistent with a broad body of psychological research showing unconscious and subtle but insidious effects of social preferences. CVs judged with a male name attached are thought to deserve higher salaries than the same CV with a female name; African-American defendants are more likely to be brought to trial, more likely to be convicted when on trial, and more likely to be executed when convicted than White American defendants. With this evidence, people in modern NZ society are likely to distribute resources in ways that benefit Pākehā and disadvantage Māori, even when they consciously think that ethnicity has no role in such judgments. Although more investigation is needed to verify how these processes work, we will need to acknowledge them if we are to successfully remove inequities and create a country where opportunity really is equal for all.

For more information about Dr Carla Houkamau, click here: http://www.business.auckland.ac.nz/people/chou001

For more information on Associate Professor Chris Sibley, click here: http://www.psych.auckland.ac.nz/people/c-sibley

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