Saturday, May 08, 2010
The social construction of racism
Reader Linda Seebach wondered in the last post on the frequency of experiencing discrimination among blacks if there were some way to see if "individuals' answers are consistently in one direction or another?" This would assess the hypothesis that certain blacks tend to see racism all around in many forms, while others don't experience it in any of various possible ways, thus suggesting it is more in the mind of the victim than an objective reality.
In other words, if racist whites are all around, discrimination should tend to be experienced randomly by blacks. If racism, on the other hand, is found to be concentrated among a few victims, this suggests they are reading racism into events that others would interpret as benign.
Recall that most incidents that are labelled racist are ambiguous. Just look above at the list of questions that interviewers in the MIDUS Study asked respondents. If a waitress gives you bad service, it could be for many different reasons, only one of them being that she doesn't like members of your race.
To test the competing hypotheses, I can calculate the correlations among the nine questions above. If the correlations are non-existent or low, this means that being a frequent victim of one type of mistreatment is unrelated to the frequency of another type. If, by contrast, the correlations are high, this suggests individuals tend to experience all types of mistreatment often, or none of them at all, which suggests it's much more about the victim and much less about others.
It turns out that the correlations are overwhelmingly high. The average for all 36 correlations is .58, which means that a person's answer to one question predicts very strongly a similar answer to another question.
Another way to approach it is to calculate the alpha coefficient, which is a measure of the extent to which the questions tap an underlying factor, in this case the frequency of perceiving discrimination of all kinds. The coefficient is .92. This is a very high number and indicates that the questions are all tapping the same thing: a person's tendency to experience many interactions as racist.
Many blacks are taught to see racists under every rock, so should we call the phenomenon we just observed in the data "the social construction of racism"?