CSWAC Blog

The Siren Song of False Unity

White American culture calls out to all of us, inviting us into an American unity. We may heed the call or dispute it. Heeding it can bring rewards; disputing it brings challenges. Either way, you have to consider the needs of one group versus another in responding to that call for unity. What happens when cultures of color seek reparation for past forced transfers of wealth, and all of us seek justice for our present lives? White American culture invariably falls short here.

A recent study looked at “when and how values that promote and idealize intergroup harmony affect subjective responses to disadvantage and potentially reduce motivation for collective action among members of traditionally disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups.” Put another way, does placing more value on the unity of many groups lead people to place less value on the needs of their own group or subgroup?

In the language of the researchers, they wanted to study “traditionally disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups.” The researchers were interested in how racial group membership affected the readiness of people of color (in this case, either black or Latinx group members) to join collective action designed to eliminate their oppression at the hands of white American culture. They also wanted to know how an all-encompassing “American” identity would impact the readiness of people of color to pursue their own racial group needs.

The researchers conducted two experiments. The second experiment replicated the first, plus extended their inquiry. In reporting here, we’ll focus on the second. They looked at responses from 150 adults of color (50% black, 50% Latinx; 53% women).

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three identity conditions: (a) common ingroup, (b) separate group, or (c) dual identity. Participants then read a brief essay titled, “Intergroup Relations in America.” The emphasis of the essay varied differently for each condition:

  • Common ingroup identity: Essay emphasis: an essential component of long-term well-being in the United States is “thinking about our common identity as Americans, without emphasizing racial/ethnic differences.”
  • Separate group identity: Essay emphasis: on different group memberships, such that “unique racial/ethnic identities are an essential component of long-term well-being.”
  • Dual identity:  Essay emphasis: “the ways racial/ethnic identities and the American identity support each other as an essential component of long-term well-being in the United States.”

The “common ingroup” is conceptually similar to mainstream settings in which colorblind norms apply, racial group identity is discouraged, and common “American” identity is encouraged. The “separate group” refers to settings in which one’s own racial identity, as black or Latinx, for instance, is emphasized. The “dual identity” allows for racial identity to express itself, but also values a common identity among all. These three group identity alternatives have many analogs in US society today.

Participants then answered some questions to check if the essay had an effect on their salient group identity, and to assess their beliefs about societal inequality.

Then,

All participants next read an essay, ostensibly a newspaper article, noting how Blacks and Latinos have “typically been under-represented and generally face greater financial challenges in the U.S. educational system” and describing a Tea Party Movement proposing “a constitutional amendment (the New Civil Rights Initiative) to put a nationwide ban on affirmative action programs for schools.”

The researchers hypothesized that the common ingroup participants would

  • Be less likely to believe racial inequality was a societal problem
  • Be less angry about racial inequality
  • Have less belief in the disadvantaged group being able (efficacy) to change things
  • Be less likely to engage in collective action for overcoming inequality

Finally, participants were given a questionnaire with statements, each accompanied with a 7-point rating scale (1 = totally disagree to 7 = totally agree). Statements were included to test for each of the following variables:

  • Societal inequality beliefs:* Sample statements: “I believe that inequalities between members from different racial groups still exist in today’s US society”, “I believe that members from under-represented racial groups are disadvantaged compared to Whites in today’s US society”, and “I believe that being White gives you an advantage to succeed in today’s US society”
  • Perceived anger: Sample statement: “I’m angry/frustrated/irritated with (supporters of) the Tea Party”
  • Group-efficacy beliefs: Sample statements: “As a group, we can prevent the New Civil Rights Initiative” and “Together, we can prevent the New Civil Rights Initiative”
  • Intentions for collective action: Sample statements: “I am willing to create flyers against the New Civil Rights Initiative” and “I am willing to engage in collective action to prevent the New Civil Rights Initiative”

FINDINGS:

The findings supported the researchers’ hypotheses. For instance, the common group participants saw less group-based inequality in society compared to the separate group and the dual identity participants. The latter two groups did not differ from each other. Similar results were found for anger, group efficacy beliefs, and collective action intentions.

The researchers assembled the findings into a model, which statistical testing validated.

We found that making common ingroup identity salient produced lower beliefs about group-based inequality in society, which reduced group anger and [belief in group efficacy] and, ultimately, intentions of collective action toward a specific policy disadvantaging their [racial] group.

IMPLICATIONS

The researchers are direct in stating some of the implications they see for a multiracial society.

These findings … illuminate how system-justifying ideologies [like colorblindness]…, which cloak inequality in ways that make disparities seem normal and fair, inhibit action for structural change toward actual equality and equity.

If you want harmony in the large group, you can emphasize a common group identity like colorblindness does. But colorblindness impedes the work of people of color along with some white people to resist racism. Dual identity can bring harmony to a larger group, but also see and address the need to overcome inequality and inequity between racial groups.

The researchers share an important, although not surprising observation:

[P]revious research … show[s] that disadvantaged-group members generally prefer multicultural or dual identity representations.

And they sum it all up, thusly:

Recognition of intergroup differences therefore may prove to be a critical ingredient or policies and interventions aimed at reducing intergroup inequality.

This suggests to us the importance of creating spaces which acknowledge racial identity and group membership, whether it be in public discussion, and/or by providing and supporting separate meeting spaces for caucuses, informal gatherings, and more formal gatherings and events of benefit to each racial group as that group may designate. This should not be seen as an arrangement threatening to society in general, or overly antagonistic to the group interests of white people in particular. In a multiracial community it would not be.

The “dual identity” condition the researchers examined implicitly calls upon people to have multiple racial identities, a point we discussed in a prior post on multiracial community building [link]. It’s notable, too, that the dual identity condition calls for both a common, shared identity and allows and acknowledges that people have their own racial group identities. This parallels another feature of multiracial community building we identified: “A multiracial community must acknowledge and affirm the concerns of monoracial communities of origin.”

So…there is a happy medium that we all might strive for. It means moving beyond colorblindness.


*Social inequality beliefs were assessed at an earlier point of the experiment, but are included here for the convenience of seeing all dependent variables in a single list.