Posted Sept. 24, 2007 – Subtle racism interferes with Black people's ability to cope mentally with life, a new study shows. For Whites, who are much less often the targets of prejudice, overt racism interferes more with mental functioning, researchers say.
"It appears that Blacks are particularly vulnerable to cognitive impairment resulting from exposure to ambiguous prejudice – a level of prejudice Whites may not even register," said Princeton University psychologists Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D., and J. Nicole Shelton, Ph.D. Salvatore and Shelton enrolled 122 African-American and 128 White Princeton undergraduates in their study.
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They were split into three groups – blatant prejudice, ambiguous prejudice or no-prejudice – and told to evaluate a group of Black and White qualified and unqualified job applicants and the recommendations of human resource officers.
Under the blatant prejudice condition, the hiring recommendations contained obviously racist comments (such as noting that the African-American candidate "belonged to too many minority organizations" or that the White candidate "was a typical White prep-school kid").
In the second part of the study, participants then were given a test requiring full concentration, in which they had to name the color in which words such as "red" or "blue" were written. Witnessing the blatant prejudice lowered White participants' scores on the test, but not the scores of African-American participants. However, African-American participants did much worse on the test after witnessing the subtle prejudice.
"Blacks are better prepared to cope with blatant prejudice than Whites are, at least in terms of the short-term effects on performance of cognitive tasks," Salvatore and Shelton suggest.
This, they say, is because African-Americans have experienced prejudice and have learned to deal with it, not because such prejudice is harmless. But when African-Americans have to deal with more subtle prejudice – prejudice that Whites tend not to recognize – it consumes mental resources.
"Targets of prejudice may experience cognitive impairment as they try to determine the cause underlying the negative events they encounter in their lives," Salvatore and Shelton conclude. They report their findings in the September issue of Psychological Science.