United Press International
December 10, 2001, Monday
Categorization by race not
BYLINE: By DAMARIS
CHRISTENSEN, UPI Science News
DATELINE: WASHINGTON, Dec. 10
Contrary to previous
assumptions, people may not automatically categorize other people by race and researchers said Monday that may
suggest racism is not as intractable as many believe.
In this new view, racism exists because people tend to
associate differences in skin color with differences between groups, and
thus use race as a surrogate for identifying
coalitions and alliances, said Robert Kurzban, who was at the University
of California, Santa Barbara when he conducted the research. He now is at
the University of California, Los Angeles.
Researchers previously have suggested when people encounter
a new individual they automatically assess the person's sex, race and age, qualities that might be useful
to help a hunter-gatherer predict a person's later actions.
Kurzban and his colleagues at UCSB argued
historically very few individuals would have had the chance to encounter
people of other races on a regular basis and thus people
were unlikely to evolve to identify race solely for its own
To test this idea, Kurzban and his colleagues asked a
number of students at UCSB to form impressions of individuals engaged in a
"conversation" -- in reality a series of still pictures of a person paired
with a sentence. The participants were told each pictured individual --
there were eight characters total -- belonged to one of two basketball
teams that had been in a fight during the previous season.
After viewing the pictures and sentences, put together as
though each character had said three sentences in a heated discussion, the
subjects were asked to recall which character said each particular
This kind of recall is difficult and typically fraught with
error, mistakes the researchers then capitalized on. If the students
categorized the characters into different groups on the basis of verbal
cues, they should be more likely to incorrectly attribute a statement by
one character to another on the same team, rather than to a character on
the opposite side of the debate, Kurzban said.
If the categorization was primarily by race, students might be more likely to
incorrectly attribute sentences to characters who had the same race but were on different teams.
For most experiments, each of the two teams was composed of
pictures of two black men and two white men wearing basketball jerseys. In
a trial with no other identifying information, students were more likely
to attribute a statement made by a white man to another white man, and a
black man to another black man, than they were to misidentify statements
to different characters on the same team. In a second experiment, in which
the computer colorized the basketball jerseys so that one team wore yellow
shirts and the other gray shirts, the students were more likely to
misidentify statements made by a team member to other men on the same
team, regardless of race.
Students were much more likely to identify teams, in the
second experiment than in the first. The effect of race was much less pronounced. In addition,
the effect of the different colored shirts in the second experiment was
stronger than the effect of race in the first.
In another set of experiments involving white women rather
than black men, sex was an equally important identifying factor regardless
of whether the two teams had the same or different colored shirts.
These results will be published in an upcoming issue of the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and will be available
online in advance of print at pnas.org.
"If these data hold up over the long term, these findings
could be very important," said Jim Sidanius, a visiting scholar with the
Russell Sage Foundation in New York and a professor at UCLA. "Race is not an immutable mental category but
has become a surrogate for other categorizations intended to find out who
is in and who is out of your group."
While conflicts between different groups will undoubtedly
still remain, Sidonius said, this work implies such intergroup conflicts
need not always fall along racial lines.
"If the same processes govern categorization outside the
laboratory," Kurzban said, "then the prospects for reducing or even
eliminating the widespread tendency to categorize persons by race may be very good indeed."
His findings suggest getting people from different racial
backgrounds together and cooperating together might be an effective way of
reducing racism, he said.
"Although our experiments were carried out in the
laboratory, it appears that the predictions were borne out in the
aftermath of Sept. 11," added Leda Cosmides, a colleague
of Kurzban's at UCSB. In these experiments, categorizing by race diminished when race did not predict the relevant conflict,
Similarly, in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade
Center, there were reports of less prejudice against African-Americans in
New York City, and less distrust of white police officers. "Us" and "them"
no longer were being framed as black versus white, but as Americans versus
Likewise, Cosmides pointed out this research showed
visual markers could quickly be used to identify between groups.
"This happened -- with tragic consequences -- as soon as it
was suspected that Middle Eastern terrorists were responsible for the WTC
attacks," she said, pointing out hate crimes against people who wore
turbans reminiscent of headgear worn in the Middle East. Content: 01022000
05007000 07004000 07005000 07006000 07010000 13003000 13009000 14003000
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA (83%); UNIVERSITY OF
UNITED STATES (88%);
STATE: CALIFORNIA, USA (88%);
CITY: LOS ANGELES, CA,
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA (83%); UNIVERSITY OF
bc-us-race RESEARCH (90%); RACE & RACISM (90%); AFRICAN
AMERICANS (78%); BASKETBALL (70%); SPORTS (70%);
LOAD-DATE: December 11, 2001