Whites’ racial prejudice can lessen over time, study

Prejudice among white people can lessen over time, according to new research from Rice University.


Whether white racial prejudice is an accurate barometer of intergroup antagonism is debatable because of how whites express racial prejudice changes over time. Also, social desirability influences how whites answer survey questions about race and racism.

A new survey by the scientists from Rice University focused on how some white people express racial prejudice – in the form of racial apathy – over time. The researchers also developed a new way to measure this type of discrimination.

Scientists shed light on this topic because of changes in how prejudice is expressed: this field of study has moved away from reliance on clear indicators of white racial prejudice and now focuses on subtle and colorblind signs, such as racial apathy.

For this study, scientists utilized three waves of panel information (2003, 2007-08 and 2013) from the National Study of Youth and Religion, a representative survey of 3,290 white youths between the ages of 13 and 17 during the first wave of the survey. The members were asked about their perspectives on racial equality and related issues.

Based on that, scientists examined the distribution of racial apathy over time.

At wave 1, 49 percent responded “very much,” 28 percent “somewhat,” 7 percent “a little,” and 16 percent “do not care.” At wave 2, 48 percent responded, “very much,” 26 percent “somewhat,” 8 percent “a little,” and 18 percent “do not care.” At wave 3, 56 percent responded “very much,” 26 percent “somewhat,” 9 percent “a little,” and 10 percent “do not care.

There were small drops (2% for each group) in the number of individuals who said they cared “somewhat” or “a little” about racial inequality.

Interestingly, 46% of individuals who said they “do not care” about racial inequality in 2003 cared “very much” about racial disparities by 2013. This dramatic shift suggests that white prejudice can lessen over time.

Scientists noted an association between prejudice and the grades people earn in school. Although, individuals with better grades tended to report lower levels of racial apathy over time.

Tony Brown, a professor of sociology at Rice and the study’s lead author, said, “These results are encouraging as they suggest that time and factors such as education may lessen feelings of racial apathy among some white people.”

The paper was co-authored by Rice sociology graduate students Asia Bento, Quintin Gorman, Lydia Koku, and Julian Culver. The Lilly Endowment partially funded the research and published in the journal Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World.

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