Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Prejudice and Racism, Year 2008-Still Going Strong: Research on Reducing Prejudice with Recommended Methodological Advances

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Prejudice and Racism, Year 2008-Still Going Strong: Research on Reducing Prejudice with Recommended Methodological Advances

Article excerpt

Racism continues to be a pervasive problem throughout world society (Jones, 1997; Ponterotto, Utsey, & Pedersen, 2006). Manifestations of racism are direct and indirect, blatant and subtle in contemporary society (Ridley, 2005). An example of direct and blatant racism is reflected in the derogatory remarks by radio "shockjock" Don Imus about a group of young female Black student athletes in the spring of 2007. These comments stimulated a national dialogue about racism, sexism, and popular culture that took place for a limited time (Kosova, 2007).

Additional forms of racism and prejudice were stimulated by the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Research indicates that the incidence of various forms of implicit anti-Islam prejudice and discrimination increased by 83%, and overt acts of discrimination against Muslim persons rose by 76% since 9/11 (Sheridan, 2006). Hurricane Katrina, the natural disaster that disproportionately affected the Black residents of New Orleans, led to pointed criticism of institutional racism reflected in the government's response to the disaster (Gheytanchi et al., 2006; Henkel, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2006).

These examples underscore the fact that racism, prejudice, and discrimination are widespread in U.S. society and manifest themselves readily and in a wide variety of contexts. It is therefore essential that social scientists devote increasing energy to researching the dynamics of racial attitudes along with their underlying emotional, cognitive, and developmental influences. Counseling professionals, particularly, given their strong research and applied skills, as well as their commitment to social justice, need to play a critical role in the study of racism and prejudice (Toporek, Gerstein, Fouad, Roysircar, & Israel, 2006). Awareness of racial attitudes is essential in working with clients of diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

The purpose of this article is to discuss the nature of racism, review research on the leading model of prejudice reduction, and advocate for enhanced technological sophistication in measuring racism. Given the position of some leading counseling researchers (e.g., D'Andrea & Daniels, 2001; Ponterotto et al., 2006; Sue, 2003) on the importance of White individuals acknowledging and confronting their own racism, the focus of this article is specifically directed to the complex problem of White racism and the sort of racial prejudice that underlies this problem.

Prejudice and Racism: A Primer

Prejudice has been defined as negative bias toward a particular group of people (Allport, 1954). Racism, on the other hand, is "based on beliefs and reflected in behaviors that accept race as a biological entity and maintain that racial groups, other than one's own, are intellectually, psychologically, and/or physically inferior" (Casas, 2005, p. 502). The pioneering racism scholar James Jones (1997) described racism as "resulting from the transformation of race prejudice and/or ethnocentrism through the exercise of power against a racial group defined as inferior, by individuals and institutions with the intentional or unintentional support of the entire culture" (p. 280). It seems, then, that the core of racism essentially includes a prejudiced sense of superiority in an in-group with a concomitant exercise of power to subjugate an out-group. Thus, whereas prejudice is mainly attitudinal in nature, racism extends the negative attitude into behavior that discriminates against a particular group.

Jones (1997) identified three forms of racism: (a) individual, (b) institutional, and (c) cultural. Individual racism occurs when individuals discriminate against members of another racial group because they believe that their own group is superior. Overt racial slurs and hate crimes are examples of individual racism.

Institutional racism occurs when social systems and organizations create and implement policies that lead to inequalities and disparities among racial groups. Examples of institutional racism include racial profiling, health care disparities, and the housing discrimination and educational segregation that continue to be perpetuated in contemporary society.

Cultural racism occurs when White cultural norms and practices are deemed superior to those of other racial groups. Embracing Eurocentric standards of beauty and denigrating other racial groups' physical characteristics, culturally biased linguistic preferences, and beliefs about appropriate emotional and interpersonal expressivity are all examples of cultural racism (Ponterotto et al., 2006).

Origins of Prejudice and Racism

A number of theorists have posited that tendencies toward racism and racial prejudice are the evolutionary by-product of adaptive survival strategies that allowed early humans to distinguish between friend and foe (Ponterotto et al., 2006). It was through the process of natural selection that the human brain was programmed to rely on physical markers to assess the threat potential of competing tribes and clans. This perspective is highlighted in Spriggs's (1995) resource retention rule theory, which posits that racial prejudice developed out of the tendency to hoard resources in times of scarcity. Hoarding food for distribution to members of one's clan, tribe, and village ultimately led to discrimination against those persons viewed as out-group members. The racial factor entered the hoarding-for-survival equation because members of the same clan (family), tribe, and village tended to be phenotypically similar in terms of such physical characteristics as within-group members' skin color and facial features, to name a few (Spriggs, 1995).

In prehistoric tribal societies, interpersonal interactions among tribal groups were also noted to be potentially dangerous in terms of disease transmission (Schaller, Park, & Faulkner, 2003). An adaptive reaction to the threat of the potential transmission of deadly diseases was to attribute potential risk to persons in out-groups who were distinguished by various physical characteristics. From this perspective, prejudice and racism are embedded in the social, cultural, and biological collective consciousness of human experience.

Psychodynamic Formulations of Prejudice and Racism

A number of psychodynamic scholars have conceptualized the psychological processes that are thought to underlie the development and maintenance of racial animosity among White persons in contemporary U.S. society (Ponterotto et al., 2006). This conceptual perspective views racism as an unconscious ego defense mechanism that is designed to reduce the anxiety many White people experience as a result of conflicted id- and superego-based racial thoughts and feelings (Bettelheim, 1964).

According to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the personality is composed of three distinct components: the id, ego, and superego. The id is driven by basic instinctual impulses (aggression, sexual urges, etc.), whereas the superego is driven by strict societal conventions and culturally biased ideals. When there is conflict between the id and superego, individuals experience anxiety. Anxiety is an unpleasant psychological state with physiological manifestations and involves a complex array of emotions, including fear, apprehension, and worry. The ego uses defense mechanisms (e.g., denial, projection, repression) to reduce the anxiety resulting from the conflict between the id and superego.

Other psychoanalytic-minded scholars assert that the unconscious and generalized anxiety that commonly occurs in cross-racial interactions predictably results in the elicitation of various defense mechanisms that result in feelings of animosity among persons from different racial groups. Pettigrew and Tropp (2006) further explained that the more underlying anxiety an individual experiences in such situations, the greater the likelihood that he or she will manifest racial intolerance. Consequently, an individual whose ego integrity is threatened by the pressure of his or her racial anxiety may be inclined to seek relief through the expression of different forms of interpersonal antagonism with racially different persons. Expression of racial animosity facilitates the discharge of hostility, thereby, reducing anxiety (Bettelheim, 1964; Ponterotto et al., 2006; Wright, 1981).

Object relations theory, an extension of traditional psychoanalytic theory, has also been used to explain White racism. Object relations theory differs from Freudian theory in that personality development is viewed as a function of human relationships rather than instinctual sexual and aggressive drives. Object relations theorists maintain that people develop intense and lasting psychological attachments to other people or things during early childhood that are sustained in various ways throughout their lives. These attachments form the basis for personality development.

From this theoretical perspective, a person's mental health is compromised and adversely affected when he or she is frustrated or blocked from forming positive attachments early in life. According to object relations theorists, blocking the development of such attachments may result in psychological trauma that can negatively affect one's psychological development and sense of well-being. This trauma, if not resolved, is thought to contribute to dysfunctional interpersonal attitudes and behaviors, in general, and destructive racial interactions, in particular.

Using an object relations framework, Timimi (1996) posited that racism is driven by the underlying anxiety (fear and apprehension) that is associated with a person's difficulty in tolerating people who are racially different from themselves and the inability to resist attempts at controlling or dominating those persons. Hence, individuals for whom racism serves as a means of controlling external objects that are different from themselves tend to manifest increased levels of underlying anxiety, resulting in escalating intolerance and efforts to dominate and control others (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983).

White Supremacy and Privilege: Mechanisms of Prejudice and Racism

Critical to maintaining and perpetuating White racism in today's society are the phenomena of White supremacy and privilege. Welsing (1991) defined White supremacy as a system of power and domination, determined consciously or subconsciously, and embedded in the logic, thought, speech, action, perceptions, and affective response of people who classify themselves as White. According to Fuller (1969), White supremacy permeates cultural, economic, political, and social structures in the service of European global domination. Furthermore, White supremacy is perpetuated and maintained through violence, cultural hegemony, and the myth of White superiority (Ani, 1994; Fanon, 1963; Kambon, 1998). Like other theorists, Welsing (1991) asserted that White supremacy is an essential factor underlying the various forms of racism that continue to be manifested in contemporary U.S. society.

White privilege represents a means whereby White people achieve societal rewards on the basis of skin color and other socially determined indicators of race as compared with merit (Ancis & Szymanski, 2001; McIntosh, 1988, 1998). McIntosh posited that there are two types of White privilege: (a) unearned entitlements and (b) conferred dominance. Unearned entitlements refer to life experiences that all people should enjoy (e.g., feeling safe in public spaces, working in a place where people feel that they belong) but are more accessible to White individuals and result in unearned advantages. It is these unearned racial advantages that result in a competitive edge that most White individuals are unaware of or unwilling to admit to, let alone relinquish.

The other form of privilege, conferred dominance, goes further by granting White individuals power over other racial/cultural groups. This dominance is perpetuated across generations. It is evident in larger societal systems such as the educational (e.g., the use of Eurocentric-based curriculum that validates White existence) and justice systems (e.g., the disproportionate representation of incarcerated Black individuals). Even in areas of U.S. culture where Black persons appear to dominate, such as entertainment and sports, the main decision makers are primarily White. Most White individuals do not recognize White privilege because acknowledging it means renouncing the U.S. myth of meritocracy (McIntosh, 1998).

Neville, Worthington, and Spanierman (2001) suggested that White privilege is a multidimensional phenomenon operating on both a macrolevel and a microlevel. Macrolevel White privilege is systemic in nature and manifested in the benefits, rights, and immunities afforded White individuals in institutional settings in the United States. An example of macrolevel White privilege is the expectation on the part of White individuals that they never have to defend being White. In this context, being White refers to behaving in ways that are culturally congruent with European American cultural values and expectations. In contrast, Black individuals are often called on to defend behaviors that are culturally congruent with the lived experiences of persons from this community. Microlevel White privilege is characterized by individual- and group-level advantages (e.g., sense of entitlement, social validation of Whiteness). An example of this type of White privilege can be observed in the ability of White individuals to be oblivious to other cultural norms, language, and customs without economic or social consequences.

How do the cultural scripts that perpetuate White privilege and conferred dominance, both at the macrolevel and the microlevel, get transformed into acts of prejudice and racism? An answer to this question could undoubtedly point to a number of solutions aimed at dismantling those systems that maintain and perpetuate White supremacy and institutional racism. However, a necessary precondition to unlocking this mystery is to delineate exactly how contemporary forms of White supremacy and institutional racism are expressed in society.

Expressions of Prejudice and Racism

More than 4 decades ago, Fanon (1964) predicted that traditional racism, grounded in notions of the biological inferiority of certain racial groups, usually dark-skinned people, would become transformed into a more sophisticated and insidious form of cultural racism. It seems that Fanon's prediction was accurate. From the 1800s to about the 1950s, expressions of racial prejudice were overt and oftentimes violent. During this period, lynchings, beatings, cross burnings, and legal segregation were typical expressions of White superiority and racial animosity (Jones, 1997; Jordan, 1968). More recently, prejudice and racism tend to find expression in more subtle ways in contemporary U.S. society.

Although some researchers have reported a general reduction in the expression of racial prejudice by White individuals toward Black individuals (Jackson, Brown, & Kirby, 1998; Sears, 1998), it is clear that negative attitudes toward Black individuals and other people of color continue to be manifested in various ways in the United States (Bobo, Kluegel, & Smith, 1997; Carr, 1997; Hughes, 1999; Walker, 2001). Ponterotto et al. (2006) drew from the work of numerous racism researchers in describing six different ways that racism is expressed in society. These expressions of racism are briefly described in the following paragraphs.

Dominative (old-fashioned) racism refers to overt expressions of racial animosity and a belief in White racial superiority (Allport, 1954). This is the form of racism that comes to mind for many White individuals when they are asked to judge whether their actions are racist (Sue, 2003). Dominative or old-fashioned racism is reflected in individuals who openly express the belief that Black individuals and other persons of color are inferior to White people. Such beliefs commonly support related beliefs about racial segregation and disagreement with views regarding racial integration and equality. Although most racism researchers in counseling and psychology suggest that this form of racism is in decline in the United States, there are clearly remnants of the manifestation of this form of racism in contemporary society. The more than 700 hate groups in existence in the United States and the approximately 500 Web sites that currently promote messages of racial hatred as well as the frequency with which hate crimes occur daily across the nation provide ample evidence to the veracity of this social pathology (Ponterotto et al., 2006).

Symbolic (modern) racism increasingly emerged during the Civil Rights movement as a reaction to the end of legal segregation in the United States. This form of racism is thought to be rooted in racial prejudices that are linked to cultural values related to the Protestant work ethic and anti-Black fear (McConahay, 1986; Sears, 1988). Characteristics of White individuals who exhibit symbolic or modern racism include the expressed belief that racism no longer exists in U.S. society and the assertion that Black individuals and other persons of color are too demanding of equal rights.

Laissez-faire racism legitimizes ongoing racial oppression within the context of changing economic and political realities in the United States (Bobo et al., 1997). Beliefs about the inferiority of Black individuals and other persons of color underlie this subtle form of racism and are used to rationalize the economic and political inequities and other structural barriers to minority progress. Laissez-faire racists are very resistant to any efforts to seek race-based equality, such as affirmative action.

Ambivalent racism is characterized by the mutual coexistence of both positive and negative racial attitudes toward people of color (Walker, 2001). The ambivalence results from the belief in the White American value system (e.g., Protestant work ethic, self-reliance, and individual achievement) intersecting with egalitarian values (e.g., all humans are created equal under God). These two sets of values are often inherently contradictory in a society that has been and continues to be built on White racism, superiority, and privilege. Walker believed that the term ambivalent racism better captured the mixed feelings held by many White Americans regarding Black Americans and persons in other racialized groups.

Kovel (1970) introduced the concept of aversive racism. This type of racism is characterized by White individuals who publicly advocate egalitarian principles but who hold views of racial superiority. Dovidio and Gaertner (1998) believed that this psychological duality creates a state of cognitive dissonance in White individuals, resulting in public advocacy for racial equality while privately harboring discomfort and fear of people of color, in general, and Black persons, in particular. The dissonance resulting from aversive racism also contributes to the avoidance of meaningful contact with non-White persons.

The final type of racism that is briefly described in this section is referred to as color-blind racism. Color-blind racism involves the denial or the minimizing of the ways in which various forms of racism continue to exist in the United States and the adverse impact they have on all people, including White individuals and people of color (Carr, 1997; Neville et al., 2001). Color-blind racism is further characterized by White persons who hold negative stereotypes of minority group members, blame minorities for their own social challenges, and are resistant to meaningful efforts to remedy social inequality in U.S. society.

The reader will note a number of commonalities across the different, more subtle forms of racism described in this section. Each is clearly demarcated from the obviously brutal dominative or old-fashioned racism. Although there are slight variations in emphasis among the more subtle forms of racism, they are all insidious and destructive to the psychological health of both their targets and their perpetrators (Ponterotto et al., 2006).

Reducing Racism: Lessons From Research

The most influential and well-researched models of prejudice reduction center on the proposition that interpersonal contact with diverse others under particular conditions will attenuate prejudice and promote intergroup harmony. The first integrative review of strategies to reduce prejudice was presented in Williams's (1947) maj or work on this topic titled The Reduction of Intergroup Tensions. Williams pointed out that intergroup contact would reduce prejudice when two groups (a) share similar tasks and status and (b) are involved in personal activities that promote meaningful interpersonal interactions (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).

Building on Williams's (1947) landmark study of the conditions that foster a reduction of racism, Gordon Allport (1954) published his classic work, The Nature of Prejudice, in which he outlined his contact hypothesis. In doing so, Allport described several factors that were noted to contribute to prejudice reduction. These factors included (a) the creation of equal status among persons from different groups, (b) the identification of common group goals, (c) an emphasis on the need to promote cooperation among members of the two groups to meet their shared goals, and (d) overt sanction and support by persons in authority positions. Allport's contact hypothesis of intergroup interactions stimulated hundreds of studies that tested the four factors described previously among a variety of groups, across many types of group-interaction contexts, using many types of research designs (e.g., experimental, quasi-experimental, survey research).

In the most recent and comprehensive research review of Allport's (1954) contact hypothesis theory, Pettigrew and Tropp (2006) conducted a rigorous meta-analysis of 525 studies that involved 713 independent sample groups from 38 different countries. A summary of this meta-analysis is provided in the following paragraph. When available, actual effect sizes of the findings in some of the studies reviewed are included. Effect sizes help researchers interpret the magnitude of the statistical relationship between the variables under study. Cohen (1988) presented the following guidelines for interpreting effect sizes: r < .30 represents a small effect size; r = .30 to .49, a medium effect size; and r > .50, a large effect size. The greater the effect size, the more confidence readers can have in the research findings.

A summary of Pettigrew and Tropp's (2006) comprehensive findings indicated the following:

1. Intergroup contact typically has a positive impact in reducing prejudice (effect size across all samples was r = -.21; that is, the greater the intergroup contact, the lower the subsequent prejudice).

2. The more rigorous the study (using well-established design criteria), the larger the effect size. For example, tightly controlled true experiments of Allport's (1954) contact hypothesis yielded an average effect size of r = -.34, whereas convenience sample survey studies yielded an effect size mean of r = -.20.

3. Intergroup contact leads to lower levels of prejudice not just for the out-group members in the study (e.g., Black students) but also for the entire out-group population (i.e., Black Americans in general). Thus, intergroup contact was noted to contribute to a generalized reduction of prejudice toward the whole group under study.

4. Intergroup contact reduces prejudice across many diverse types of out-groups. Although the initial studies on intergroup contact focused on race, subsequent studies have found the pattern to hold across gender, age, disability status, sexual orientation, mental health status (e.g., attitudes toward individuals with mental illness), and so forth.

5. The results of multiple studies pointed to prejudice reduction outcomes that held across a variety of contexts in which the intergroup contact occurred. For example, reduced prejudice was found among persons residing in housing projects, members of athletic teams, and students in small classroom settings.

6. The magnitude of effect sizes was nearly identical for racial/ethnic groups and for nonracial/nonethnic group studies (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, disability).

7. When all of Allport's (1954) four optimal contact conditions are met, the effect sizes were noted to be higher.

8. Prejudice reduction also occurs when only some of Allport's (1954) optimal contact conditions are met. Thus, although the effect sizes measuring prejudice reduction are higher when all four conditions are met, reduced prejudice can occur when fewer than all four conditions are satisfied.

The Pettigrew and Tropp (2006) study focused on investigations that used sample groups drawn from the general population. Recently, Smith, Constantine, Dunn, Dinehart, and Montoya (2006) completed two separate meta-analyses that tested the impact of multicultural education on mental health professionals' multicultural development and applied competence as well as on their levels of prejudice and racism.

In the first meta-analysis, which included 45 retrospective survey studies, those participants completing different types of multicultural training (e.g., courses, workshops) reported higher levels of multicultural counseling competence and racial identity development as well as lower levels of prejudice and racism. The resultant effect size after correcting for attenuation was .53 (a medium effect size). The multicultural training was observed to be equally effective whether the outcome variable was self-report scores of multicultural competence, racial identity development, or the participants' level of prejudice and racism.

The second meta-analysis conducted by Smith et al. (2006) was composed of 37 outcome studies that included pretest-posttest research designs that were aimed at measuring the impact of multicultural training on the participants' racial/cultural identity development, multicultural counseling competence, and level of prejudice. Using the same criterion variables as in the first meta-analysis, the authors found that the effect size for all of the 37 studies under investigation was large (r = .98). As in the initial meta-analysis, multicultural training seemed to contribute to the participants' racial identity development and multicultural competence, while simultaneously lowering their levels of prejudice.

The details of the multicultural training received by the mental health professionals in the Smith et al. (2006) metaanalyses were not described, but it is reasonable to assume that the training involved interaction of participants in a meaningful way and, therefore, on some levels, approximated Allport's (1954) optimal contact conditions. More specifically, students/professionals in these courses and workshops had equal status (i.e., trainees), interacted in meaningful ways throughout the semester or program, had common goals (i.e., successfully complete the training and gain knowledge), and were sanctioned by an authority or status figure (the professor or workshop leader). Naturally, it is difficult to know exactly what transpired during the training in the studies reviewed by Smith et al., and, therefore, a fruitful area for further research would be to examine more closely the process of multicultural training over time.

In summary, the international research that has been conducted across diverse populations (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006), coupled with U.S.-based research that involved mental health professionals (Smith et al., 2006), lead to the conclusion that the training of counseling professionals should include as much interpersonal contact across cultural groups as possible. For a review of exemplary training models that emphasized meaningful intercultural contact and that targeted both professional counselors and counselors-in-training, the reader is referred to the work of Heppner, Leong, and Chiao (2008) and Ponterotto and Austin (2005). These authors summarized and evaluated a host of multicultural training infusion programs within the United States as well as in international exchange programs. These programs seem to have profound and long-lasting effects on the multicultural development of counseling trainees. A close review of the programs reveals that multicultural development is characterized by increased awareness of counselors' own biases as well as increased ability to monitor these biases when working cross-culturally.

Methodological Advances in the Study of Prejudice and Racism

Notwithstanding the preponderance of empirical support for the validity of Allport's (1954) contact hypothesis in reducing prejudice among White Americans, it is important to consider other (non-self-report) approaches to the study of prejudice and prejudice reduction in order to further advance understanding of these topics. The need to expand research methodologies when studying prejudice and racism is illustrated by the fact that nearly all of the 607 independent studies analyzed in the Pettigrew and Tropp (2006) and Smith et al. (2006) meta-analyses relied on self-report measures of prejudice.

Although the weight of evidence and the magnitude of the effect sizes of the studies included in these meta-analyses clearly indicate the success of Allport's (1954) contact hypothesis in reducing prejudice, self-report methodology is not without limitation. For example, in a series of six sequenced studies, Devos and Banaji (2005) examined the use of explicit (questionnaires) versus implicit (responding to U.S. and foreign symbols flashed on a computer screen and pairing the symbols with faces of different races) tests when assessing racial beliefs of college students. It is interesting that these researchers found that in explicit tests, participants rated culturally diverse groups as equally "American?' However, in the implicit test situations, there was a clear hierarchy, with White Americans being rated as more "American" than Black Americans and Asian Americans.

Historically, much of the research that has been done on prejudice and racism involves the use of true experimental designs in laboratory settings, paper-and-pencil attitude surveys, and laboratory and field observation investigations. More recently, researchers have begun to incorporate technological advances in psychophysiology (e.g., Vanman, Paul, Ito, & Miller, 1997) and neuroscience (e.g., Hart et al., 2000; Richeson et al., 2003) in research endeavors that are increasing understanding of the brain's and central nervous system's role in the expression of prejudice and racism. By examining processes not readily controlled by conscious processes, researchers are better able to control for physiological manifestations of deep-seated prejudice and racism as well as measure socially desirable responses to these variables.

Advances in Psychophysiology and the Study of Prejudice and Racism

Traditional physiological studies of racial prejudice often involved measuring research participants' galvanic skin response (Rankin & Campbell, 1955), facial muscle activity, and heart rate acceleration (Vrana & Rollock, 1998). More recently, researchers have examined autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity and startle responses in relation to expressions of prejudice and racism.

Additional advancements in the study of psychophysiological reactivity to different environmental variables have allowed for an expanded exploration of a broad range of manifestations of prejudice and racism that are physiologically and unconsciously based. In this regard, it is interesting to point out that several investigators have used heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity, to assess research participants' emotional reactivity to photos of out-group members (Dambrun, Despres, & Guimond, 2003). From a psychophysiological perspective, reduced HRV is an indicator of poor PNS functioning and heightened ANS activity (Dambrun et al., 2003). ANS activity is commonly associated with increased aggressiveness and excitement, whereas PNS activity correlates to the elicitation of calming and more relaxed environmental cues and conditions. When presented with photographs of persons in different out-groups, the participants in Dambrun et al.'s study exhibited lower PNS activity and increased ANS reactivity.

In another study, Amodio, Harmon-Jones, and Devine (2003) used a startle eyeblink response technique to examine emotional reactivity in relation to racial prejudice. The goal of this investigation was to examine whether individual differences in the personality dispositions of White persons would predict negative affective responses to Black individuals. The startle eyeblink response technique involved the pairing of a startle probe (noise that causes the eye to blink) with photos of Black and White faces. Theoretically, when participants experience negative affect in relation to some stimuli, startle eyeblink responses are magnified. In the Amodio et al. study, participants demonstrated greater startle response in relation to Black faces. In other words, participants who were shown photos of Black faces demonstrated a more negative affective response (as indicated by increased eye blinking) than when shown White or Asian faces. Given the ability of the HRV and startle eyeblink techniques to assess involuntary prejudice responses (i.e., ANS function and negative affective responses) in White individuals, these techniques may have utility toward biofeedback-based applications aimed at reducing the more subtle, unconscious (and subconscious) forms of prejudice in future multicultural/social justice counseling interventions.

Neuroscience and the Study of Prejudice and Racism

Advances in neuroscience have also allowed researchers to study the brain's activity in relation to prejudice attitudes and behaviors. The mechanism by which the brain operates to express the neural activity associated with learned emotional responses to racial encounters is the amygdala (Eberhardt, 2005). Neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allow researchers to detect neural activity in the amygdala in response to the introduction of race-related stimuli. This technology is most useful in assessing involuntary physiological reactions to interracial interactions.

A number of investigators have begun using the fMRI technique to examine learned emotional responses of White individuals during interracial interactions with Black individuals. Hart et al. (2000) were among the first to use neuroimaging to examine how the learned emotional response of White research participants to interracial interactions with Black research participants affected the amygdala. The researchers presented facial photos of out-group members to both White and Black participants while recording neural activity in their amygdalae. There was a greater decline in amygdala activation during the presentation of in-group photos for all participants.

A study by Phelps et al. (2000) replicated and extended the work of Hart et al. (2000) by administering self-report measures of racial prejudice by using the Modern Racism Scale (McConahay, 1986). The results of this study indicated that White individuals who reported higher anti-Black racial prejudice scores on the Modern Racism Scale also had greater amygdala activation in response to the presentation of photographs of Black persons.

The utility of neuroimaging in the study of racial prejudice is supported by a number of recent studies (Cunningham et al., 2004; Lieberman, Hariri, Jarcho, Eisenberger, & Bookheimer, 2005; Richeson et al., 2003; Ronquillo et al., 2007). There is evidence that fMRI studies of amygdala activation in response to racial stimuli can be used to control racial prejudice (Wheeler & Fiske, 2005). Given that contemporary racism is much more subtle than the racism of old, implicit tests of racial prejudice such as the fMRI can function to increase an individual's sensitivity and awareness, reduce denial, and expose blind spots. Hence, counselors can use fMRI data in sessions to challenge their client's racial defenses (e.g., denial, projection) so as to explore unconscious expressions of racial prejudice.

Nearly all of the research on counseling trainees and professionals related to the topics of prejudice and racism has only used self-report measures. With the advances noted in research methodology that includes psychophysiological and neuroscientific measures, it would be useful for counseling researchers to direct attention to these and other new investigative strategies as a way of broadening understanding of the complex problems of prejudice and racism in U.S. society and the counseling profession. One of the recommendations to be made in this regard might involve conducting future investigations that include measuring HRV and neuroimaging among novice and experienced counselors as participants in research studies. Like the preponderance of research using self-report measures, neuropsychological techniques could be used during both pretest and posttest assessments to examine how various training techniques or models might stimulate parasympathetic brain activity, lessen anxiety about racial differences, and generally lower levels of prejudice and racism. These are relatively new areas of research for counselors, and we suggest that perhaps they partner with colleagues in physiology and neuroscience to design studies that can effectively measure and decrease subtle forms of racism among counselors themselves and among the many constituencies counselors are obliged to serve.


Although many counselors are generally committed to multicultural/social justice principles, they are not exempt from deeply embedded messages of racial prejudice and differences (Ancis & Szymanski, 2001). The landmark naturalistic study of D'Andrea and Daniels (2001), which involved observations of more than 600 counselors and related professionals, clearly bears this out (see also Ponterotto et al., 2006; Sue, 2003; Sue & Sue, 2008).

The counseling profession itself has a particular responsibility to incorporate the most sophisticated research techniques to study prejudice and racism within its own ranks. From there, it will be appropriate for counselors to extend research outward to various constituencies. For example, it would be very informative to study children and adolescents using neuroscience methods so that school counselors could assess the early formation and development of racial attitudes and design appropriate multicultural and developmental interventions in school settings. Such

research could inform developmentally targeted prejudice-reduction programs as well as serve to foster healthy attitudes among individuals of all racial groups, who now live in an unprecedented multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual nation.

It is hoped that the present article will stimulate both dialogue and empirical research into the origins, expressions, and prevention of prejudicial attitudes and racist behavior. In doing so, it is asserted that counseling professionals must serve as role models first, in confronting their own ingrained prejudices, and second, in designing innovative research and intervention programs for populations across the life span.


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Shawn O. Utsey and Jerlym S. Porter, Department of Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University; Joseph G. Ponterotto, Graduate School of Education, Fordham University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Shawn O. Utsey, Department of Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University, 915 W. Franklin Street, Richmond, VA 23284 (e-mail:

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