Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Expressions of Modern Racism in Judgments of Others: The Role of Task and Target Specificity on Attributions of Guilt

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Expressions of Modern Racism in Judgments of Others: The Role of Task and Target Specificity on Attributions of Guilt

Article excerpt

Theories of modern racism suggest that the level of prejudice toward black Americans has not decreased in recent years but rather is expressed primarily when white Americans perceive themselves to be in a state of situational (or normative) ambiguity. It is suggested that the current concept of situational ambiguity may be extended by examining distinctive underlying factors that mediate the expression of racism: task specificity and target specificity. It is argued that a significant amount of research on racism, and its expression, has been conducted through the use of a mock-juror paradigm and, as such, two studies were conducted to investigate the degree to which task and target specificity influence the guilt ratings of mock jurors. In Study 1, target specificity was manipulated by varying the race and social-status level of the defendant being evaluated. In Study 2, task specificity was manipulated by varying the presence or absence of jury instructions and the subsequent interactive effects of task and target specificity were examined. Results suggest that guilt ratings were significantly more affected by target and task specificity than by race per se, although there were race effects on ratings. Interestingly, task specificity appeared to affect responses only when target specificity was lacking. The implications of these results are discussed in terms of their contribution to the concept of modern racism.

Key words: jury, decision making, racism, attributions, courts.

Since the early "social distance" studies conducted by Bogardus (1925a, 1925b, 1927), researchers have invested a large amount of energy in investigating the concept of racism in America (Tomkins & Pfeifer, 1991). During the first half of the 20th century, these studies employed empirical techniques that tapped overt expressions of racism and consistently found that white Americans were openly racist toward black Americans in both their attitudes and behaviors (see e.g., Cook & Sellitz, 1964; Edmunds, 1954; Riker, 1944). According to Allport (1954), however, the United States began to experience a number of legal, social, and political changes during the 1940s and 1950s that eventually altered the face of racism in America.

Foremost of these changes was the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) that opened the door for school desegregation by declaring the "separate but equal" doctrine embraced by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) unconstitutional. Brown, however, was not the only legal change affecting racism that occurred during this era. Allport (1954) suggests that during 1949 alone over 100 bills opposing discrimination were introduced in Congress, including those dealing with housing, employment, education, public facilities, poll tax requirements for voting, and publication of antiminority propaganda (see also Jones, 1972; Simpson & Yinger, 1973).

It may be argued that this era of cultural flux created a natural watershed for social scientists to examine whether these changes had any effect on racism in America (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1986). The opportunity to engage in pre/post studies on racism brought a renewed interest in the examination of prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors of white Americans toward black Americans (McConahay & Hough, 1976), including a number of opinion polls indicating that prejudicial attitudes toward black Americans had become more positive (Dovidio & Gaertner).

Although these data were met with much enthusiasm by a number of individuals who believed that the above era of cultural flux had a favorable effect on race relations (McConahay, 1986), the enthusiasm was quickly neutralized by a number of other studies and real-life experiences suggesting that racism in the United States was alive and thriving (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1986). A possible explanation for the apparent contradiction in these results may be found in the work of Allport (1954, p. …

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