Subtle Forms of Prejudice

As this brief overview shows, the roots of prejudice are many and varied. Some of the deepest and most intensively studied roots include personality factors such as right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation, cognitive factors such as the human tendency to think categorically, motivational factors such as the need for self-esteem, and social factors such as uncharitable ingroup attributions for outgroup behavior. Research on these factors suggests that prejudiced attitudes are not limited to a few pathological or misguided individuals; instead, prejudice is an outgrowth of normal human functioning, and all people are susceptible to one extent or another.

Yet there is also a reason for optimism; when viewed historically, there is no doubt that many virulent strains of prejudice and discrimination are on the decline. Gone are the days of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, of legalized slavery, of lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan. Gone are the days when most women worldwide could not vote or hold political office. In many countries multiculturalism and diversity are more widely embraced than ever before, as evident from the soaring popularity of world music and international cuisine; of cultural history and heritage celebrations; and of greater civil rights for historically stigmatized populations such as people with disabilities, indigenous and aboriginal groups, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

In response to these changes, psychological researchers have increasingly turned their attention from blatant forms of prejudice to more subtle manifestations (Crosby, Bromley, & Saxe, 1980; Page, 1997). This shift in focus does not imply that traditional displays of prejudice have disappeared, but rather, that contemporary forms of prejudice are often difficult to detect and may even be unknown to the prejudice holders.

Subtle Racism

Since the 1970s, researchers have studied several interrelated forms of subtle racism (see Table 3 for an overview). The central focus of this research has been on White prejudice toward Black people, and even though each form of subtle racism has distinct features, the results have consistently pointed in the same direction: White people are most likely to express anti-Black prejudice when it can plausibly be denied (both to themselves and to others).

Studies have found, for example, that Black job candidates and Black college applicants are likely to face prejudice when their qualifications are ambiguous but not when their qualifications are clearly strong or weak (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2000; Hodson, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2002). Similarly, a study on obedience to authority found that White participants discriminated when selecting job applicants for an interview, but only when instructed to do so by someone in authority — a situation that allowed them to deny personal responsibility and prejudice (Brief, Dietz, Cohen, Pugh, & Vaslow, 2000). In this rather disturbing study, roughly half the participants received a fictitious letter from the company’s president saying:

Our organization attempts to match the characteristics of our representatives with the characteristics of the population to which they will be assigned. The particular territory to which your selected representative will be assigned contains relatively few minority group members. Therefore, in this particular situation, I feel that it is important that you do not hire anyone that is a member of a minority group. (p. 80)

Participants who received this statement selected fewer than half as many Black applicants for an interview as did participants who received no such statement. The bottom line: under conditions of attributional ambiguity that allow people to appear unprejudiced, even “subtle” forms of racism can exact an enormous toll on racial minorities.

Table 3. Forms of Subtle Racism

Name Primary Citations Description of Main Features
Symbolic
Racism
Kinder & Sears (1981); McConahay & Hough (1976); Sears (1988) Symbolic racists reject old-style racism but still express prejudice indirectly (e.g., as opposition to policies that help racial minorities)
Ambivalent
Racism
Katz (1981) Ambivalent racists experience an emotional conflict between positive and negative feelings toward stigmatized racial groups
Modern
Racism
McConahay (1986) Modern racists see racism as wrong but view racial minorities as making unfair demands or receiving too many resources
Aversive
Racism
Gaertner & Dovidio (1986) Aversive racists believe in egalitarian principles such as racial equality but have a personal aversion toward racial minorities

`We are only following the law’

`We are only following the law’ doesn’t explain immigration policy during Nazi era or now

Holocaust historians’ first impulse is to reject comparisons between those dark decades and our present. We don’t want to be perceived as abusing history for political purposes or engaging in overly emotional analyses.

But then comes a moment when it’s not possible to avoid parallels.

For me, that moment came two weeks ago.

I study the American response to the Holocaust. I was researching the U.S. officials’ false claim that the nation’s inflexible immigration laws gave them no choice but to deny visas to hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees in the 1930s and early 1940s – and historians’ repetition of this false claim. From every media outlet came Trump administration officials spewing similar hollow arguments.

The law made me do it

During the Nazi era, the claim was based on the 1924 immigration law that set annual worldwide quotas, as well as country-by-country limits, on the number of immigrants to be admitted to the United States.

The problem with the claim and the idea that U.S. officials had no choice but to follow the law and limit immigration is that the quotas were never even close to being filled from 1933 to 1945, the 12 years of the Nazi regime.

About 200,000 refugees from Nazi Europe were admitted during that period to the U.S., while at least another 200,000 could have been under existing quotas. The quota for Germans of about 26,000 was filled in just one year, in 1939. In every other year, the quota ranged from 7 percent to 70 percent filled.

The law didn’t prevent U.S. officials from admitting more refugees. Officials chose to interpret and implement the nation’s immigration laws so as to exclude as many refugees from Nazi Europe as possible.

Yet at the time, and in many historical accounts, officials consistently blamed the law. That includes Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who explained why his administration could not help European Jews in 1943.

“American immigration policy was expressed [solely] in the laws enacted by Congress, which the executive branch had no power to alter,” said Long.

I want to know why so many historians cling to “the law-made-me-do-it” narrative, assuming that that narrative was all history.

It wasn’t.

History repeats

As criticism of the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border ramped up in mid-June, U.S. officials trotted out their version of Long’s argument – though in less elevated language.

Asked why the administration adopted the “zero tolerance” policy, which led to criminal prosecutions of all those crossing the border seemingly illegally, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a Thursday press conference, “because it’s the law, that’s what the law states.”

Front page of The New York Times, July 19, 1941. US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Pressed again, Sanders said, “Again, the laws are the one, the laws that have been on the books for over a decade and the president is enforcing them.”

Sanders wasn’t the first Trump administration official to blame “the law” for immigration policy.

“We don’t deport anyone,” John Kelly declared, when he was still Homeland Security secretary. “American law deports people.”

Nor has Sanders been the last.

Kelly’s successor, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the president have all said at various times – and then taken it back – that they had no choice.

Jobs and security

The Trump administration has justified its anti-immigrant policy as a way to help unemployed Americans. So did the Hoover administration and then the Roosevelt administration.

Faced with the Great Depression, Hoover decided in 1930 to limit the number of immigrants allowed into the country, because – supposedly – they would take Americans’ jobs.

Hoover did it by changing the interpretation of a decades-old provisionthat enabled officials to deny visas to those who were “likely to become a public charge.” Under the new interpretation, almost every applicant was found likely to become a public charge with no guidance or consistency in what that meant.

Immigration dropped 90 percent in the first five months.

From 1933 to 1945, the Roosevelt administration continued to use this interpretation of the likely-to-become-a-public-charge clause and other provisions to keep immigration under what the law allowed, even after the economy picked up.

The Trump administration has claimed immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and to be national security risks, using unrepresentative anecdotes and amorphous fears to justify its policy.

So did the Roosevelt administration. One State Department lawyer maintained that officials should deny visas to those who had criminal tendencies, even if they have no criminal record.

Government officials during the Roosevelt administration also assumed a large proportion of immigrants, particularly Jewish ones, were communists determined to subvert democracy. They denied visas on that basis.

Officials also assumed German Jewish refugees would be spies for the Third Reich. That was based upon the flimsiest of evidence: a Cuban ambassador’s claim some Jewish refugees celebrated the fall of Paris to the Nazis and a former U.S. ambassador to France’s allegation that German Jewish refugees made up half the 200 spies the French Army arrested.

“I believe you should instruct our counter-espionage services of all sorts to keep an especially vigilant eye on the Jewish refugees from Germany,” William Bullitt, the ex-ambassador, wrote Roosevelt. “Sad, isn’t it?’”

Breckenridge Long, who worked to stop refugees from the Nazis from coming to the U.S.National Archives

Jewish refugees didn’t turn out to be spies. Of the 23,000 “enemy aliens” who arrived in 1940, for example, fewer than one-half of 1 percent were taken into custody for questioning. Only a fraction of those were indicted – for violating immigration regulations, not for espionage.

Denials of visas based on national security concerns and other reasons, however, meant that just 21,000 refugees entered the United States between Pearl Harbor and the war’s end, with quotas from Axis-controlled countries only 10 percent filled. Historian David Wyman estimates that the U.S. could have saved nearly 200,000 victims of the Nazis by allowing them to enter the country.

Who gets to be American

Based on my research, I have concluded that U.S. government officials’ fears about refugees from Nazism being public charges, criminals or security risks were primarily pretexts for their real concern. That concern was that allowing in too many refugees would fundamentally alter the nature of American society.

Many decision-makers, particularly in the State Department, hailed from the WASP elite and perceived ambitious Jews as threatening their exclusive domains. The fewer Jews in the United States, the greater the chance of preserving the country as it had been and as they wanted it to continue to be. These officials justified any position and tolerated any cruelty, including refusing to change immigration policies once it was known the Germans were exterminating all of Europe’s Jews.

Roosevelt administration officials turned out to be both right and wrong in their fears.

They were right that the European refugees who came before, during and after the war, though small in number, reshaped the world of higher education, the arts and the sciences and contributed to the rise of the postwar meritocracy. That postwar meritocracy broke down the class-based system that kept Jews and Italians and eventually blacks and Latinos out of elite institutions.

But they were wrong that these changes undermined American democracy or changed the country’s spirit.

The nation was better off letting in 200,000 refugees between 1933 and 1945. It would have been even better off filling the quotas and allowing in the additional 200,000 refugees. And it would have been better off still had the country admitted anyone in need and tried to save all those who were imperiled as the Holocaust unfolded.

Some might object, probably under their breath, that these refugees were different. They were “good” refugees.

But that is not how they were perceived at the time. And that is exactly the point and precisely the parallel.

When Policies And Procedures Do Not Reflect The Way Things Are Really Done

An organization’s cultural capital is a type of asset that impacts what an organization produces and how it operates. Cultural capital is analogous to physical capital, like equipment, buildings, and property, or to human capital, like the accumulated knowledge and skills of workers, or reputational capital, like franchise value or brand recognition. In an organization with a high level of cultural capital, misconduct risk is low, and its organizational structures, processes, formal incentives, and desired business outcomes are consistent with the firm’s stated values. Unspoken patterns of behavior reinforce this alignment and drive corporate outcomes.

By contrast, in an organization with low levels of cultural capital, formal policies and procedures do not reflect the way things are really done — that is, the stated values of the organization are not reflected in the behavior of senior leaders or the actions of the organization’s members. Misconduct then results from norms and pressures that drive individuals to make decisions that are not aligned with the values, business strategies, and risk appetite set by the board and senior leaders. Rules may be followed to the letter, but not in spirit. All of this increases misconduct risk and potentially damages the organization and the industry over time.

As with other forms of tangible and intangible capital, an organization must invest in cultural capital or it will deteriorate over time and adversely impact the organization’s productive capacity.