When it comes to repudiation of racism, words speak louder than actions, according to a York University study that suggests people are far more tolerant of bigotry than they might express.

While people would clearly condemn racism in advance, the majority of non-black people would sit mute and indifferent as blatant acts of anti-black racism occurred before them, according to the Toronto research, published Friday in the journal Science.

“People expect in a very deliberate fashion that they’ll be offended by racism, that they’ll censor or avoid racists,” says York psychologist Kerry Kawakami, the lead author of the study.
“But our (research) showed that that’s not the case when they’re actually placed in that situation.”

Indeed, while paying strident lip service to their anti-racist attitudes, most of the study’s non-black subjects did not try to rebuke or even avoid a mock bigot who had been planted in their midst.

The York paper, which also involved University of British Columbia and Yale University researchers, involved some 120 non-black students.

For the study, researchers placed three students in a classroom, one white and one black and one white or Asian. And while two of the students, the black and one white, were in on the scheme, the third believed they were all there waiting for a study to begin.

“Then the black person stands up and says, ‘I forgot my cellphone’ and he walks out of the room. And as he walks out, he gently hits the other white person on the knee,” Kawakami explains. When the black person left the room, the white person turned to the other person and said something racist — “in some cases extremely racist,” Kawakami said.

Despite using offensive terms, the planted bigot faced little or no reprisal from the majority of white subjects.

Emotional responses

In an accompanying article, a pair of U.S. researchers says the York work may simply point to a quirk of being a participant in an experiment. Psychologists Eliot Smith, of Indiana University, and Diane Mackie, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, say experimental subjects are usually in an unfamiliar mindset, and that a strange perspective may ­alter their emotional responses.

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