Modern Racism and Schematic Associations for Race and Crime Amongst College Students
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
GRANT, S. M. (2003). Modern Racism and Schematic Associations for Race and Crime Amongst College Students. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 6. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Modern Racism and Schematic Associations for Race and Crime Amongst College Students

Sponsored by: ELIZABETH HAMMER (
Relationships between cultural schemas and Modern Racism to biased racial attributions in crime scenarios were explored. Participants were given the Modern Racism scale (McConahay, 1986), and then randomly assigned to read one of three scenarios, (murder, embezzlement, or scholarship) with a race neutral picture, and later asked the subject’s race (which was not given). The hypotheses, that the more violent the crime scenario, would lead to more attributions of the subject in the picture as a Black person, and the assertion that participants with higher Modern Racism scale scores would be more likely to make this attribution, were not supported. Potential confounds include recent racial incidents on campus, excessive learning of the scenarios, and participants discerning the study’s true hypotheses.

The problem of racism in America can be traced back as far as colonization of the Americas by the British (Erskine, 2002). From slavery to the European world domination of the 18th and 19th century, the Western world view of European superiority has become ingrained in the very fabric of American culture. According to Ward (2002), a 1998 study done by Muharrar, a sample of 1200 children, ages 10-17, from the 4 most common ethnic groups, associated white characters with positive characteristics and negative characteristics with black characters, which further underscores the idea of an ingrained sense of “white is right”. This mentality is prevalent even within the Black community in the form of skin color discrimination (Color Complex).The separate nature of the Black minority and dominant group experience is obvious in nearly all aspects of American life. The illustrations of this can be found in popular culture, as well as in the political and judicial culture of America. A particularly poignant aspect of this divide is shown in the anecdotal as well as documented evidence in which Blacks are targeted as suspects of criminal activity particularly related to violent crime and drug use. For example, though only 13% of the population of drug users, Blacks account for nearly 35% of the arrests made and 55% of the convictions of these crimes (Flewelling, 1992) as cited by Nolan (1997). In study after study it is clear that minorities in general and Blacks in particular are targets of a phenomena known as “racial profiling”. This phenomena can be described as instances “when law enforcement officers stop and detain individuals who are perceived to have a greater likelihood of being involved in certain kinds of criminal activity” (Ward, 2002, p.726 ). This phenomenon can also be seen as an extension of the climate of “justified” racism present in America today according to Davis and Smith, (1996), as noted by Weitzer, (2002). The perceived greater likelihood of involvement in certain crimes is not merely limited to those arresting and prosecuting, it also relates to those convicting, namely, jurors. In fact the innate juror bias is particularly strong when presented with a Black Defendant/ White Victim scenario, according to Nickerson, Mayo, & Smith (1986), as cited by Landwehr (2002). This seems to illustrate an example of prevailing attitudes of covert prejudice towards Blacks as a group in daily life. The statistics concerning racial profiling and arrests so dramatically underscore the idea of a disproportionate representation of Blacks being unfairly and excessively targeted for criminal activity seem to point to some sort of Western/American mental construct or schema relationships between blacks and crime or criminality. These images can come from the media, whether through fiction such as films, to the supposed honest reporting of the evening news, it has been found that Blacks are represented in a more “threatening” and violent context than non-blacks (Chiricos, 2002). Chiricos (2002) also found that while are Blacks are not disproportionately represented as criminals as related to how many crimes they commit, they are 4 times as likely as whites to be represented as criminals as opposed to victims. This underlying attitude towards Blacks and crime in America is illustrative of a shift in expressions of racism in America. In this country’s past racism has been more open and direct; however in recent years there has been a shift in the theory concerning racism. The current theory on the expression of racism in the dominant culture is that of a more generally negative undercurrent of antagonism or ill will towards blacks. This theory has been named “modern racism” (McConahay, 1986). Modern racism can be best defined by the idea of a switch in racist attitudes from overt oppressive acts and feelings to more internalized feelings that Blacks are “pushing too hard, too fast and into places they are not wanted” (McConahay, 1986, 92-93), and that discrimination no longer exists, or more simply, the attitudes of many dominant culture participants against Blacks are both internalized and redefined. McConahay (1983) also found that amongst those with higher modern racism scale scores, when race is not salient, prejudice is shown in decision making. However, when race is salient, participants are more aware of seeming prejudiced and therefore make an effort to rate Blacks more positively. This study points to the possibility that when race is not salient participants will use their pre-existing schemas for race to aid in decision-making and attributions. The strong social desirability factor comes into play when addressing racism; the majority of White Americans understand the societal expectations to be tolerant and racism is known to be unacceptable in popular culture (McConahay, 1986). These same expectations lead to suppression or rejection of blatantly racist ideals, yet the more internalized ideals of European or White superiority, which are expressed in more subtle ways, are not lost. A study done by Wittenbrink, Judd and Park (2001) replicated the findings of Fazio et al. (1995) and found that Blacks disproportionately triggered responses to negative target items, however Wittenbrink, Judd, and Park (2001) also found that the amount of responses to negative target items was greatly increased when the Black face was put into a negatively stereotypic context (a graffiti laden street corner) suggesting that negative stereotypes for minorities trigger negative schemas. This unconscious or subconscious schema of negativity associated with Blacks is the crux of the experiment we proposed to embark upon. Our experiment is deemed important for several reasons: first, there is little data on the very controversial topic of racial profiling, which obviously warrants further study; also, it has been shown that though overt racism has dropped in the last few decades, the instances of covert or modern racism, can actually be seen to have increased slightly, at least according to a study conducted by Smith (1997), at the University of Utah. The current study will seek to compare the scores of participants on McConahay’s “Modern Racism Scale” (1986), with their racial attribution of the subject of a scenario, given a racially ambiguous scenario, and a racially ambiguous picture. After being given the Modern Racism Scale, the participants will be assigned to one of three scenarios and asked to read them, after which they will be given a distracter task (puzzle), and will then be asked questions the passage they read. Though it is not explicitly stated in the text, participants will be asked to denote the race of the person in the scenario. The scenarios are identical with the exception of the last two to three lines of text which differentiate according to the following characteristics: a violent crime story (i.e. murder), a lesser crime story (theft), and a success (scholarship). It is therefore hypothesized that participants will be more likely to attribute the violent crime of murder to a black suspect; also it is hypothesized that an increased score on the Modern Racism Scale will predict a higher probability of the participant giving the race of the subject of the scenario as Black.

Participants The participants to be included in this study include male and female college students of the age range 18 and older. Convience sampling was used. Though all volunteers will be accepted and given the study, particular attention will be given to the responses of white and black participants. The expected number of participants is proposed at 100, with a hope of a nearly 50-50 split between black and white participants.MaterialsThe materials to be used include: The McConahay (1986) Modern Racism Scale, which tests for more subtle forms of racism prevalent in America today, imbedded in several other questionnaires on controversial topics for a total of 85 questions. The McConahay Scale asks questions on the topic of modern racism in a Likert style format with possible answers including: Strongly Disagree, Somewhat Disagree, Neither Disagree nor Agree, Somewhat Agree, Strongly Agree, and corresponding scores ranging from –2 to 2. In addition to this survey, three instruments were created for this study, including a base scenario with three separate endings of murder accusation, theft accusation, and a success story, as well as a demographic questionnaire for the student, and questions concerning the scenarios to test for racial attribution in relation to crime scenarios. In addition a simple crossword puzzle will be used as a distracter task. In addition there will be a racially ambiguous picture given with the scenario.ProcedureThe study will begin with the participant being welcomed into the room by one of the researchers, and given an informed consent form. The participant will then be verbally informed of the risks associated with the study, and if the form is signed the study will proceed. The participant will first be given the McConahay Modern Racism Scale and as many pens or pencils as they need to complete the study. The participant will be given as long as needed to complete the survey, but it is not expected to take more than 15-20 minutes. Next the participant will be randomly assigned to one of the three scenario conditions at random based on the order they signed up for the study. The participants will be given the scenario to read for 10 minutes, as well as a racially ambiguous composite picture and then asked to give back the scenario and picture and participate in a crossword puzzle activity, which is actually a distracter task, for 15 minutes. The participant will then be told to answer a set of questions about the scenario, and once they have completed this, they will be given a demographic questionnaire to fill out. At the end of the study the subjects will be debriefed with the true purpose of the study as deception was used, out of necessity to the study. The participants will be made aware that the study was actually a study on the relationship between modern racism and the mental schematic association of crime with Blacks.

The participants were fairly evenly distributed between White and Black participants (white=26, black=23) and also evenly distributed between the less represented ethnic classifications (Asian=5, Hispanic=5), with n = 59. Of the 59 participants, the vast majority report to have grown up in suburban areas (39), with the second most commonly reported environment being urban (14), and the least number of people reported growing up in a rural area (6). All except one were college students at Loyola University New Orleans. The frequencies of the scenarios randomly assigned were as follows, 20 murder, 20 embezzlement, and 19 success for a total of 59. The most frequent attributions for the race of the subject of the story were “Caucasian” and “Hispanic” with frequencies of 19 and 27 respectively. Though given a total of ____ choices, only two other answers were given to this question, “African American” with 5 responses and “Other” with 8. The stated hypothesis that most participants would attribute race of the subject of the more violent crime story to black was tested using a chi-square test. The racial attributions for the subject of the story did not differ across conditions ×2 = 1.57, n.s. The first hypothesis, that there was a difference in the attributions of race based on the type of scenario (violent crime, non-violent crime, or success) was not supported. The attributions of race were more equally distributed between White and Hispanic more than anything else and these distributions were similar across scenario conditions. To help understand if there was any sort of correlation with the negative scenario assignment and minority (non-white) racial attributions in general, a new variable was created; a white/non-white variable in which all racial story attributions were split into two groups. Attributions of “Hispanic” and “Black” were placed into the “non-white” category and given a value of 1, and the attribution of “Caucasian” were placed into the “white” category and given a value of 0. Those attributions of “Other” (largely attributed to confounding variables) were categorized as “missing data”. The scenarios were limited to the negative scenarios only (murder and embezzlement) for comparison purposes. Using these variable restrictions, negative scenario assignment and minority racial attributions were compared using Pearson’s R Correlation with an r = .022 n.s. The second hypothesis that the higher the composite scores on the Modern Racism scale, the more likely the biased racial attribution would occur was also not supported due to the to lack of support for the first hypothesis. If there was no difference in the racial attributions due to scenario assignment, there can not be any difference related to Modern Racism Scale scores. In addition, using the same variable restrictions as before (the white/ non-white restriction for racial attribution and the only the negative stories), the Modern Racism scores were also not significantly related to minority attribution for the protagonist when limited to the negative stories (using murder and embezzlement stories) using Pearson’s R Correlation with an r = -.052 n.s. In addition, the Modern Racism Scale scores of those from different environments (urban, rural, and suburban) were compared using an ANOVA with an F (2,56) = 1.674 n.s. Finally, the participant’s Ethnic Classification was compared to their attribution of the subject of the story using a chi-square test with a ×2 = 4.163 n.s

The results of the experiment were completely inconclusive as shown through all the exploratory tests and comparisons made with results which were not significant. This suggests one of two things: either there is really no relationship between crime and racial attributions of suspect, in the absence of other information, as well as no relationship between composite score on the Modern Racism Scale and racial attribution of the subject of the story, or there were confounding variables which led to the failure to reject the null hypotheses in this experiment. The possibilities which I will now explore are the potential confounding variables and the changes which can be made to similar future experiments. There is a distinct possibility that the participants had too much time to learn and study the scenario. A great many participants actually reported during debriefing that they recalled distinctly that the race of the subject was never mentioned in the story. This could have completely confounded their attributions. There were also expressions during debriefing by participants that the picture included with the story was not racially ambiguous enough, they felt it was clearly Caucasian or Hispanic. This is quite likely as the picture was not pre-tested for ambiguity; any future studies should absolutely pre-test their pictures. These are examples of possible problems inherent in the study materials which could have been problematic. Additionally, though deception was used in explanations of the study before beginning, several participants claimed to have figured out what the nature of the study was, this was especially detrimental to the results due to the fact that there were only approximately 59 participants studied. This could lead to any sort of “figuring out” phenomenon to be more prominent in the analysis of the data. The small data set was a limitation of the study which most likely did affect the study, however not very much as the data was rather evenly distributed regardless of the particular variables being examined. Another possible limitation dealing with this study was the concurrent state of racial harmony on the Loyola University campus in relation to the study. The two weeks leading up to data collection by the researchers, there were no less than 4 racial incidents on campus as well as several very public responses against racism on campus, including an anti-racism rally in the quad the week before the study was conducted. This could explain the extremely low score on the Modern Racism Scale, nearly everyone who participated in this study most likely had primed schemas. The reason that the possible limitations are being entertained in such detail is that there is so much data in support of both racist attributions in American society related to crimes (e.g. Landwehr, et al., 2002), as well as the validity and non-reactivity of the Modern Racism Scale (McConahay, 1986). The current theory was developed from several relevant studies focused on the presence of racism in the American legal system (Weitzer & Tuch, 2002; Ward, 2002; Landwehr, et al., 2002) as well as American society in general (Erksine, 2002). The general tenor of the research regarding racism in America seems to give credence to the presence of Modern Racism and the idea that any racism perpetrated on the legal level is a direct result of negative cultural schemas about Blacks (McConahay, 1983, 1986). Should this study have supported the aforementioned hypotheses, the study could have been a very clear and direct example to illustrate to law enforcement that racial inequities such as racial profiling really do exist, particularly in the absence of other information. This study failed to find anything of significance or even anything of note however, this should not be seen as evidence against the theory presented, but merely as flaws in design or uncontrolled confounding variables. If the problems were related to flaws in the study, future studies could alleviate these problems by changing the design slightly. The theory which this study is based on is largely dependant on being able to get the participant’s first reactions to the given stimulus. By allowing the participants nearly triple the time they would need to adequately read the scenario, the participants were given time to process and study the scenarios which probably allowed them to bypass the snap judgment or truest reaction to come through. In addition, very careful consideration and attention should be paid to the circumstances surrounding the study. The fact that both the experimenters in this study were black women could have very strong primed the schemas of participants. In a future replication of this study, the people giving the study should either be all white, or should be varied as another variable to see the possible effects of the race of the experimenter on reactivity of participants. This seems to point to some combination of confounding problems with the measures, the method, or the general limitations of priming due to the unlucky timing of the experiment.

Chiricos, T. & Eschholz, S. (2002). The racial and ethnic typification of crime and the criminal typification of race and ethnicity in local television news. Journal ofResearch in Crime and Delinquency, 39, 400-420.Erskine, R. (2002). Exposing Racism, exploring race. Journal of Family Therapy, 24, 282-297.Ferguson, D. P., Rhodes, G., Lee, K. Sriram, N. (2001). British Journal of Psychology,92, 567-577. Landwehr, P.H., Bothwell, R. K., Jeanmard, M., Luque, L. R., Brown, R. L., III &Breaux, M. (2002). Racism in Rape Trials. The Journal of Social Psychology, 142, 667-669.McConahay, J. B. (1983). Modern Racism and Modern Discrimination: The Effects ofRace, Racial Attitudes, and Context on Simulated Hiring Decisions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 9, 551-558. McConahay, J. B. (1986). Modern racism, ambivelance, and the modern racism scale. InJ. F. Dovidio & S. L. Gaertner (Eds.), Prejudice, discrimination and racism (pp.91- 126). New York: Acedemic. Nolan, T. J. (1997). Racism in the Criminal Justice System: Problems and SuggestionsHarvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, 20, 417-421. Retrieved September 30,2003, from PsycINFO database. Smith, T. B. & Roberts, R. N. (1997). Expressions of prejudice among college studentsover three assessments. College Student Journal, 31, 235-237. RetrievedSeptember 30, 2003 from Academic Search Premier database. Ward, J. D. (2002). Race, Ethnicity, and Law Enforcement Profiling: Implications forPublic Policy. Public Administration Review, 62, 726-735.Weitzer, R. & Tuch, S. A., (2002). Perceptions of Racial Profiling: Race, Class, andPersonal Experience. Criminology, 40, 435-456.Wittenbrink, B., Judd, C. M, & Park, B. (2001). Spontaneous Prejudice in Context:Variability in Automatically Activated Attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 815-827.

Submitted 12/8/2003 8:56:13 PM
Last Edited 12/8/2003 9:09:19 PM
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