Are smart people less racist than their less-intelligent peers?
That was the question asked in a new study that examined the relationship between verbal intelligence and attitudes on race and racial policies.
The findings may surprise some: While people who score higher on intelligence tests are less likely to hold racist stereotypes (such as imagining that people of another race are lazy or unintelligent), they're no more likely to support government policies that aim to reduce racial inequality. For example, while 95 percent of study participants who scored higher on the intelligence test said that black and white children should attend the same schools, only 22 percent support school-busing programs.
By highlighting the disconnect between Americans' attitudes on race and their support for policies that remediate inequality, the study, published in the Oxford University Press, may reveal how deeply entrenched certain forms of racism actually are in society.
For Lori Brown, professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., the findings aren't surprising because race is a complex issue that involves more than intellect.
"Prejudice involves what we believe to be true, affective feelings [like] likes and dislikes," and instinctive needs, whereby "some people 'need' to be prejudiced [because] they feel so bad about themselves it makes them feel better to hate others," Prof. Brown explains. "So, better educated or 'smart' people may know facts but may still not like people who are different."
For the study, Geoffrey Wodtke, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, examined three decades of data from the General Social Survey, which has periodically measured Americans' attitudes on a wide range of topics since 1972. The survey includes a short vocabulary test, considered to be a good indicator of verbal intelligence. Prof. Wodtke isolated the results of some 45,000 Caucasians and compared their verbal intelligence with their attitudes on race.
He found that the group that scored higher on the test were less likely to hold racist beliefs than their lower-performing counterparts. For example, among those who did well on the verbal test, 29 percent said blacks were lazy and 13 percent said they were unintelligent. By contrast, among those who performed poorly on the intelligence test, 46 percent described blacks as lazy and 23 described them as unintelligent.
Lower scoring test-takers were also more likely to disapprove of intermarriage, and not want a black family living next door.
Overall, those who scored better on the test had more favorable opinions of blacks and were less likely to blame them for their disadvantages than did their lower-performing respondents.
But when it came to government policy – affirmative action, or busing, for example – smarter respondents were no different than their less-intelligent peers.
For example, the vast majority of higher-scorers agreed that "whites have no right to segregate their neighborhoods," but half still said they wouldn't vote for a law designed to prevent prejudice in real estate transactions.
And while the overwhelming majority of the smarter group supported integrated schools (95 percent), only a fraction supported school-busing programs (22 percent).
The conclusion that Wodtke draws is that both the high and low scorers on the tests may have racist attitudes, but the high scorers "are simply more sophisticated racists."
Why are whites judged to be more intelligent than their peers – who research has shown, are more likely to support liberal politics and policies – no more likely to support policies designed to improve racial equality?
The findings reveal how entrenched some forms of racism and white privilege are in society, says Wodtke.
"More intelligent members of the dominant group are just better at legitimizing and protecting their privileged position than less intelligent members. In modern America, where blacks are mobilized to challenge racial inequality, this means that intelligent whites say – and may in fact truly believe – all the right things about racial equality in principle, but they just don’t actually do anything that would eliminate the privileges to which they have become accustomed," he said in a statement.
"In many cases, they have become so accustomed to these privileges that they become 'invisible,' and any effort to point these privileges out or to eliminate them strikes intelligent whites as a grave injustice."
As deeply entrenched as these attitudes are, there is a way forward, says Brown.
"The best way to reduce prejudice is what we call intergroup contact," she says. "Spending time in a noncompetitive situation with others who are different from you. The best way to reduce prejudice is to make people like this dependent on each other to accomplish a goal. Boot camp in the military is a good example of this – the military does a great job of reducing prejudice."
"Smart people often have the resources to avoid being around others different from them in terms of where they live, go to school and work," she adds. "Having integrated schools ... integrated neighborhoods [where] you are dependent on your neighbors to maintain their property, and having diverse work places can reduce prejudice."
She points out, as the study demonstrates, "being smart doesn't mean you can't be racist if you are never around others who are different."