Smart People Are As Racist As Less-Smart People–But Smart Enough To Hide It

We’re all racist, it’s just a question of how well we’ve figured out how to justify it to ourselves.

Smart People Are As Racist As Less-Smart People–But Smart Enough To Hide It
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If you’re white and live in America, the smarter you are, the less likely you are to say you agree with racist stereotypes or principles. But you’re not more likely than your dumber counterparts to actually want to do anything about racial inequality.


That’s the finding of a new study that looked at nearly three decades of answers to the General Social Survey, a survey that asks about attitudes on everything from government spending, to the existence of God, to race. By giving a short vocabulary test–something that’s a pretty good predictor of how well someone will do on a longer IQ test–the data shows roughly how smart someone is. From there, it’s possible to see how intelligence changes what someone thinks about race.

People who score lower on the vocab test are much more likely to hold racist stereotypes and say black people are “lazy” or “unintelligent.” They’re also more likely to disapprove of intermarriage, and not to want a black family living next door.

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Smarter respondents disagreed, but held similarly racist views when it came to actual government policy. Almost everyone with higher verbal scores agreed that “whites have no right to segregate their neighborhoods,” for example. But half of those say they wouldn’t vote for a law designed to prevent prejudice in real estate transactions.

And while 95% of the “smarter” group say that black and white children should attend the same schools, only 22% support school busing programs. The lowest-scoring people actually support busing programs a little more (27%).

“I was most surprised by the finding that individuals with higher cognitive abilities were no more likely–on average–than individuals with lower cognitive abilities to support even the most benign opportunity-enhancing policies designed to remedy racial inequality, such as non-discrimination laws in the housing market, despite reporting significantly lower levels of overt prejudice,” says study author Geoffrey Wodtke, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.

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Among researchers, there are two competing theories about intelligence and racism. Some believe that prejudice is born out of ignorance and narrow-mindedness; the smarter you are, the theory goes, the better you can handle complex information without resorting to simple stereotypes. Several studies seem to support this idea.


The alternative theory: Smarter people are just better at rationalizing their prejudices. If another group is competing for resources–for example, if poor children are bussed in to your own kid’s elementary school–you might come up with reasons to tell yourself that’s not a good idea while still claiming that you’re not racist.

The new study seems to support this second theory; people with school-age kids are most likely to oppose busing, and unemployed adults are more likely to oppose affirmative action in hiring. And older generations are more likely to have racist attitudes even if they’re “smart”; if intelligence really was the only factor, they would have been more likely to be less prejudiced than their peers.

As Wodtke writes in the study, “A strong interpretation of these results is that whites with higher cognitive ability are simply more sophisticated racists than their counterparts with lower ability.”

Is there a solution? Wodtke says that it’s hard to say what might work, though some previous research suggests that cooperation between groups pursuing a common goal (as opposed to competition) seems to foster more support for equality.

“In light of these findings, policies or interventions that minimize competition and conflict and that encourage cooperation would be a logical place to start, in an effort to overcome these less overt and more subtle forms of prejudice and inegalitarian attitudes, but it’s difficult to say at this point whether or not they would be very effective,” he says. “I have my personal doubts.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.