Racial Color-Blindness and Context-Blindness (Quantitative Research Prospectus)
Following is a research proposal submitted as a course requirement for EDPY 505, Conducting Quantitative Educational Research, Fall 2010.
With the election of President Barack Obama, the phrase “post-racial” became a widely-used and often-debated adjective within the American mass media landscape. Among segments on both sides of the political divide, sentiments such as “race doesn’t matter” and “race shouldn’t matter” seemed to conflate. Research such as the most recent update of the seminal Bogardus social distance scale supports the assertion that there has indeed been a narrowing of self-reported expressions of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination over the past 70 years (Parrillo and Donoghue, 2005).
Within weeks of President Obama’s inauguration, however, protesters gathered in Washington, D.C., to counter the new president’s perceived “socialist” agenda. A small but visible slice of the protesting crowd proudly displayed signs depicting or associating President Obama with Hitler, Lenin, Mao, Muslims, Arabs, and terrorists. Exploiting the “post-racial” eradication of racial boundaries, some of these protesters felt free to display signs featuring symbols historically associated with slavery and denigration of blacks, including apes and monkeys, chains, nooses, and claims of “white slavery.” Language and images that even a decade earlier would have been roundly condemned as overtly racist were expressed openly on signs, billboards, and bumper stickers.
This interpretation and exploitation of “post-racial” attitudes is referred to in critical race theory as color-blindness, which has been theoretically described as attitudes or beliefs that “ideological and structural racism does not exist” (Neville, Lilly, Duran, Lee, & Browne, 2000). Operationally, color-blindness is manifested by “the denial, distortion, and/or minimization of race and racism” (Neville, Spanierman, & Doan, 2006). A psychometric instrument, The Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale (CoBRAS), was developed to measure how strongly an individual maintains color-blind attitudes (Neville et al., 2000). Respondents indicate their beliefs about assertions concerning race on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree). Since its initial development and validation in 2000, CoBRAS has been subsequently used and further validated by studies in which color-blind attitudes have been correlated with insensitivities toward Native-themed sports mascots (Steinfeldt & Wong, 2010), counseling competencies among white graduate students (Neville, Spanierman, & Doan, 2006), and attitudes toward affirmative action policies (Oh, Choi, Neville, Andreson, & Landrum-Brown, 2010).
Neville et al. (2000) take care to differentiate color-blindness from racism, which they define as “the belief in racial superiority and also the structures of society, which create racial inequalities in social and political institutions.” Color-blind attitudes, as measured by CoBRAS, do not equate to racist attitudes, but rather tend to mask or deny realities that arise from racial inequities and injustices. What is perceived as racism or racist acts in actual life situations is a function of the context and behaviors of the actors, objects, and observers. Like beauty, racism would seem to reside in the eye of the beholder. According to color-blind theory, those manifesting color-blind attitudes are more likely to not “behold” racism or attribute it as a factor in perceived judicial, economic, social, or political inequities. Therefore, even benign color-blindness can tacitly allow racism and racist attitudes to perpetuate.
Studies point to a variety of psychological constructs that may account for different factors that influence color-blindness, without specifically using the term. O’Brien, Crandall, Horstman-Reser, Warner, Alsbrooks, and Brooks (2010) found one possible explanation in the notion of Downward Social Comparison (DSC). They concluded that individuals within their specific sociological and cultural peer groups feel pressure to “maintain unprejudiced self-images” even though the group itself may exhibit prejudiced behaviors (O’Brien, et al., 2010). Such individuals exhibit DSC when they compare themselves only to the worst or most explicit of the objectionable behaviors. Not wanting to be perceived as “part of the prejudice problem,” they exclude their own attitudes and behaviors as racist by downwardly comparing themselves to more openly intolerant peers (O’Brien et al., 2010). Sommers and Norton (2006) determined that individuals who manifest color-blind attitudes may fail to accept their own prejudices because they “pick and choose aspects of these theories to fit their own psychological needs.” In other words, those exhibiting high levels of color-blindness tend to define racist acts or racism in terms which are self-excluding. Their study further implies that individuals who are the most likely to hold or act on racist beliefs are also the least likely to define such acts or beliefs as racist (Sommers & Norton, 2006). Federico and Sidanius (2002) debunk the oft-cited theory that the culprit behind such inability to see color and race as a consequential reality is a lack of education and knowledge. Their findings reveal the contrary — among individuals who exhibit “racist and anti-egalitarian motives,” those with the most pronounced and entrenched attitudes are those with the highest levels of education and political knowledge (Federico & Sidanius, 2002).
A different potential consequence of color-blindness was suggested in the August 2010 media firestorm resulting from radio commentator Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s usage of the word nigger in response to a self-identified black female caller. Most of the media commentary and criticism focused on Schlessinger’s seemingly-gratuitous usage of the “n-word,” which she uttered 11 times during her on-air exchange with the caller. Left ignored for the most part, however, was her comment, captured by program transcripts, that “if you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.” In the context of the exchange with the caller, this statement seems more problematic as an example of color-blindness in that it purports the existence of a racial hierarchy. However, most media reports headlined and featured Schlessinger’s use of the “n-word,” while few provided the fuller context of the exchange including the “don’t marry out of your race” statement.
In light of this and other highly-publicized episodes involving accusations of racism, the proposed study seeks to explore potential associations between color-blindness and the inability, or unwillingness, to thoughtfully evaluate the full context of potentially offensive racial situations. In other words, in this 21st-century “post-racial” environment, have the terms racist and racism come to be so narrowly defined to those with color-blind attitudes that the utterance, or avoidance, of the “n-word” epithet is the sole predicate that constitutes whether or not a statement or a situation is judged to reflect racist attitudes and behaviors?
The proposed study hypothesizes that individuals who exhibit higher degrees of color-blindness are more likely to over-consider the usage of racial epithets, and under-consider context, when evaluating racially-sensitive situations than are individuals who exhibit lower levels of color-blindness. In this directional correlational study, the independent (predictor) variable is the degree of racial color-blindness as measured on an internal scale by the CoBRAS instrument. The dependent (criterion) variable is the response to potentially-offensive racial situations as measured on an interval scale by an instrument created for this study, the Study Instrument (SI). It is predicted that individuals with higher CoBRAS scores will be, compared to individuals with lower CoBRAS scores: 1) more likely to label behaviors and attitudes as racist when racial epithets are used, even when the usage of the epithet is not germane to the context of the situation; and 2) less likely to label behaviors and attitudes as racist when racial epithets are not used, even when the context of the situation involves generally-accepted racist attitudes and behaviors.
Two populations are targeted in the proposed study. The first is the 18-23 year-old young adult demographic that has come to adulthood during the so-called “post-racial” period. The second targeted population is the older half of the “Baby Boomer” generation, individuals born prior to 1954, whose formative years encompassed the height of the civil rights movement.
The two respective accessible populations are undergraduate students on the main campus of the University of New Mexico (UNM) representing 18-23 year olds, and faculty and staff at UNM who are 56 years of age or older representing older Baby Boomers.
Two groups will be recruited to represent the undergraduate students (Group A), and faculty and staff over 56 (Group B). The Group A samples will consist of four intact university classes whose professors have agreed to participate in the study. Undergraduate classes in the language arts and social studies departments will be solicited for the study with the objective of matching the following criteria: a) a minimum of 20 enrolled students; b) gender imbalance of no more than 60/40; c) the instructor agrees to administer the two instruments in accordance with a prescribed procedure; and d) the instructor is confident that the two instruments can be integrated into the class presentation such that students will not feel that being asked to complete the instruments is beyond the scope of the course.
The Group B sample will be recruited from the faculty and staff at UNM. Potential respondents will be solicited through written and word-of-mouth communications. The Group B sample will be selected from respondents based on their age and gender in order to achieve the same gender imbalance of no more than 60/40. Up to 60 respondents will be selected to participate, depending on response rate within the prescribed schedule window, with a minimum of 30 required for this component of the study.
This sampling plan does not reflect random selection or assignment. It has been selected to purposefully draw from the students and adults accessible on campus. This approach is generally consistent with sampling schemes employed in the studies referenced herein, including the initial CoBRAS validation study (Neville et al., 2000), as well as Steinfeldt and Wong (2010), O’Brien et al. (2010), and Sommers and Norton (2006). As human subjects are involved, the study proposal must be approved by the UNM Institutional Review Board (IRB).
The CoBRAS assessment instrument provides a reliable measurement for the construct of racial color-blindness (Neville et al., 2000). The 20-item instrument employs a 6-point Likert scale for expressing the participant’s agreement or disagreement with statement such as: White people in the U.S. have certain advantages because of the color of their skin; Everyone who works hard, no matter what race they are, has an equal chance to become rich; and Race plays an important role in who gets sent to prison. The instrument was initially tested in a series of 5 studies involving 760 university students. Results from each study were used to calculate Cronbach’s alpha coefficient to determine reliability figures, which ranged from .84 to .91 (Neville et al., 2000). Further reliability data were collected through a two-week test-retest design in one of the 5 studies, which resulted in a total CoBRAS reliability statistic of .68. Subsequent studies that used CoBRAS reported alpha coefficients of .85 (Neville et al., 2006; Steinfeldt & Wong, 2010). Measurement validity was demonstrated through extensive consultation and consensus with racial studies experts, reading teachers, and students in the construction and pilot testing of the instrument prior to its use in the studies. One of the initial 5 studies was designed to examine internal validity of the instrument by correlating its results with those from instruments that measure factors associated with color-blindness. These included the Global Belief in a Just World Scale, the Multidimensional Belief in a Just World Scale, and the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale, with intercorrelation scores for the CoBRAS factors ranging from .42 to .54 (Neville et al., 2000).
The Study Instrument (SI) will be developed specifically for this study. This instrument will consist of 8 hypothetical scenarios of 3-5 sentences each. Each scenario will describe an encounter in which one character makes an assertion or exhibits behavior that could be interpreted as racially offensive. Four of the scenarios will include the use of a commonly-recognized racial epithet (“With Epithet” set), while the other four will not (“Without Epithet” set). (See Table 1 below.) Within each set, two scenarios will be constructed to indicate actions or assertions which are deemed by subject matter experts to be more offensive, while two scenarios will be constructed to indicate actions or assertions that are deemed less offensive. The respondent will be asked to read each scenario, then answer 4 questions that reflect the respondent’s attitudes and judgments about the degree of offensiveness exhibited in the scenario. Questions will be constructed using a Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). In order to demonstrate internal content validity, each scenario will be critiqued by a panel of faculty members whose academic interests include the historical effects of racism, critical race theory, sociology, and language arts/linguistics. These subject matter experts will assess and offer guidance regarding both the readability of each scenario (is it understandable as intended?), as well as the degree of offensiveness each scenario indicates (would most people find it racially objectionable, or not?). The SI will be written to a 6th-7th grade reading level, consistent with CoBRAS (Neville et al., 2000), and must not introduce any confounding factors that may influence participant responses, such as character likeability, religion, politics, etc. The SI will be pilot tested with a minimum of 20 selected students and faculty members. As an instrument created specifically for the proposed study, an assessment of reliability will be calculated using the Cronbach alpha coefficient formula as part of the pilot testing and for each sample obtained (4 student samples, 1 adult sample). The expert feedback and pilot testing results will be completed prior to study submission to the IRB for approval.
Table 1 illustrates the design of the Study Instrument scenarios. The scenarios of interest for analyzing the predicted correlations are scenarios 4 and 7 (for which higher CoBRAS scorers are predicted to judge more offensive than lower CoBRAS scorers) and scenarios 2 and 5 (for which higher CoBRAS scorers are predicted to judge less offensive than lower CoBRAS scorers). For Scenarios 1, 3, 6, and 8, the no significant differences on the SI results are expected. Each participant will complete the same CoBRAS and SI instruments.
For Group A, the instructors of the classes selected for the study will administer the two instruments to their respective classes during the same class period. Each student will be given a packet that contains a consent form to be signed, a copy of the CoBRAS, and a copy of the SI. The CoBRAS and the SI will include pre-printed control numbers in order to correlate responses. The SI will ask, but not require, the respondent to provide information regarding age, gender, and race/ethnicity. Two of the 4 classes will be instructed to complete the CoBRAS instrument first, followed by the SI; the other 2 classes will be instructed to reverse the order. The purpose of the ordering is to preclude priming effects and recognize them if suspected.
Predicted Responses on the Study Instrument (Sensitivity to Racial Offense)
Group B participants will receive packets at their work place that include the same consent and assessment forms provided to Group A. In addition, Group B respondents will be provided with an instruction sheet and a postage-paid addressed envelope in which to return completed materials. Someone other than the researcher will prepare the Group B packets to ensure anonymity and disassociation of control numbers to individuals. To mitigate potential priming effects, half the packets will have the CoBRAS on top of the Study Instrument, while the other half will reverse the order. The instructions will request that the two instruments be completed during the same sitting and returned by mail by a specified date.
Scores will be analyzed in the aggregate as well as for each sample (5 total). Scatterplots will be generated to plot score pairs (x axis = CoBRAS score, y axis = SI score) and visually assess the predicted results (positive correlation for Scenarios 4 and 7, negative correlation for 2 and 5, no correlation for 1, 3, 6, and 8). Scores between Groups will be evaluated for potential age differences, but the study makes no prediction of difference due to age. Correlation coefficients using Pearson’s r techniques will be calculated to assess the statistical significance of the correlations. Cronbach’s alpha coefficient will assess reliability. CoBRAS means and variances will be compared to previous published studies as a check on validity. Results will be scrutinized to detect influences that may affect scores on the SI scale, other than color-blindness.
Strengths and Limitations
The study relies on convenience samples, which introduces external validity risks in that participants may not adequately represent the target populations and may reflect a bias in terms of who chooses to participate in the survey. The use of intact university classes may risk ecological validity in that the students may answer differently than they would in a more natural, less structured, environment. Internal validity risks include the possibility of data collector influence or bias if the instructors do not appropriately administer the instruments as prescribed. Subject testing risks include the possibility of priming effects, or if participants anticipate the responses they believe are “correct” and do not answer carefully and sincerely. Instrument decay is a threat depending on when the participants choose to take the assessments, if they are rushed, tired, or distracted. As the Study Instrument is a new assessment tool, its reliability and validity must be considered suspect until demonstrated by results.
However, the study design attempts to mitigate validity threats. Having participants complete both instruments in one sitting reduces mortality, maturity risks, and the threat of history or intervening events influencing results. The possibility of priming effects is recognized and accounted for in the protocol. Care has been taken to avoid contact between the researcher and participants. Although not directly pertinent to the study’s hypotheses, the data collected from different age groups may yield informative results that may guide future research in replicating the study and further exploring the causes, as well as effects, of color-blindness.
Federico, C. M. & Sidanius, J. (2002). Sophistication and the antecedents of Whites’ racial policy attitudes: Racism, ideology, and affirmative action in America. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 66, 145-176.
Neville, H. A., Lilly, R. L., Duran, G., Lee, R. M., & Browne, L. (2000). Construction and initial validation of the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale (CoBRAS). Journal of Counseling Psychology, 47, 59-70.
Neville, H. A., Spanierman, L., & Doan, B.-T. (2006). Exploring the association between color-blind racial ideology and multicultural counseling compentencies. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12, 275-290.
O’Brien, L. T., Crandall, C. S., Horstman-Reser, A., Warner, R., Alsbrooks, A. & Brooks, A. (2010). But I’m no bigot: How prejudiced white Americans maintain unprejudiced self-images. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40, 917-946.
Oh, E., Choi, C.-C., Neville, H. A., Anderson, C. J., & Landrum-Brown, J. (2010). Beliefs about affirmative action: A test of the group self-interest and racism belief models. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 3, 163-176.
Parrillo, V. N. & Donoghue, C. (2005). Updating the Bogardus social distance studies: A new national survey. The Social Science Journal, 42, 257-271.
Sommers, S. R. & Norton, M. I. (2006). Lay theories about white racists: What constitutes racism (and what doesn’t). Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 9, 117-138.
Steinfeldt, J. A., & Wong, Y. J. (2010). Multicultural training on American Indian issues: Testing the effectiveness of an intervention to change attitudes toward Native-themed mascots. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 16(2), 110-115.