By James Devitt
Conservatives are more likely than liberals to identify mixed-race individuals as black, according to a series of new studies by NYU psychology researchers. Their findings, which appeared in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggest that there is a link between political ideology and racial categorization.
“A person’s race is often thought to be clear-cut and fixed,” explains Amy Krosch, a doctoral student in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the lead author of the paper. “However, our research suggests that the perception of a person as black or white is related to one’s political views and beliefs about equality.”
The paper’s other authors were Leslie Berntsen, an NYU undergraduate at the time of the study and now a graduate student at the University of Southern California; and the NYU Department of Psychology’s associate professor David Amodio, professor John Jost, and assistant professor Jay Van Bavel.
Their findings also showed a link between nationality and racial classification. The study’s U.S. subjects were more likely to identify as black mixed-race individuals labeled as Americans than they were mixed-race individuals labeled as Canadians.
The study focused on the principle of hypodescent, which posits that multiracial individuals are categorized according to their most socially subordinate group membership. This principle—“the one-drop rule”—was applied in the U.S. from the antebellum period through the Civil Rights era in order to subjugate individuals with any non-white heritage by denying them full rights and liberties under the law.
In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study, the researchers explored the possibility of a connection between political ideology and racial categorization of unknown individuals—and, if it exists, what might explain this phenomenon. In addition to measuring political ideology, the researchers also sought to determine if their initial findings might be the result of a system-justifying bias.
Their results showed that, indeed, among conservatives, “opposition to equality” was a powerful predictor in the categorization of mixed-race faces as black rather than white.
But these results left open another question: If hypodescent among conservatives is motivated by a justification of racial divisions that are part of the United States’ legacy, then such judgments should be solely directed toward Americans. Here they found self-identified conservatives were more likely than liberals to identify mixed-race “American” faces as black than as white—a finding consistent with the other experiments. However, there was no relationship between political ideology and racial categorization for “Canadian” faces.
“It seems reasonable to conclude on the basis of these results that bias in the process of racial categorization may reflect, among other things, the motivation to defend and uphold traditional racial divisions that are part of the historical legacy of the United States,” the researchers conclude.
The lead author was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the research was supported by a grant from NYU’s College of Arts and Science Dean’s Undergraduate Research Fund.