Despite 1960s-era predictions of a color-blind society, "the blacks who are [financially] worse off have taken a giant step backward," and racism persists in the United States because "people find psychological solace in elevating themselves at the expense of others," says a University of Delaware researcher whose newly published work explores societal changes since 1972.
Compared to 25 years ago, some African Americans now are much better off financially, notes James M. Jones, a UD professor of social psychology. Yet, he characterizes these gains as an economic victory for a few, rather than a widespread blow to racism. In fact, in a 578-page study of the historical, social and psychological manifestations of racism in America, Jones concludes that race relations may be getting worse.
"I could pick up the Washington Post every single day and it's filled with stories about prejudice and racism," he says. "Prejudice is a problem of differences. We treat people differently who are not like us, and we think people who are like us are better than they are."
Barriers to reducing racism in America may be institutional or individual, Jones says. Such obstacles include, for instance, Americans' tendency to value individuality more highly than teamwork.
"Creating conditions in which individuals cannot reach desirable goals as easily on their own as they can in joint cooperation with others may reduce prejudice," Jones explains. "Similarly, attainment of superordinate goals requires that groups work together rather than compete."
But, a number of strategies show promise for reducing prejudice, he says. Two such strategies, for example, include the "salvation approach," which focuses on the perpetrators of prejudice, and the "remediation approach," whereby the targets of prejudice are the focus of prevention efforts.
Jones's research outlines six key steps for reducing prejudice in America. Briefly, these steps may be summarized as increased efforts to encourage: (1) joint cooperation; (2) intergroup contact; (3) opportunities to "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" through media accounts of prejudice; (4) a greater appreciation of individual differences; (5) the expansion of boundaries and (6) support for a transactional approach, which forces people to consider the perspectives and purposes of all people.
"Two paths stand before us," Jones writes. "One, motivated by the best sense of liberty, equality and fraternity, moves us forward in the experiment in creating a more perfect union. A second, fueled by fear, self-interest, ignorance and mistrust, turns us backward, and diverts us from the struggle toward tolerance and perfection. Our diversity comes from different origins, experiences, and goals. Our best possible selves, as a nation and a people, will be determined by the path we choose."