Inadvertent Racial Stereotyping in Social Science Research on Racial Inequality
Thomas Craemer, University of Connecticut, Department of Public Policy
Conference: ISPP 2011
Affiliation: University of Connecticut, Department of Public Policy
Research Area: Social inequality and social change
|This study investigates origins of anti-Black stereotypes in the controversy over slavery. They include the “Black criminality” stereotype rooted in perceptions of Haiti’s 1791 revolution. They further include derogatory beliefs about the work ethic, self-sufficiency, intelligence, and political participation of African Americans. These stereotypes may inadvertently influence the social science discourse on racial inequality.
I distinguish between “proper” and “improper” stereotyping based on statistical reasoning. When nothing is known about an individual except his or her group membership, the “best guess” about that individual is the group’s central tendency on a given measure. Social scientists routinely violate this “best guess” principle when describing African Americans. Rather than focusing on the vast majority of Blacks who live above the poverty line, are employed, do not live on welfare, have completed high school or more, and turn out to vote, the literature focuses on those that do not. Despite the fact that the violent crime gap represents rounding error, liberal as well as conservative researchers inappropriately focus on the atypical fringe-group of violent offenders (<1%) when describing Blacks, while focusing on the non-violent majority when describing Whites. This unequal application of proper and improper stereotyping leads to an over-exaggerated perception of polarization between Blacks and Whites. Correcting such misperceptions does not mean to deny remaining racial inequalities, but requires putting them into proper quantitative perspective. This is essential lest we as social scientists perpetuate the very stereotypes we seek to eradicate.