The inauguration of a president for a second term who is a black American and the public ceremony on the celebration of Martin Luther King Day, invites us to give pause and reflect on race relations in America. The discussions of four years ago on whether or not we have achieved a post-racial society have waned, but the challenges of living in an increasingly diverse society where race peppers our everyday life remain alive.
In education, race continues to be part of the conversation on closing the educational achievement gap. In politics, race continues to be a part of U.S. political discourse and affects our ability to productively engage in a global society. In the economy, race continues to be a part of our discussion on America's economic future with a growing divide between the "have and have mores" with "have-nots" disproportionately represented by people of color. In health care, race continues to be a part of the discourse on inequitable treatment and disparate outcomes. In our leisure, race continues to limit our ability to engage socially and to have crucial conversations that improve race relations. And in religion, race continues to be absent from the discussion on what divides us, particularly on Sunday mornings and other times of worship.
Yet, despite its challenges, I remain very optimistic about race relations in the U.S. However, I am realistic that these issues will not be resolved anytime soon or ever, for that matter. A full complement of self-actualized individuals and a near utopian society are needed in order to get the full benefits of a racially diverse society.
At the Facing History and Ourselves annual board retreat in Memphis, I had the opportunity to hear Claude Steele speak about his research on the stereotype threat. The stereotype threat poses that when a person is a member of a group that is represented by a negative stereotype it causes an anxiety or concern that he or she will confirm that stereotype. For example, being lazy is a negative stereotype attributed to many black and brown Americans. The stereotype threat would be demonstrated if a young black male is late for work and he becomes particularly anxious because even a single incident of tardiness could be attributed to laziness and thus influence his performance evaluation.
As a psychologist, I was familiar with the Dr. Steele's work and the stereotype threat theory. Like any good theory, the stereotype threat has shed some insight on human behavior and subsequent research studies have demonstrated that the stereotype threat may be a potential contributing factor to racial and gender gaps in academic performance. Like any good theory, the stereotype threat has also been criticized; in this case, for its exaggeration of the cause and effect of negative stereotypes and low performance.
To address this criticism, the stereotype threat needs to be coupled with attribution theory. Attribution theory tells us where we place the cause of our behavior. For example, studies suggest that men tend to attribute their accomplishments to internal causes -- intelligence, effort, skill -- and women tend to attribute their accomplishments to external causes -- luck, timing, support.
We are all subject to a fundamental error when making attributions. These biases tend to be self-serving. We tend to over value the personality-based behavior of others and undervalue the situational based behavior for ourselves. The young black male is late for work because he is lazy and can't get his act together. I am late for work because of the unexpected six car accident on the highway. However, when coupled with a negative stereotype, the stereotype threat comes into play. An illustration of attribution theory using race: someone might think that blacks and browns don't get ahead because they are lazy. If whites don't get ahead, it is because of the bad economy.
I write about stereotype threat and attribution theory not to get all academic about a subject that can be simply summed up by the platinum rule -- treating individuals as they need to be treated and respecting cultural differences. I write about it to illustrate the complexity of contemporary race issues. Yes, there are probably a few black and brown lazy individuals in this society. And, yes, there are many, many blacks and browns who who have to unwittingly work to disconfirm negative stereotypes.
A post-racial society is more like a continuous improvement process that requires incremental improvements over time rather than a "breakthrough" improvement that happens all at once as the result of a black American as president. Each one of us has to be involved in the continuous improvement process examining our own attributes and owning our behaviors, thus reducing the anxiety associated with stereotype threat.