Racial biases seep into countless areas of our daily lives ― even, it seems, how we respond to email.
According to a new study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Americans are less likely to respond to an emailed request for help from a Black person than they are to a white person. That tendency shows up regardless of geographic region and political party.
“Discrimination appears to be the norm, rather than the exception,” the researchers write in the study, which was published late last month and is said to be one of the largest studies to date on racial bias in the U.S.
To conduct the study, researchers at Pennsylvania State University, Dartmouth College and Brigham Young University contacted 250,000 email addresses pulled from nationwide voter registration databases and a commercial email list.
The participants came from a range of backgrounds ― Asian American/Pacific Islander, white, Black, Hispanic/Latino ― and the percentage breakdowns for each group reflected the current racial and ethnic demographics of the United States.
The email itself was relatively straightforward: It asked the recipients if they’d be willing to volunteer to take a survey about political issues by clicking a link.
But there was one key difference. Half of the emails appeared to come from a sender with an ostensibly white-sounding name, and the other half from a sender with an ostensibly Black-sounding name. (A press release from Pennsylvania State University notes that “names were selected based on being considered predominantly Black or white in government records and by whether they were generally perceived as Black or white by the public in previous research.”)
All recipients received two emails eventually ― one from a “Black sender” and one from a “white sender,” with the same language and survey link in the body of both emails. (The researchers were careful to space out the delivery of the emails a few weeks apart.)
The outcome was what the researchers expected. Neither the “white senders” nor the “Black senders” got a very high response rate, simply because most people don’t reply to the kind of emails the researchers were sending. But in terms of odds, researchers found that “Black senders” were 15.5% less likely to receive an email response than “white senders.”
This held true across all racial groups the researchers reached out to ― except for Black Americans, who were just as likely to respond to a Black person as they were to a white person.
“As a person who studies race in the USA, the results did not surprise me,” Ray Block Jr., an associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Penn State University and the lead author of the study, told HuffPost. “Our work adds to a large body of research demonstrating racial bias.”
The researchers found that the racial bias existed regardless of geographic region: A person from the South had the same likelihood of not responding to an email from a Black sender as did a “coastal elite.”
Block said this finding surprised some of the study’s reviewers.
“I hate to be crass about it, but people assume that the South does racism better than everyone else,” he said in an interview with Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. “[But] because this type of discrimination is quotidian, it’s a little easier to do. It’s probably more prevalent because [it’s a] digital interaction.”
Block told HuffPost that his study is notable because it gauges people’s real-world behavior. Prior research on racial beliefs has generally been attitudinal, meaning that researchers asked people to share their views on race and took them at their word.
With this research, Block and his team were essentially asking: Do actions speak louder than words when it comes to how we interact with different racial groups?
While ample research exists on more overt forms of racism, like racial violence and verbal abuse against minority groups, Block said there have been considerably fewer studies on smaller, more common forms of racial discrimination.
“We acknowledge that overt and more extreme forms of racial bias deserve attention but we think more work should be done on ‘everyday’ forms of discrimination, too,” he said. “The microaggressions that add up over the course of a person’s life.”
Racial microaggressions are the “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color” by individuals who are often oblivious to the offensive nature of their words or actions, according to Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue, who studies the psychology of racism and anti-racism. (In the case of this study, the microaggression is the inaction of not responding to an email.)
Block also uses the phrase “papercut discrimination” to describe the seemingly small (but cutting) everyday instances of bias that people of color face. (Having a co-worker who ignores your emails is one thing, but what if the same co-worker had made remarks about “how articulate” you are during a work meeting?)
“Microaggressions like this matter,” Block said. “They can add up. They harm. That’s why my co-authors and I work so hard to study them.”
Block and his team were also interested to see whether the political leanings of the email recipients in their study made a difference in how they behaved.
They found that most of the discrimination came from independents and Republicans. Still, any liberal-vs-conservative comparisons are hard to draw because of the relatively high percentage of Black Democrats who didn’t discriminate ― though the researchers found that white Democrats discriminated at roughly the same rate as independents and Republicans.
The researchers also sent the emails to a pool of U.S. elected officials, including mayors, city councilors and state legislators, and found that politicians discriminated at roughly the same rate as the general public, though slightly less so. (That’s in keeping with prior research that showed elected officials are less likely to respond to requests from Black constituents.)
“I did not expect the patterns of discrimination to be as consistent as they were,” Block told HuffPost. “The results hold regardless of geographic region, whether we reached out to political elites or regular citizens and across party lines.”
“The discrimination we discovered might stem from racial anxieties. Or out-group prejudice or in-group favoritism.”
Since the study was focused on discriminatory behavior, it’s hard to gauge the reasoning behind why recipients discriminated. One possibility is that racial anxiety was at play, according to John Dovidio, a professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University and a leading researcher on aversive racism.
“If you believe you’re liberal and good, there’s a cost to actually interacting with a person of color because it may threaten your self-image,” Dovidio told Diverse .
“[There’s] anxiety that white people have that they may do something wrong, say something wrong,” he said. “So, what often happens is white Americans won’t turn [an email] down because of the race of the person, at least consciously, but they’ll weigh more heavily all the other things they have to do that day. ‘I can’t do this because I have to go to the store. I can’t do this because what are the questions they’re going to ask me?’”
Block thinks Dovidio makes an excellent point.
“The discrimination we discovered might stem from racial anxieties,” he told HuffPost. “Or out-group prejudice or in-group favoritism.”
Regardless of the causes, though, the fact remains that Block and his co-researchers found evidence of racial bias in a very common activity.
“We found bias in a particular context of digital communication, one that many people take part in multiple times each day,” he said. “In this sense, we uncovered another [area] that is a potential breeding ground for racial discrimination.”