As the votes were tallied for the 2008 presidential election, conservative pundit William Bennett weighed in on the election's significance. “I’ll tell you one thing it means, as a former secretary of education,” Bennett said on CNN. “You don’t take any excuses anymore from anybody who says, ‘The deck is stacked.'”
Bennett, who is white, suggested that if Barack Obama could become president, so could any black man. Implicit in the argument was that systemic racial discrimination was no longer keeping black men and women from success.
Bennett is far from alone in arguing that a single black American's success is proof that impenetrable racial barriers no longer exist. In fact, it's a common view, according to a recent study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The study authors, Clayton R. Critcher, assistant professor at University of California Berkeley, and Jane L. Risen, associate professor at the University of Chicago, found that exposure to a single African-American in a high-performing position -- any position outside stereotypical jobs in which blacks “traditionally” excel -- is enough to make whites more likely to deny the existence of systemic racism.
“People shifted the blame from vestiges of racism in America to problems in black communities,” Critcher told The Huffington Post over the phone.
To test this finding, Critcher and Risen recruited several hundred college students and adults to participate in eight experiments. In each study, participants were asked to identify images of marginally famous individuals. In most cases, all participants were shown the same images, depicting moderately famous white men and women. However in certain cases, one group was presented with an image of a successful African-American, like Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, while others saw an image of a white person of equivalent success, like Lockheed Martin Executive Chairman Robert Stevens.
Then, participants were asked their opinion of the role of race in modern America, including whether they felt that race could influence workplace success.
The researchers found that non-African-Americans -- whites, Asians and Hispanics -- who had seen images of successful black Americans were less likely to believe that systemic racism persists. This held true even when participants were told these examples represented exceptions. They were told, for instance, that Kenneth Frazier was the only black CEO among Fortune 75 companies.
When participants were shown images of successful black Americans who had excelled in fields that the researchers said were believed to be more “traditional” of African-Americans, such as NBA athletes or R & B musicians, they were less inclined to deny systemic racism.
Even though most participants indicated that their beliefs about race and discrimination wouldn't change on the basis of a single black person’s success, the experiments showed otherwise, Critcher said.
Systemic biases against black Americans are still very real. A recent study found employers may assume black job applicants use illegal drugs more frequently than whites, and the unemployment rate for black college graduates was nearly twice that of whites in 2013.
Critcher said he expects this unconscious denial of systemic racism affects economic and social policy. For instance, non-African-American policymakers who believe that race-related inhibitors to success have evaporated may be less likely to back policies that seek to eliminate systemic racial biases, such as affirmative action. In fact, recent Supreme Court decisions made under the assumption that racial discrimination is a thing of the past suggest this view is already having potentially disastrous consequences.
"The bias is insidious,” said Critcher. “People weren’t even aware that their beliefs had shifted. That can make it even harder to correct.”