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Disguising prejudice: Popular rationales as excuses for intolerant expression

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Disguising prejudice: Popular rationales as excuses for intolerant expression

Widespread claims that justify intolerance can give people the excuse they need to vocalise their racial prejudice: Leonardo Bursztyn, Ingar Haaland, Aakaash Rao, and Christopher Roth highlight the powerful effect of public figures and biased media in encouraging racist behaviour.

Naked racism is taboo in most circles (Loury 2003, Jordan 1974). Instead, people often couch racist statements or behaviours in justifications that reduce their social stigma (Nelsen 2013). For example, a wide range of claims have been used to justify the adoption of anti-immigrant policies, such as the construction of the US-Mexico border wall. Common claims are that immigrants steal jobs from Americans, place undue burdens on taxpayers, increase crime rates, engage in terrorist activities, and have even brought COVID-19 into the US. One of the few things these claims have in common is that they have little to no basis in fact.

Justifications as excuses

We hypothesise that people use justifications as ‘excuses’ to express views that would otherwise be socially stigmatised. Suppose I privately dislike immigrants simply because I am xenophobic and intolerant of other cultures. I cannot express this opinion in public without incurring social stigma. Yet the moment that a justification to oppose immigration becomes widespread – for example, a prominent politician claims that immigrants commit more crimes than citizens – I have an excuse: I tell others that my anti-immigrant views stem from this reason and therefore avoid being seen as a racist. Whether or not I believe the justification is irrelevant. Indeed, whether or not others believe the justification is also largely irrelevant: what matters is that others believe that I believe the justification. Perhaps they think I am gullible, get news from different sources, am disproportionately averse to crime, but as long as they judge me less harshly for these alternative possibilities than for being racist, common knowledge of the existence of this justification will make me more willing to publicly express my xenophobic views.

Our hypothesis has two important testable predictions:

  1. People should be more willing to engage in a socially-stigmatised public action if they can attach a justification to that action. This mechanism should operate over and above private persuasion: people who are informed of the justification in private should be less willing to take the public action than those who are able to advertise the fact that they were exposed to the justification.
  2. When judging others who have taken some socially-stigmatised public action, people judge others to be less intolerant and more persuadable when they know that others were exposed to a justification for their behaviour.

We examine these predictions through several large-scale online experiments (Bursztyn et al., 2020a). In a first experiment, we find people who donated to an anti-immigrant organisation are seen as less intolerant if they were first exposed to a study claiming that immigrants disproportionately commit violent crimes. In additional experiments, we find participants are more willing to publicly donate to an anti-immigrant organisation and post anti-immigrant content on social media when they can use popular rationales as an excuse. Our findings suggest that prominent public figures can lower the cost of intolerant expression by popularising rationales, enabling public anti-minority behaviour.

Broader implications

How does our evidence connect to policy? For one thing, it highlights another danger of biased media. Beyond the direct persuasive power of the media (DellaVigna and Kaplan, 2007; La Ferrara et al, 2012; Yurukoglu and Martin 2017, Bursztyn et al. 2020b), the media can also increase socially stigmatised behaviour by providing viewers with ready-made excuses. Even if viewers do not believe these justifications, they can claim to believe them to avoid social stigma – and these claims become more credible the more widely the justifications are peddled. In the same way, politicians also use excuses to great effect, energising supporters or even launching campaigns upon demonstrably false justifications, such as the claim that Mexican immigrants disproportionately commit violent crime. Dog-whistles (‘welfare queens’), vague appeals to unspecified sources (‘a lot of people are saying that…’) and efforts to discredit trusted sources such as government agencies, scientists, and mainstream media outlets facilitate these tactics by blurring the line between truth and fiction.

There may be no silver bullets, but we can make it harder for people to use excuses to justify racist behaviour. When a prominent politician claims that immigrants are violent criminals, everyone is aware of the claim; and more concerningly, everyone is aware that everyone is aware of the claim, thus making the narrative an effective excuse for anti-immigrant expression. Since false claims are debunked in less public settings – news shows or websites of particular political slants – people can credibly deny knowing that they are inaccurate. Measures such as fact-checking politicians in real time might therefore have significant effects on public behaviour, even if relatively few people change their private views as a result.

Leonardo Bursztyn, University of Chicago

Ingar Haaland, University of Bergen

Aakaash Rao, Harvard University

Christopher Roth, University of Warwick

Further reading

Andrews, K. T., and Biggs, M. (2006). The Dynamics of Protest Diffusion: Movement Organizations, Social Networks, and News Media in the 1960 Sit-Ins. American Sociological Review, 71(5), 752–777.

Bursztyn, Leonardo, Aakaash Rao, Christopher Roth, and David Yanagizawa-Drott. (2020). Misinformation during a pandemic. CAGE working paper (no.481)

Bursztyn, Leonardo, Ingar K. Haaland, Aakaash Rao, and Christopher P. Roth. (2020a). Disguising Prejudice: Popular Rationales as Excuses for Intolerant Expression. CAGE working paper (no. 555).

DellaVigna, Stefano, and Ethan Kaplan (2007). The Fox News effect: Media bias and voting. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 122, no. 3 (2007): 1187–1234.

Hooker, J. (2016). Black Lives Matter and the Paradoxes of U.S. Black Politics: From Democratic Sacrifice to Democratic Repair. Political Theory, 44(4), 448–469.

La Ferrara, Eliana, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea (2012). Soap operas and fertility: Evidence from Brazil. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 4, no. 4 (2012): 1–31.

Loury, Glenn, C. (2003). Racial Stigma: Toward a New Paradigm for Discrimination Theory. American Economic Review, 93(2):334–337.

Jordan, W.D. (1974). The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States. A Galaxy Book. Oxford University Press.

Martin, Gregory J., and Ali Yurukoglu (2017). Bias in cable news: Persuasion and polarization. American Economic Review 107, no. 9: 2565–99.

Nelson, J. K. (2013). Denial of racism and its implications for local action. Discourse & Society, 24(1), 89–109.