Are smarter people less racist?

Reclaim Australia poster-boy Nathan Paterson, who insists he isn't racist.

Reclaim Australia poster-boy Nathan Paterson, who insists he isn't racist. Photo: Perry Duffin

 Are smarter people less racist? For some time, researchers have thought so. A long-term study published in 2008, for instance, discovered that children with higher intelligence levels at age ten exhibited less traditional attitudes, including towards race, at age 30.

Similarly, in 2012, researchers found that children with low intelligence scores were more likely to be socially conservative and hold racist attitudes as adults.

But newer research indicates that it may not be so simple after all. Rather than intelligent people being less racist, they may, as Salon's Katie McDonough wrote in 2013, just be "better at hiding it."

McDonough was referring to research by then-University of Michigan doctoral student Geoffery Wodtke who, in keeping with previous research linking intelligence in white people with enlightened views on race, found "high-ability whites are less likely to report prejudiced attitudes and more likely to say they support racial integration in principle." So far so good.



Wodtke also discovered that these same "high-ability whites" were "no more likely than lower-ability whites to support open housing laws and are less likely to support school busing and affirmative action programs."

It's an extraordinary discovery. It's one thing for people who don't believe racial discrimination exists, or think blacks are to blame for their own disadvantages, to oppose such policies; it's quite another to oppose solutions for a problem you have just admitted exists.

"In modern America, where blacks are mobilised to challenge racial inequality, this means that intelligent whites say – and may in fact truly believe – all the right things about racial equality in principle," Wodtke concluded. "But they just don't actually do anything that would eliminate the privileges to which they have become accustomed.

Well Wodtke, now a sociologist at the University of Toronto, is back with more research that proves his results weren't a fluke. After analysing data from the General Social Survey, going back to 1972, Wodtke again discovered that white people with higher intelligence scores had more open minded views on race and were less likely to blame blacks for their disadvantages.

Nonetheless, there was again no statistical difference when it came to supporting policies that would address discrimination.

There was, for example, "no relationship between respondents' intelligence and their support for affirmative action in employment… which had the support of 12 per cent… of all white participants."

What this indicates is, rather than being less racist, "more intelligent members of the dominant group are just better at legitimising and protecting their privileged position than less intelligent members."

Or put it another way, intelligent people are savvy enough to know how not to appear racist.

This goes some way to explaining why otherwise progressive white people are often affronted by discussions of racism. Because racism is generally considered a negative trait, being accused of racism is regarded as a greater offence than actually saying or doing something racist.

This is partly because many people still cling to an outdated definition of racism, even though the nature of racism – or at least our understanding of it in 2016 – has changed from one of explicit hatred to one of protecting privilege.

As Wodtke said back in 2013: "In many cases, (white people) have become so accustomed to these privileges that they become 'invisible,' and any effort to point these privileges out or to eliminate them strikes intelligent whites as a grave injustice."

Indeed, there appears to be a mental block in many white people when it comes to accepting the existence of white privilege. In the interests of a fairer society, the privileged have to be prepared to give something up. It's a simple fact but one that receives more than its fair share of resistance.

Just as musician Chet Faker completely missed the point when he took exception to writer Erin Riley's observation that there were more winners of Triple J's Hottest 100 from his alma mater (St Kevin's in Toorak) than women – and whined about all his "hard work" – no one is saying white people don't work hard; only that hard work is rarely enough on its own.

So why cannot otherwise intelligent people see their own shortcomings when it comes to race? Because it unearths a basic truth that very few white people want to admit: that white people owe a huge debt to people of colour.

But with only 13 per cent of "intelligent" white Americans supporting reparations for blacks to address past injustices, it appears that whites are fully aware that programs designed to overcome racial barriers to success will lead naturally to a loss of their own wealth and status, and they deal with this by claiming such programs discriminate against them. Cue the howls of "reverse racism."

The western world likes to imagine that everything it has is the result of hard work, creativity, and ingenuity. That there is something separating the west – and by extension, white people – from everyone else that has made them uniquely deserving of the relatively privileged lives they lead.

The reality, of course, is much less endearing: The west has what it has in large part because it proved to be so adept at depriving everyone else. But, when even "rabid socialist" Bernie Sanders, who favours income redistribution based on social class, is firmly opposed to reparations based on race, it is clear that this conversation needs to be had.