By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
O.J. Simpson became "more Black" after becoming a suspect in the murder of his ex-wife, and not just on Time Magazine's infamous tinted cover photo. He also became "more Black" in the sense that the context of criminal charges made his race more saliant to most Americans. We have a tendency to think of people as either racist or not racist. The more thoughtful among us might see degrees of racism instead of that absolute distinction. But it is still thought of as a quality that inheres in the person. New research, however, is expanding our view of what racism means, and making a case for the conclusion that racism stems as much from the situation as it does from the person. In addition to tools like the Implicit Associations Test showing that most of us have subtle yet deeply ingrained racial preferences, there is also a growing body of research on priming -- showing that contextual cues can elicit responses that favor one race over another.
One recent example of research looking at this priming effect (Krosch & Amodio, 2014) examined the power of scarcity in eliciting racist behavior. Instead of just measuring who is and isn't racist, they instead demonstrated that a manipulation to the situation -- introducing or priming the idea of scarcity -- is sufficient to bring about a change in our perceptions and actions. "Across four studies," they write, "scarce conditions led perceivers to view Black people as 'darker' and 'more stereotypically Black' in appearance relative to control conditions, and this shift in perception under scarcity was sufficient to elicit reduced resource allocations to African-American recipients." The implication in court, as well as in law firms, is that instead of just worrying about "the racists," we should also be worrying about situationally primed racism as well.