A Dominican University of California researcher who co-authored a 2018 paper that found an increase in racial animosity toward Black Americans during economic downturns says these findings highlight why it is critical that the shock of the pandemic not sidetrack corporate efforts focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Reexamining the Link Between Economic Downturns and Racial Antipathy drew on the findings of four distinct studies examining attitudinal and behavioral indicators of prejudice. The authors analyzed how White Americans’ attitudes towards Black Americans changed depending on the state of the economy and found that in worse economic times, White Americans felt more negatively about Black Americans.
Sarah Lee, assistant professor of management in Dominican’s Barowsky School of Business, finds that companies are more likely to pull away from diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts during an economic downturn. Her research focuses on minority groups’ obstacles in upward mobility in the United States, with a specific focus on stereotypes, discrimination, and bias.
Dr. Lee’s co-authors on the racial antipathy research are Emily C. Bianchi, associate professor or organization and management at Emory University and Erika V. Hall, assistant professor of organization and management at Emory University.
While earlier research examining the link between economic downturns and racial discord had focused on hate crimes or other violent manifestations of racial tensions, the paper, which was published by the Association for Psychological Science, was the first to examine subtler and less violent indicators of racial animosity, including distrust, discrimination in employment practices, prejudice, and increased use of racial stereotypes.
Lee and her coauthors’ research cites, “anecdotally, we know that when times are good, organizations will tend to prioritize their efforts in the area of diversity and inclusion. While this is critically important at all times, our research suggests that these efforts are probably even more important when times are tough, especially because most leaders are more likely to cut resources for DEI and put those efforts on the back burner when the economy suffers.”
Two of the studies examined whether White Americans held more negative racial attitudes during bad economic times, while the other two studies examined whether Black Americans were less likely to achieve success – specifically artistic, musical, or political success – when the economy floundered.
Across four studies, the researchers found that worse economic conditions were associated with more negative attitudes toward Black Americans and worse professional outcomes for Black musicians and politicians. White Americans felt less warmly about Black Americans, held more negative explicit and implicit attitudes, were more likely to condone the use of stereotypes, and were more willing to regard inequality between groups as natural and acceptable.
The authors note that economic threats or shocks evoke uncertainty and fear about what is to come – translating into a greater distrust of others, particularly those perceived as different in some way. The findings, the authors note, may help explain why Black Americans are particularly hard hit by recessions. In addition, findings served to highlight the fluidity of racial attitudes and beliefs, suggesting that racial attitudes can change in response to external environmental conditions.
Data were drawn from the American National Election Survey (ANES), a biannual survey capturing political affiliations and perceptions of political candidates, and the race Implicit Association Test (IAT) run by Project Implicit, which allows participants to measure their own implicit associations about race, gender, and other topics.
Ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion work is critical – especially during tough economic times when companies might move away from this work.
“Ironically, when we are in a state of fear, we shut down and close off to others; when in reality, the very antidote to getting through these times of hardship is through connection, communication and collaboration,” Lee said. “Instead of focusing on “who’s to blame?”, let’s focus on asking “how are we all the same?”. Our humanity is what will guide us out of this mess.”