• by Bradley Scott, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • February 1996 • Dr. Bradley Scott

It was in an October 1991 issue of Ebony magazine that I first became aware of a term called the new racism. In his article, “How to Survive the New Racism,” Charles Whitaker described what some observers were calling the new attacks on the progress that had been made by African Americans. He said the new racism is different because its nature is more covert than traditional racism. Whitaker explained, “The use of incendiary code words, such as ‘political correctness’ and ‘reverse discrimination,’ has enabled the forces of bigotry to effectively dismantle the civil rights agenda while preserving the illusion of racial tolerance” (1991).

Although Whitaker’s description helps to explain some of the open racial hostility and violence on school campuses throughout the region, it does not fully capture the nature of what seems to be occurring in schools: bigoted attitudes and prejudice; beliefs that one group is inferior to another thus justifying their inferior treatment; the rightness of whiteness; the arguable “genetic” bases of intelligence that supposedly prove the superiority of one race over another and that supposedly account for the “real” differences in achievement outcomes of some students when compared to others. These are all traditional trappings of racism and the discrimination it spawns.

The new racism is more than just the resurgence of racial tension, hostility and violence that is seen everywhere on public school and college campuses. It is more than just name calling, racial epithets, jokes, insensitive remarks and slurs that roll from people’s mouths as easily as greetings. It is more than just denying people access to programs, activities and opportunities because of race and color. It is even more than just admitting that the over-representation of minorities in disciplinary actions, special education, alternative schools, and low-level dead-end courses or any other of the persistent barriers to excellence that occur in schools where minorities are concerned is just “one of those nuts that is tough to crack, but we’re working on it.”

While these examples are bad enough, they represent nothing more than the realities of racism that have historically existed. They are not new at all. They are resurfacing in public schools and colleges to many people’s horror, surprise and amazement (after all, weren’t these things settled in the 1960s and ’70s? Not really). Coupled with a lack of resolution to the matters of prejudice, racism and discrimination are the four differences that appear today, according to H. Ehrlich, and are unique in U.S. history (1995):

1. “The public and news media are paying more attention to the conflicts [that arise as a result of prejudice].”

2. “The racial conflicts and ethnoviolence of today are more violent than in earlier times. [It is difficult to justify this statement in light of the 3000-plus lynching of African Americans that have been reported in America since 1892.] Minorities are more likely to answer violence with violence which historically was not the case.”

3. “A politically-sanctioned open opposition to the changing minority status occurred in the 1980s creating a reaction to the civil rights and civil liberties activities that emerged in the 1960s.”

4. “Minorities, who are more empowered than in the past, are more willing to oppose openly and actively the prejudice, racism and discrimination which they encounter.”

The new racism appears to go even further. John Dovidio, a professor of psychology at Colgate University, describes the modern racism as a subtle and very real bias for many White Americans (1993). This is called aversive racism. Dovidio defines aversive racism as a “subtle form of bias characteristic of many White Americans who possess strong egalitarian values and who believe that they are not prejudiceD…but many also possess negative racial feelings and beliefs that they are unaware of, or that they try to dissociate from their images of themselves as nonprejudiced.”

The aversive (reluctant or unwilling) racist is in a struggle with a belief that all people are equal, but that some are still more equal than others. According to Dovidio, this leads to a troubling discrepancy between what people say and what they do. He also believes that this subtle bias helps to account significantly for the persistence of racism in US society and its institutions:

“Because White aversive racists consciously recognize and endorse egalitarian values…they will not discriminate against Blacks in situations in which discrimination would be obvious to others or themselves.”

Discrimination will occur…when an aversive racist can justify or rationalize a negative response on the basis of some factor other than race (1993).

According to Dovidio, the aversive racist is characterized by the following five traits:

1. In contrast to the traditional racist, the aversive racist endorses fair and just treatment of all groups, at least in principle.

2. The aversive racist harbors negative feelings of discomfort toward other races and therefore avoids interracial interaction whenever possible.

3. When interracial contact is unavoidable, the aversive racist tries to disengage from interaction as quickly as possible.

4. When interracial contact cannot be avoided, the aversive racist adheres strictly to established rules and codes in these situations so as not to appear prejudiced.

5. When the aversive racist expresses negative feelings (thoughts, attitudes) about other races, he or she does so in ways that can be rationalized.

In response to a question such as, “Do you believe in education segregated by race?,” the old racist would say, “Yes, mixing the races always causes more problems than it solves; they should go to school with their own kind,” or something to that effect. The aversive racist might say: “Absolutely not! Children of different races should go to school together. I just think it’s horrible, however, that those poor kids have to spend so much time riding buses to get to good schools. They should make their neighborhood schools better.”

Likewise, an old-fashioned racist teacher or administrator might be paternalistic and patronizing to minority parents while interacting in a meeting with them because of his or her belief that the parents do not have the intellectual capacity or skills to handle school business. The aversive racist, on the other hand, might simply overwhelm the minority parents with school “stuff,” not because he or she believes the parents are peers and can handle it, but to justify his or her belief about the parents’ inability to support their children’s school success.

The old fashion racist would read the book The Bell Curve (which seeks to prove that intelligence is determined by race) and respond, “See, Blacks are inferior to Whites, and look at what it is doing to our country!” An aversive racist would read the book and say, “While it’s hard to dispute science and research, I think everyone deserves a chance to be all he or she can be.” M. Singham comments that The Bell Curve was written for both the scientific and nonscientific communities and that in fact the nonscientific community is the main audience:

“Perhaps the main audience consists of the nonscientific community, especially those journalists and politicians who can be expected to seize upon the statements that support their attempts to further marginalize the poor and minorities. These people can now claim that “science” justifies the gutting of [federal] programs (1995).”

A leap that the aversive racist is making beyond the old fashion racist is that in research where respondents rate Blacks and Whites on negative scales of characteristics, Whites show no bias against Blacks. When they are rating Blacks and Whites on positive scales of characteristics, they rate Whites more positively. It is not that Blacks are worse, necessarily, it is just that Whites are better, they figure (Dovidio, 1993).

While these differences may seem too subtle to really matter, they could account for more of the persistent problems of racism in schools than one might first imagine. People’s ways of thinking, their attitudes, do affect they way they perceive and behave. A teacher with such an aversive attitude could do a lot of damage to a group of minority children. On a personal level, a minority teacher could do a lot of damage to a group of majority children, if it would be tolerated by majority parents.

Systems also could harbor these distinctions in perceptions about minority students and how they treat them to the point of believing that minority students cannot excel, behave, persist or complete school, not because they are inferior to non-minority students, but because non-minority students just seem to have more of what it takes to be successful in schools.

It is quite possible that we, in education, need to be creating more candid dialogues about the area of teacher expectation and attitudes and the impact of those attitudes on teacher behavior including teacher-student interaction, classroom instruction, selection of methods and materials and, ultimately, student outcomes. It is quite possible that, while they no longer manifest the old-fashion racists ways of thinking, believing and behaving, many teachers are plagued by aversive racist characteristics and behave accordingly in their classrooms. The discussion could be well worth it, if it leads to new ways of dealing with new forms of prejudice, racism and discrimination through more focused staff development, administrative and systemic support for radical change, accountability for personal growth and development, and increased student achievement and other outcomes.


Dovidio, J. “The Subtlety of Racism,” Training and Development (April 1993), pp. 51-57.

Ehrlich, H. “Prejudice and Ethnoviolence on Campus,” Review (Winter 1995), 6(2).

Singham, M. “Race and Intelligence: What are the Issues?,” Phi Delta Kappan (December 1995), pp. 271-278.

Whitaker, C. “How to Survive the New Racism,” Ebony (October 1991), pp. 106 -110.

Bradley Scott is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]