Racial Prejudice and the Elderly

The big question: Will the biases they can't escape affect how seniors vote?


The personality is familiar to us all: the sweet old aunt, the loving grandfather or the generous widow down the street, each of them unfailingly kind toward friends and family but given to flights of shocking prejudice when the con-versation turns toward ethnic groups to which they don’t belong.

Often the response is a nervous laugh, a wan smile or a hasty effort to change the subject. We assume that old peo-ple are the products of less-enlightened times, they’re unlikely to change and their comments, however ugly, are largely innocuous.

Now, though, in the midst of the nation’s first presidential campaign between a black candidate and a white one, a convergence of new political and scientific research suggests that prejudice and stereotyping among elderly white Americans in particular may not be so innocuous after all.

Older white voters heavily favored Sen. Hillary Clinton over Sen. Barack Obama during the Democratic primary season, and national polls indicate that group now leans toward Sen. John McCain by 10 percentage points or more.

Pollsters and political scientists cannot pinpoint how much of that anti-Obama sentiment may be related to racial prejudice. But sociologists say their research indicates that implicit racial biases influence the voting decisions of many Americans of all ages — and that, for very basic physiological reasons related to the aging of their brains, many older citizens may be unable to suppress their prejudicial impulses, whether at the family dinner table or in the privacy of a voting booth.

In other words, Grandma’s biased outbursts may not be her fault. And Obama’s election strategists may want to schedule more campaign stops at nursing homes.

Less inhibition with age

“We learn stereotyping at a young age when we can’t really appreciate it’s not the right thing to do,” said William von Hippel, a psychologist who studies age-related declines in the area of the brain devoted to inhibiting unwanted or socially inappropriate thoughts. “Once we get older, we can decide that racial stereotypes are wrong and we can inhibit them with an effortful act. But older adults gradually lose that ability to inhibit.”

Von Hippel, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, has found that as the brain’s frontal lobe be-gins to atrophy with age, elderly adults exhibit greater social inappropriateness and increased stereotyping and preju-dice. And it happens despite their best intentions.

“At some level, I would say we should not hold older adults responsible for their racist attitudes,” von Hippel said. “We call it ‘prejudice against your will,’ because we think it’s not something they can control.”

Obama himself noted this phenomenon last March, in his frank Philadelphia speech on race.

Referring to his elderly white grandmother, Obama said she is “a woman who loves me as much as she loves any-thing in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

Sociologists have found that racial bias pervades the subconscious of most Americans and that the elderly hold more such prejudices than those who are younger.

For example, 35 percent of Americans age 60 and older believe it’s unacceptable for whites to date blacks, accord-ing to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Yet just 16 percent of Baby Boomers disapprove of interracial dating — and among Americans age 30 and younger, the disapproval figure is only 6 percent.

Explaining implicit bias

A massive, decade-long sociological study called Project Implicit, jointly run by Harvard University, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia, has shown that up to 80 percent of whites and Asians show a measurable bias favoring whites over blacks.

More than 4.5 million people worldwide — 730,000 of them Americans — have participated in the online study, which captures subconscious, or implicit, bias by asking respondents to associate positive or negative words with pho-tographs of black and white faces.

The Project Implicit data show that whites age 60 and older exhibit 5 percent to 10 percent more bias than younger study participants.

“We don’t call it prejudice; we talk about it as hidden bias or unconscious bias — a form of bias that most people are unaware they even possess, because our culture has implanted associations in their heads,” said Anthony Greenwald, a founder of Project Implicit. “This is why many people who take this test are repelled by their own results.”

Yet Greenwald said research shows that implicit biases affect behavior, such as hiring decisions and voting, unless people make an active effort to counteract them.

Political scientists long ago discovered a disconnect in which some white voters, not wanting to appear racist, tell pollsters they support the black candidate but once inside the voting booth vote for the white candidate.

The phenomenon has a name — the “Bradley effect” — from the 1982 California governor’s race in which Tom Bradley, a black Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, consistently led the pre-election polls over his white Republican opponent but lost when the votes were counted.

Greenwald found the “Bradley effect” at work in this year’s Democratic primaries in four states with relatively low black populations where Obama finished far worse than the polls had predicted.

And a new Associated Press-Yahoo News poll found that racial prejudice could cost Obama up to 6 percentage points in November. The poll also indicated that whites and blacks see racial discrimination in starkly different terms: Just 10 percent of whites — but 57 percent of blacks — said they thought “a lot” of discrimination against African-Americans exists.

At the Bayou Manor assisted-living center in Houston, some residents said they expect older voters to show a “Bradley effect” of their own.

“I think what people say is their intent is not necessarily how they will vote,” said Margaret Wilborn, 83, an Obama supporter.

Other Bayou Manor residents appeared to show some of the inhibition losses studied by von Hippel.

“I have two black caregivers,” said Iris Williams, 89, who supports McCain. “One of them is pretty smart, the other one not really. But neither of them is for Obama. So that tells you something right there.”

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How to tell if you’re biased

More than 4.5 million people around the world have taken the Project Implicit test at implicit.harvard.edu to gain insight into their own, often unwitting, biases. Among the general conclusions cited on the Web site:

Implicit biases are pervasive: More than 80 percent of Web respondents show implicit negativity toward the elderly compared with the young; 75 to 80 percent of self-identified whites and Asians show an implicit preference for whites relative to blacks.

People are often unaware of their implicit biases: Participants are found to harbor implicit biases even while hon-estly reporting that they regard themselves as lacking these biases.

Implicit biases predict behavior: From simple acts of friendliness and inclusion to more consequential acts such as the evaluation of work quality, those who demonstrate stronger implicit bias have been shown to display greater dis-crimination.