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The Decline in Race Relations: The Perils of Groupthink and Motivated Reasoning

In 2004 — four years before the election of Barack Obama — 72% of Americans felt that race relations between white and black people were either very or somewhat good. This included 74% of white respondents and 68% of black respondents. This pattern was stable for the next 10 years before declining sharply from 2013 to 2015 and sliding further since. As of 2021, only 43% of white Americans and 33% of black Americans agreed that race relations were very or somewhat good.

What happened?

The sharp decline in optimism was prompted by a series of widely covered incidents that, many argued, exposed rampant racial injustice in the criminal justice system. In 2014 and 2015, several African Americans died at the hands of police, including Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott. Some of these incidents were caught on camera and widely shared, spurring protests in many cities and helping to launch the Black Lives Matter movement. Several years later, in May 2020, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police energized this movement, prompting protests across the United States and around the world.

The rising concern with racial injustice during this time was also reflected in media coverage. Content analyses of newspaper and opinion articles show a large increase in the 2010s in the frequency of words that implicate white Americans in sustaining racial inequality, such as “racism,” “white privilege,” and “white supremacy.” This in turn affected public opinion, coinciding with growing concern about the severity of prejudice among Americans more generally, and reflected in their darkening views about the state of race relations.

This period likewise saw the publication of best-selling books depicting the racist origins and nature of American society, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015), Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016), Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018), and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist (2019). These authors see the rise of BLM and the intensive focus on racism it fostered as necessary and overdue prerequisites for dismantling white supremacy in the U.S.

But what if these stories about the scope and nature of inequality in the U.S. are exaggerated or misleading? The consequences would be profound, because if we misunderstand the causes of racial inequality, we are bound to come up with solutions that don’t work or make things worse. In the meantime, we also suffer from rising social division and resentment.

Why might our current understanding of racial inequality be off target? Here we focus on the related factors of groupthink and motivated reasoning in two of society’s most important knowledge-producing institutions: the media and academia. Though groupthink and motivated reasoning occur in other sectors, such as in nonprofit organizations devoted to reducing inequality and in the entertainment industry, their effects are most detrimental when linked to knowledge production.

"Groupthink and motivated reasoning are leading academic researchers to reject useful but controversial ideas regarding the causes of racial inequality."

Groupthink “occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible.” Motivated reasoning is the tendency to interpret data in a way that confirms our view of how the world works or ought to work.

Groupthink and motivated reasoning are leading academic researchers to reject useful but controversial ideas regarding the causes of racial inequality. In the media, they are fueling an ever-narrowing emphasis on identity and racism.

In a recent study, researchers Daniel Hopkins, Yphtach Lelkes, and Samuel Wolken found that social identities have become more prominent in American media coverage, in part due to audience demand. The media feeds us stories that generate an emotional response, including validation and a sense of belonging. The media does this more so today than in the past because of the fragmentation and decline of traditional news sources and the rise of social media. News outlets compete for user clicks that generate ad revenue or renewable subscriptions from loyal readers. This incentivizes outlets to give readers the stories they want rather than offer balanced perspectives that better reflect realities on the ground.

This has led to distortions in public perceptions of the ubiquity of anti-black racism. A recent public opinion survey found, for example, that in the wake of media attention on police brutality, Americans today significantly overestimate both the total number of fatal police shootings and the share of victims who are black. Perhaps because of the fractured media landscape and the differential treatment paid to these stories, liberal respondents overestimate the share of victims who are black more so than conservative respondents.

Hopkins, Lelkes, and Wolken concluded that the focus on identity in the media “exacerbate[s] political discord by invoking ‘us’ versus ‘them’ considerations … The priming of partisan identities may have particularly deleterious effects, exacerbating interparty animosity and deepening ideological divides.” In other words, the media’s focus on identity not only misinforms the public, it may also be contributing to the decline in race relations.

Following a similar trend, academic research increasingly downplays racial progress by highlighting the role of current-day oppression in producing racial disparities. One reason is that today’s social science faculty are overwhelmingly liberal. According to a study of 51 elite colleges, the ratio of Democratic faculty members to Republican ones was a staggering 44 to 1 in sociology, 8 to 1 in political science, and 6 to 1 in economics. The study found zero anthropologists who were registered Republicans. The leftward shift of faculty has grown over time.

Achieving greater scientific understanding relies on people with different viewpoints challenging one another’s work. Yet, ideological uniformity contributes to groupthink and motivated reasoning, rendering such challenges exceedingly rare. Biases get reinforced when the people doing and reviewing the research share the same ideological commitments. And scholars in the social sciences today overwhelmingly view the world through a social justice lens, which means that they often do not study issues that are of concern to many politically moderate Americans, such as how best to preserve social cohesion and reduce social disorder. Moderate researchers, such as us, who challenge progressive orthodoxies on racial inequality are bound to have a more difficult time getting their work through the peer review process.

"While CRT offers important insights into how racism contributes to inequality, it does not offer a rigorous scientific framework for hypothesis testing."

Problems of research bias have been made worse by the rise of critical race theory (CRT) in the social sciences. While CRT offers important insights into how racism contributes to inequality, it does not offer a rigorous scientific framework for hypothesis testing. CRT is suspicious, at best, of quantitative methods, which are thought to be unable to capture the totality of people’s “lived experiences.” While some researchers try to reconcile CRT with rigorous and replicable methods of research, CRT begins with a strong ideological conviction: It takes as given that racism permeates American life. The main task for the CRT researcher is therefore not to examine the extent to which racial discrimination might or might not matter in a particular setting, but rather to show how systemic racism reveals itself in a specific context or institution. As a blog posted by a social worker on the University of Southern California School of Social Work website explains, “Being anti-racist means committing to identifying how racism manifests in social and cultural norms and how to address racism at the individual and structural levels.” Ideological commitments like this are the antithesis of scientific inquiry.

In short, CRT researchers incorporate assumptions about race and racism into their work that inevitably determine the nature of their findings. How can one fail to find evidence of the ubiquity of racism if one’s research is grounded in its assumed ubiquity? In our many years of reading and reviewing sociology articles on race-related themes, we don’t recall a single instance of a paper guided by CRT finding evidence that, in the instance under study, CRT had relatively little explanatory power or that racism — systemic or otherwise — was not the main cause of the outcome being studied. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. By reinforcing confirmation bias, the CRT approach devalues academic research, ultimately reducing public trust in science.

"The peer review process is supposed to allow people with different viewpoints to challenge one another. But it often fails in practice due to the liberal bias of many disciplines."

Unfortunately, biases in media and academia mask the extent to which the U.S. has succeeded in narrowing many long-standing racial disparities, such as in poverty, life expectancy, and high school completion. And even in some outcomes where disparities have not narrowed, such as median household income and wealth, it’s not because blacks’ income and wealth have gone down, but because their income and wealth have increased at a rate similar to those of whites. black incarceration rates have also declined substantially in recent years, and black unemployment reached a record low in 2023.

What Can We Do to Reduce Groupthink and Motivated Reasoning?

We can take steps to produce balanced coverage of inflammatory issues in the media. One approach is to allow peer review of news stories by people with diverse viewpoints. For instance, the social media platform X — notwithstanding a multitude of complaints offered by its users and detractors — includes the useful “Community Notes” feature. As the X Help Center page explains, “Community Notes aim to create a better informed world by empowering people on X to collaboratively add context to potentially misleading posts. Contributors can leave notes on any post and if enough contributors from different points of view rate that note as helpful, the note will be publicly shown on a post.” Another step would be to provide more opportunities for debate. An excellent recent example was the debate by writer Coleman Hughes and journalist Jamelle Bouie about the value of color blindness for individuals and social policy.

In the academic arena, the peer review process is supposed to allow people with different viewpoints to challenge one another. But it often fails in practice due to the liberal bias of many disciplines. New research centers that encourage viewpoint diversity could help, such as the new Center for Academic Pluralism that was founded by the Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes open inquiry. In the U.S., there are many research centers outside of academia that offer right-of-center viewpoints, such as the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, and even more that offer left-of-center viewpoints. But we must also strive for more robust exchanges between researchers of all political stripes. Some of this could, and does, occur on platforms, such as the Munk Debates, Newsweek, and X, where people discuss their research and views with a broad audience, and this should be encouraged.

To solve the problem of racial disparities in the U.S., we must begin by insisting on a deeper engagement in genuine discussions and debate in both the media and academia. But this can only happen if we commit ourselves to facing and overcoming the challenges of groupthink and motivated reasoning. Broadening the discussion would go a long way toward helping us see that we’ve made more progress than we give ourselves credit for. Demanding open and fact-based discussions of racial inequality from multiple viewpoints is necessary if the U.S. is to continue making progress in its quest for racial justice.

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