Notes on: Ruiz, C and Hatch, L (2006?). What is Racism? A Project to Assess Undergraduate Students' Understandings of Racism. Conference Paper. American Sociological Association

[Apologies for poor referencing. I was unable to improve the referencing or retrace the steps through which I came to acquire this paper. Here are all the details I have. A professional librarian may be able to trace the paper]

Carey Ruiz and Laurie Russell Hatch
Department of Sociology
University of Kentucky
This project was funded by an award from the American Sociological Association’s Teaching Endowment Fund (2005).
It was evidently a conference paper at the American Sociological Association

Racism is a pervasive problem in the USA and still controversial, both in society broadly and in college classrooms. There have been many strategies developed to teach about controversial topics, but students often 'resist or withdraw from discussions of controversial issues'. The authors have faced challenges teaching about racism in undergraduate sociology classes. Challenges can be encountered when teaching any topic that is controversial or sensitive, such as 'sexism, ageism, same sex marriage, and many other issues' [I found just about any sociological issues can be sensitive]. There are more substantive challenges, including helping students see that 'racism increasingly is manifested in more subtle, less overt forms of prejudice and discrimination' such as a claim that there is 'a denial that discrimination still exists and that hostility arises towards those who are perceived as desiring special favours'. There is also a challenge in seeing 'complex interconnections between racism and other forms of oppression' [no page numbers].

Understanding different perceptions of racism by students and teachers might help generate more effective methods. This project aimed to see how undergraduate students themselves define racism and explore how these definitions might be linked to racial attitudes and behaviours and several suggestions for teaching follow. They do not want to bypass sociological treatments but explore more effective ways to introduce students to them.

In their experience, sociological definitions often 'do not resonate with students perceptions or lived experience' [as with many other sociological concepts]. Many of their students, especially white ones, do not perceive racism in society nor consider themselves racist, although some admit that they possess negative stereotypes [but is negative thinking the same as racist discrimination?]. Many studies [?] show that whites and minorities perceive racism differently and whites are less likely to recognise it. Most white Americans are strongly egalitarian but still possess negative attitudes that 'not part of conscious awareness' [these two can still be held perfectly consistently, I insist]. Anxiety and apprehension towards people of colour can be increased, together with feelings of discomfort.

Problems of racism are not limited to black-white relations in the US, and not limited to the US. Whites 'as well as minorities are "raced"' [comparative examples might be useful here]. Whiteness might be seen as a useful concept, for example. Differences between the minorities in the USA might also be explored, in terms of how they 'define and experience racism'.

They gained consent [of course] to research and classrooms and administer surveys. Course instructors were not present. A 'convenience sample' of undergrad students in five sociology classes were asked to respond anonymously to an item inviting them to define racism. Responses were analysed independently by the co-authors to generate an inventory of definitions, retaining 'the meanings conveyed in the student's own words as much as possible' while avoiding redundancy. They ended with 21 definitions, ending with exhaustion. Many students were sociology majors, but others were from different backgrounds and disciplinary majors — differences among them are 'no doubt possible'.

They then linked definitions of racism with racial attitudes and behaviours. The survey was administered to more sociology classes. 485 surveys were completed and 400 analysed, 254 female, 143 male, 32 black, 15 Asian, five Hispanic, 11 biracial, 326 white, two other, self identified. These are representative of the University. Definitions from the first phase were rendered as Likert items with four categories of agreement, and respondents were asked which of the definitions they found most and least representative. There was also an open-ended item. Then respondents were asked about racial attitudes and behaviours drawn from the Detroit Area Survey [?] and some demographic information.

 Items refer to perceptions of job discrimination, including discrimination against women, experiences with members of racial group other than their own and students gender and race–ethnicity. Five items assessed perceptions of job discrimination: questions like how much discrimination is there that hurts the chances of getting good paying jobs for [five ethnic groups] with responses ranging from none to a lot. Experiences with racial groups other than their own were addressed by asking about the racial composition of the neighbourhood in which the respondent grew up, racial composition of schools, whether the respondent had close friends of a different race and whether the respondent had been in a monogamous long term relationship with someone of a different race. Student race was 'dichotomised for purposes of these analysis due to small numbers of respondents of diverse backgrounds' into white or nonwhite.

Turning to the definitions, 'commonly accepted scholarly definitions of racism are addressed' within the range of student responses, including those that refer to prejudiced beliefs, discriminatory behaviour or institutionalised inequality. However student responses provide 'a potentially richer, more multifaceted consideration of racism', for example a lack of knowledge about other races, conscious or unconscious thoughts or actions directed against the people of a particular race, feeling that members of a particular race need help from others because they cannot help themselves, which the authors identify as '(a "compassionate" form of racism)' (8) [I have suddenly noticed page numbers]

Then they asked whether those in phase 2 agreed with these definitions and whether agreement might be linked to their perceptions of discrimination. With this group the definition of racism that gained the highest level of agreement was '"hating an entire race of people"', with the lowest level of agreement attached to '"lack of knowledge about other races"', although 32% of respondents also said that lack of understanding or having no knowledge contributed to racism in the open-ended question [may be the closed ended one prompted them?].

They investigated groups of responses using 'principal components factor analysis'. The inventory of 21 definitions loaded on five factors, but only one of them produced a sufficiently high level of reliability. This factor included the items discriminatory action against the race different than one's own, negative assumptions about a race, a belief that particular races are inferior, hating someone because of their race, disliking someone because of their race [seems a bit redundant] and disliking an entire race, although, oddly, hating an entire race loaded on a different factor, together with verbal remarks unintentionally hurtful to a particular race, and that compassionate racism one. Overall, 'it is difficult to identify clear patterns in students' conceptualisations of racism' and there are implications for teaching.

So the definitions of racism 'apparently do not group together in meaningful patterns' (but overall levels of agreement across the broad range of definitions of racism might be linked with different perceptions about discrimination more broadly). For example students who agree with most of the definitions of racism may also be more likely to agree that minority groups in general encountered job discrimination. They went on to compute 'a total inventory score' for each of the 21 possible definitions, and then tried multivariate analysis regressing perceptions about job discrimination on inventory scores. They also included the variables on students experiences with different racial groups and gender and race. In this case each of the five measures of perceived discrimination are taken as dependent variables, concerning 'how much discrimination hurts the chances of getting good jobs for each of the five groups in turn [they are juggling the data until they can find something that fits].

Taking Hispanics first, the overall inventory score was the only variable that showed a statistically significant effect on the dependent variable [the chances of getting good paying jobs], that is students who agreed with the broader range of possible definitions of racism overall were significantly more likely to agree that these hurt the Hispanics chances of getting a good job. This was opposed to the effect specifically of race, gender or students experiences with racial groups or even the specific perceptions of job discrimination against Hispanics [so pretty meaningless?]

For blacks, the respondent's race as well as their inventory score each showed significant positive effects on the likelihood that respondents would agree that discrimination hurt black people's chances of getting good jobs. No other variables were statistically significant

Similar results were obtained for Asians — respondents' race and inventory score overall showed statistically significant positive effects, and no others did.

For Arab Americans, there was no statistically significant effect of the overall score but there was a significant effect of respondents' race, with nonwhites more likely than whites to agree the Arab Americans encountered discrimination [statistically significant?]

This same pattern was found for perceived job discrimination encountered by women, although respondents' race was another variable showing a statistically significant effect — nonwhite students were more likely than white students 'to agree that women encountered job discrimination' but 'respondents' own gender did not show a statistically significant effect for this dependent variable'.

They base this work on earlier work by Sydell and Nelson. In this case, however there were no clear or discernible patterns in the way in which students defined racism. There are implications for the scholarly literature on how privileges of whiteness include the fact that white people rarely have to confront racial issues, and, since the majority of their student respondents were white this could explain the lack of clear patterns. On the other hand, there were rich and varied definitions of racism, more so than those typically found in sociology texts, including the possibility that racism can be unconscious or even compassionate. The results also show that students who embrace the broadest range of definitions of racism 'are more likely to express agreement that members of minority groups and women continue to face job discrimination in the US '(12). So definitions in this sense 'do help predict their racial attitudes' [in quite a positive way]

Implications for teaching might follow. Students do not necessarily share common understandings of racism. A 'learner-based "inventory approach' might be a productive way to begin discussion. Class time might be devoted to assess the ways in which students 'negotiate and renegotiate' the meaning of racism especially as those from different backgrounds tend to perceive it differently. Although there are different perceptions, there seems to be 'an overall high level of agreement with the range of inventory items' in their study. This might be because of their particular university as well as other factors that limit generalisability, but there is some suggestion of '"common ground" for discussion among students, at least as a starting point.