Smart People are Just as Likely to Be Racist

Being smart is no guarantee that a person will be free of prejudice and racism. A new study from the University of Michigan has found that people with high intelligence are not as likely to display racist attitudes, but are far better at concealing these. It’s a finding in contradiction to the notion that the more educated someone is, the less prejudiced he or she is.

Geoffrey Wodtke, a doctoral candidate in sociology, came to this conclusion after analyzing data on the racial attitudes of more than 20,000 white respondents to the nationally representative General Social Survey. The participants were about 47 years old at the time they were interviewed and had an average of 12.9 years of education. Their cognitive intelligence was measured via a test of verbal intelligence; Wodtke then examined this in light of their attitudes about African-Americans and about policies created to redress racial segregation and discrimination.

Wodtke found a notable discrepancy between the principles that the respondents said they believed in and the policies they actually supported.

“High-ability” whites were more likely to say they were against residential segregation and in favor of school integration than “low-ability” whites, as well as to acknowledge racial discrimination in the workplace. But when policies for actually putting racial equality in practice (school busing, affirmative action) were considered, respondents of varying cognitive ability expressed almost similar levels of support.

In fact, Wodtke found that whites with higher cognitive ability were “actually less likely to support remedial policies for racial inequality.” While about 27 percent of the “least intelligent” whites were in favor of school busing programs, only 23 percent of the whites said to be “most intelligent” were.

Racism and prejudice do not arise from “low mental capacities or deficiencies in socialization,” Wodtke’s study suggests. A group’s wanting to hold onto its privilege and social position and resources (whether in the form of real estate, finances, opportunities for employment and education, etc.) shapes their attitudes to others. As Wodtke comments about the “disconnect” between the principles people say they hold and the policies they actually support:

Intelligent whites give more enlightened responses than less intelligent whites to questions about their attitudes, but their responses to questions about actual policies aimed at redressing racial discrimination are far less enlightened. For example, although nearly all whites with advanced cognitive abilities say that ‘whites have no right to segregate their neighborhoods,’ nearly half of this group remains content to allow prejudicial real estate practices to continue unencumbered by open housing laws.

Wodtke also says that, in more than a few cases, intelligent whites are “so accustomed to these privileges that they become ‘invisible,’ and any effort to point these privileges out or to eliminate them strikes intelligent whites as a grave injustice.”

The study reveals how ingrained racist attitudes can be and the extent to which a person’s actions, over and above what they say, reveals these. Could it be that Americans have become so attuned to how divisive and sensitive — loaded — an issue race is that they’re more than careful to express the right opinions until push comes to shove and it’s their child’s education that could be affected?

Education Can Still Make a Difference in Fostering Racial Tolerance

Wodtke’s findings can be seen as discouraging, especially as education has been routinely considered a way to fight racist beliefs.

But rather than throwing in the towel about the potential to teach people to overcome racist attitudes, it is important to note the average age (47) of the survey respondents in Wodtke’s study. Younger generations (i.e., the participants’ children) have grown up in a society that is more and more diverse and one in which Martin Luther King Jr.’a birthday has always been a holiday. More and more young Americans are minorities and seek out diversity rather than eschew it.

The Week questions Wodtke’s use of cognitive ability as a measure of racial tolerance. “Educational upbringing” could actually provide a more accurate picture; a United Nations study released in June has in fact connected “access to a quality education to a lower likelihood of racist or xenophobic tendencies” precisely because education has a “central role in creating new values and attitudes and provides us with important tools for addressing deep-rooted discrimination.”

The verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman made it more than clear that the United States is by no means “beyond racism.” The difference is that more people are aware of this, are attuned to racist language and attitudes and know that, whatever their cognitive ability, racism must be acknowledged, pointed out to those who are intolerant, and ultimately eradicated.

Photo from Thinkstock


K H.
Kate H3 years ago

I can vouch for this, I've met "smart" people who are polite speakers but privately racist.

Berny p.
Berny p4 years ago

It is easy to call people racist...if you come from a minority group people seem to think that they have more right than you?

People should be judge on their merit NOT ON THEIR COLOUR OR RACE!
People seem to become racist because ..for have to umploye a certain amount of minorities groups OR they sue you!

I am against this....the best people for the job because of their skills but of course if you think that way you are called a racist.

Smart people now have understood this so keep their mouth shut...YOU CANT FORCE PEOPLE TO LIKE OTHERS NO MATTER WHO THEY ARE BY LAW.

Tracey Brown
Tracey Brown4 years ago

Not surprising, sadly.

Gysele van Santen

thanks for the article, Kristina. the truth hurts some ppl.

Karen Foley
Karen P4 years ago

If only we could all learn to love each other and realise the inter-connectedness of all beings.

Sarah Green
Sarah Green4 years ago

never heard this

Margaret Goodman
Margaret G4 years ago

I'd like to point out that affirmative action in the United States has always been with us, only under different names. Prescott Bush went to Yale, and under Yale's "legacy" program, his son, George H. W. Bush, and grandson, George W. Bush, went to Yale. That's affirmative action for the children of alumni.

Until maybe the 60's prestigious universities had quotas for Jews, thus acting affirmatively for non-Jews.

These days, there are more women than men in post-secondary education. Prestigious universities work to ensure that their undergraduate enrollment is about 50% male. This is affirmative action for men.

Similarly, those of Asian descent are overrepresented in higher education, and I'm guessing that there's affirmative active at the prestigious institutions for non-Asians.


I as a child was taught to never judge a person by race, and that they are good people and bad people in this world no matter where they came from or their race.

Ben Oscarsito
Ben O4 years ago

A racist can NEVER be smart - DAMMIT!!!

Shalvah Landy
Past Member 4 years ago

I believe people are nursed hatred and this is then directed towards some one different than themselves, colour is an easy target because it stands out and can be identified easily, and is called racism. To overcome hatred of any kind one has to wake up and become conscious, something western education does not refer to.
I deduct two things from this study, 1. educated people learn ways to cover up their racism (if they are racist to begin with.) 2. interaction among people may help to overcome racism.