Changing social norms is the key to addressing racism

Good piece by Michael Adams and Keith Neuman:

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in North America last March, it was hard to imagine anything else capturing a large share of public attention in the ensuing months. And then, in May, video footage of the horrific killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police ignited a blaze of protest that spread across the United States and also Canada, a country with its own history of colonialism and racism. The depth of the reflection and conversation – public and private – provoked by the protests was unprecedented. For the first time, many of this country’s leaders unequivocally acknowledged the existence of systemic racism in Canada, and reflected the predominant public sentiment. Our own research shows that a significant majority of Canadians now recognize the reality of racial discrimination in this country, especially as it affects people who are Indigenous and Black.

Such recognition of racism in our society is a significant milestone, long in coming. Doing something about it becomes the next step, and represents an even greater challenge given how deeply such prejudice is embedded in Canada’s dominant culture and institutions. Evidence of its pervasiveness confronts us both in personal anecdotes and in hard data on racial disparities across many areas of society – from policing and health to education and social welfare.

It is commonly believed that the biggest obstacle to meaningful change is our inability to recognize our own racial prejudices. The prevalence of unconscious racism or “implicit bias” has been well documented by American social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt (in her seminal book, Biased) and others. Some have responded by taking steps to make the implicit explicit through education generally, and diversity and anti-racism training in particular. Governments and corporations have invested in programs to teach employees about bias and stereotypes, hoping that raising consciousness will change attitudes, assumptions and behaviour. But the evidence is emerging that this strategy is not effective in producing lasting change, as recently reported in a meta-analysis of close to 1,000 studies of anti-bias interventions.

Efforts to reduce bias through education and training may simply not work because it is impossible to change people’s ingrained mindsets and emotions, at least in the short term. A more promising avenue to consider is the social context in which people operate when they interact with others. Implicit in diversity training is the idea that racism is fuelled mainly by what people know and think, but what matters more is what people say and how they behave in the presence of others. Outward expressions of racism are governed in large part by collective social norms about acceptable behaviour. The term “norms” sometimes gets mentioned in the context of problematic content on social media, but what has yet to receive any serious attention is the concept of “social norms” as a fundamental aspect of society that contributes to the systemic nature of racism and where we might focus to address the problem.

Social norms are widely held expectations about what is, and is not, acceptable to say and do in particular situations. What is distinctive about such norms is that they are not defined by what people think is important to them personally, but by what they see as the social expectations of others whose opinions matter to them. As such, norms exert a powerful influence on how people act in public and social situations, quite apart from what they may think or feel inside.

These norms are typically well entrenched, but do change over time. The Holocaust led many people to decide it was no longer acceptable to articulate anti-Jewish stereotypes. The growing awareness of LGBTQ individuals in society and the legislative endorsement of same-sex marriage both improved attitudes and also made it no longer socially acceptable to trade in homophobic slurs. Many people may still harbour negative views about Jews and LGBTQ people, but most now understand it is no longer okay to express them.

Sometimes social norms change as a result of intentional efforts. Arguably the most striking example is the successful campaign to change norms around tobacco use in public. Just over a generation ago, smoking in public was common, even cool. Today, the behaviour has become effectively “denormalized” as inconsiderate and self-defeating, even as a significant proportion of the population continues to smoke in private. Regulatory measures that restrict smoking in public settings are also important, but it is the norms more than the laws that govern behaviour. By contrast, consider jaywalking, which is also legally forbidden but widely socially accepted.

Social norms play a key role in the dynamics of racism and prejudice because they establish the boundaries around which people act toward those they see as “other.” While internal attitudes and stereotypes are stubbornly resistant to short-term change, action and speech are more amenable to influence and normative pressures. This means that focusing on social norms can be an effective strategy for addressing racism in a meaningful way – especially if the collective norms against intolerance and discrimination are strengthening, which now appears to be happening. Evidence for this can be found in the recent public condemnation of wearing “blackface” in costume, which in a different era was considered by many to be harmless party attire.

There is nothing new about the concept of social norms, which social scientists have studied in academic settings and applied to public health challenges in developing countries. What has been missing is the practical application of this science to important societal problems such as racism, as well as other pressing challenges such as promoting physical distancing during a pandemic. The essential starting point is to first properly define and measure specific social norms about race-related actions and speech in order to determine their breadth and strength across the population (a type of research our institute now plans to undertake). Such information can then point to where interventions might be directed – to reinforce “positive norms” that are currently prevalent in society (no wearing of blackface) and de-normalizing “negative norms” (e.g., telling jokes that demean the “other”). This might take the form of public awareness campaigns (as was done to de-normalize public smoking) or employee-directed programs. Government and corporate leaders might be effective communicators of appropriate normative behaviour, to the extent they are credible and can exert influence over relevant audiences (which research might confirm).

Today in Canada, our understanding of the current reality of racial injustice is at odds with our stated aspirations of justice and inclusion. This tension provides us with a valuable opportunity to create a more just society by developing new strategies that effectively apply normative pressures on each other to do a better job of treating each other as we ourselves expect to be treated.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-changing-social-norms-is-the-key-to-addressing-racism/

Canadian exceptionalism in attitudes toward immigration

More on Focus Canada 2018 findings from Michael Adams and Keith Neuman:

Xenophobic retrenchment has been evident in many societies lately. Anti-immigrant parties have made or consolidated gains in countries such as Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands and, most recently, Italy. Resentment of immigration helped to motivate at least some British voters who supported Brexit. And of course, President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants to his country has been hostile — whether they come from Mexico, Muslim-majority countries or African countries.

Many commentators have speculated that Canada may take a similar turn. Certainly, Canada is not immune to bigotry. In addition to forms of discrimination that reveal themselves in economic data and survey findings, this country experienced a singularly violent attack on Canadian Muslims last year: a hate-motivated mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque that killed six people.

Are Canadians souring on their country’s traditionally high levels of immigration? Are they becoming more likely to support political candidates who channel ethnic and nationalist resentments? Are immigrants themselves souring on life in Canada?

Remarkably, recent survey findings suggest the opposite. New research by the Environics Instituteindicates two important and hopeful findings. First, Canadian attitudes toward immigrants remain open and positive. This pattern, which has been in evidence since the early 1990s, has not reversed in recent years. Second, Canada stands out internationally in the happiness that immigrants themselves report, and in the general public’s positive attitudes toward their foreign-born compatriots. (One driver of these mutually positive feelings may be that around 4 in 10 Canadians are themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants — meaning that immigrants’ attitudes are public attitudes to a significant extent.)

In spite of high and growing levels of immigration into Canada (around 300,000 in 2017), 6 in 10 Canadians recently  surveyed by Environics disagree that immigration levels are too high, compared with 35 percent who agree. Eighty percent believe the economic impact of immigration is positive, a conviction that goes a long way in explaining the success of the Canadian model.

Attitudes toward the legitimacy of refugee claims has grown more positive than they have been in the past three decades. More Canadians disagree (45 percent) than agree (38 percent) with the statement: “Most people claiming to be refugees and not real refugees” — and that disagreement has more than tripled since 1987.

Canadians do express concern about the speed with which they think immigrants adopt “Canadian values.” Today half of us (51 percent) do not think immigrants adopt Canadian values quickly enough, but rather than surging in recent years, the proportion of Canadians who hold this attitude has actually declined from 72 percent in 1993. Such concern is now at the lowest level in the 25 years over which this survey question has been put to Canadians.

Canadians stand out internationally in the way they think about immigration and diversity in their society.

Gallup’s Migrant Acceptance Index is a composite score for a society’s openness toward immigrants, made up of responses to three questions about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that immigrants live in their country, become their neighbours, and marry a close relative. The survey covered 140 countries, and Canada ranked fourth overall in its acceptance of migrants. Among those in the OECD, Canada ranks third and the United States ranks tenth, while major European countries like Germany, the UK, Italy and France are farther down the list, followed by those in Eastern Europe.

What about immigrants themselves? Do they feel at ease in Canada? The just-released 2018 World Happiness Report finds Canadian immigrants’ assessment of their “subjective well-being” is among the most positive in the world: ranking seventh out of those of 156 countries. Immigrants’ happiness in Canada is fairly consistent regardless of where they’ve come from and where they’ve settled in Canada. Their self-reported well-being is also more similar to that of other Canadians than it is to people in their countries of origin.

The World Happiness Report’s authors note that newcomers tend to arrive in their new societies full of optimism, but in societies that prove unwelcoming, happiness declines over time, meaning that settled migrants end up less happy than new arrivals. Among more accepting countries, newcomers’ optimism is affirmed by experience, and happiness remains high among settled migrants. The data show this is clearly the case in Canada.

It’s not unreasonable to think that an accepting society and happy, optimistic immigrants create a virtuous cycle over time — with most people doing their best to be fair and friendly and to give others the benefit of the doubt. It’s worth noting that, as immigrants become more numerous — and, increasingly, spread beyond the traditional catchment areas of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal — the proportions of Canadians who report direct experiences with immigrants and various groups different from their own is on the rise. Generally speaking, personal experience with difference breeds good feeling (and probably helps to inoculate people against fear-mongering in the media or online).

Still, large majorities of Canadians acknowledge the reality of racism and discrimination. For instance, 84 percent of Canadians believe Canadian Muslims face discrimination often (50 percent) or occasionally (34 percent). Large majorities also believe immigrants from the Middle East, Indigenous people and Black people face discrimination at least occasionally. These findings indicate that most of us recognize there’s still much work to be done to live up to some of our rhetoric about diversity and inclusion, but acknowledgement of society’s shortcomings is a better place to start from than denial.

For now, it’s worth bearing in mind that, even amid gloomy headlines from both here and abroad, millions of people are quietly getting along in Canadian communities every day. Moreover, things can and do change for the better; people have a record of changing their minds in our imperfect country. According to a 2016 Environics survey, little more than 20 years ago only 35 percent of Canadians felt that two people of the same sex who live together should be regarded as being the same as a married couple. In 2016, the proportion was 73 percent.  (Some of this change is intergenerational: tolerant young people replacing older traditionalists. But many Canadians (including many older people) have changed their minds on same-sex marriage.

As some other societies retrench, Canadians — those born here and those born elsewhere — appear to be continuing their evolution toward greater mutual acceptance and greater acknowledgement of where their society falls short on equity. These recent findings suggest that Canada has a strong foundation from which to work toward a country where even more of us can report happiness, well-being and optimism for the future.

via Canadian exceptionalism in attitudes toward immigration