Why people who are anti-sexist aren’t necessarily anti-racist

Researchers tracked attitudes over 40 years on gender and racial equality, and say that changing views matter when it comes to supporting policies that combat or reinforce inequality

Americans have grown supportive of gender equality in the last 40 years, according to new research that also found attitudes about racial equality have changed considerably, too — but at a dramatically slower pace.

Shifting attitudes on both race and gender equality were the subject of a study by researchers at the University of North Texas, University at Buffalo and University of Illinois that will be published in the American Sociological Review.

Key findings that people are not consistent in their social ideologies and that their feelings are probably largely driven by their own race and gender are highlighted in a briefing paper for the Council on Contemporary Families.

The research was driven by curiosity over whether changing attitudes about one kind of inequality would be accompanied by changes regarding other kinds of inequality. The answer was largely no, said study co-author Joanna R. Pepin, assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo.

Attitudes are the “cultural mechanisms of inequality,” with implications for whether people will support policies designed to address inequities, according to lead author William J. Scarborough, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas. If, for example, people believe inequality only exists between those who are Black and those who are white because Blacks aren’t motivated, “they’re less likely to support policies to address it than if they think it’s due to discrimination,” Scarborough said.

Similarly, how people feel about whether women should work outside the home makes a difference in whether people support programs created to help families with working moms, such as child care subsidies or paid leave.

Sociologists and others have long studied attitudes surrounding gender equality and racial equality, but separately. Pepin said researchers wondered if views about whether women and men are equally well-suited to politics or employment have changed alone, or in tandem with a change in whether racial inequality is seen as the product of systemic challenges like less access to education or due to flaws of those who fell behind or never caught up.

“We thought it was really important to look at the interplay of race and gender because that really represents people’s lives. We’re not separated into these boxes,” said Pepin.

The belief that women are as capable and should have the same opportunities as men grew between 1977 and 2018, a period the researchers analyzed using the General Social Survey. But “a very large proportion of people discarded their old prejudices about gender without shedding their prejudices about race,” the study found.

Attitudes about racial inequality and its roots didn’t start to change significantly until around 2012, the change accelerating as time went on. It seemed to coincide with larger social movements like Black Lives Matter, Pepin and Scarborough told the Deseret News.

Shifting notions

The researchers inferred attitudes toward gender by examining opinions expressed in the General Social Survey on “whether women were as suited as men for politics and whether they thought women should primarily focus on raising families while men focused on their careers.” 

While the General Social Survey had data on both gender and race dating back to 1977, it didn’t identify Asian or Hispanic respondents until the late 1990s, so the researchers focused on inequality between Blacks and whites.

In the 1970s, two-thirds of Americans thought women could only raise children successfully if they chose not to work for pay outside the home, the study said. At the same time, white people largely rejected the notion that discrimination accounted for disparities like economic well-being among Blacks, largely blaming “individual deficiencies.” In 1977, just 40% saw more systemic factors like discrimination at play.

After 1977, support for women working rose steadily, with three-fourths in 2018 rejecting the notion women had a duty to stay home. With race, the percentage of Americans who believed systemic attitudes played a role in creating inequality fell from 40% in 1977 to 32% in 2004.

Less than a decade later, that prevailing attitude began to change, too.

Four ideological combos

The study found people fell into four categories of social ideology.

One group supported both gender equality and racial equality.

Another group — primarily older adults — were very traditional on gender roles and prone to view any disadvantage experienced by someone who is Black as due to personal flaws, not any systemic challenge like discrimination.

The third group felt women could do as well as men, but blamed personal failings if Blacks were left behind. “As of 2012, nearly three-fourths of survey respondents endorsed gender equality in public leadership and in the home, but 6 out of 10 gender egalitarians continued to blame racial inequality on personal flaws,” the study said.

The fourth group believed that women should cleave to traditional roles and leave paid work outside the home to men, but they also felt there were systemic issues that created inequality between Blacks and whites. 

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One reason people became more gender-egalitarian was self-interest, especially among white men supporting equal employment of white women to increase the household’s income, Scarborough said. Many of them didn’t extend egalitarian attitudes to include Blacks.

The research found people tended to have the attitudes that benefited them most.

Between 1996 and 2014, the most common combination was anti-sexist, but not anti-racist, they said.  But “especially since 2016, people who support gender equality have increasingly adopted more progressive racial attitudes, perhaps reflecting growing overlap between anti-racism and anti-sexism,” the report says. 

“Our findings suggest that while individuals who hold some progressive ideals may be open to understanding parallels with other dimensions of inequality, this does not occur automatically, but in response to social activism and debate,” they wrote.

Scarborough said his big takeaway is that believing the sexes are equal does not live up to that billing in the truest sense without anti-racist attitudes and support for gender equality across races. Without that, being pro-gender could amount to “resource hoarding” to make sure one’s family or race gets ahead, possibly at the expense of others. Doing that can increase the divide between people of different races in areas like economic outcomes and job opportunities, he said.

He sees evidence that gender-based wage gaps for Black and Hispanic women continue to be much larger than those for white women in the workplace. So white women are privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others. 

Nearly everyone who’s anti-racist supports gender equality, Scarborough said. The reverse is not necessarily true. Pepin noted Black men and women were more likely to be progressive on both and attitudes are more apt to align by someone’s racial identity, rather than their gender identity. 

Black women had “virtually zero” views that race differences are due to individuals being flawed and that women don’t belong in politics or at work. White women were the most likely to challenge gender inequality while reinforcing racial inequality. Meanwhile, Black men were more likely than others to be anti-racist, but believe that women should do most of the housework.

Who said that?

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In the research, the group believing race inequality stems from racism and who support gender equality tend to belong to younger birth cohorts, have college degrees, reside in the West or Northeast regions, have managerial/professional jobs and belong to the upper/middle class. They are less religious than those with other views.

The opposite is true of those who believe that racial inequity results from personal flaws and that women should cleave to traditional roles. Those folks tended to be pre-baby boomer, have less education, live in the South, work blue-collar jobs and be religious.

Those with a college degree are more than three times as likely to hold gender-equitable ideals and believe structural problems contribute to racial inequity, compared to those who didn’t graduate from high school.

Study co-authors include Danny L. Lambouths III of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Ronald Kwon and Ronaldo Monasterio, both from the University of North Texas.

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