This week, Yale University released a report about a fascinating study from Cydney Dupree, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale School of Management, and Susan Fiske of Princeton University. The study asked whether white liberal American politicians treat minority Americans differently than they do white audiences, and whether the same holds true for conservatives. The study examined 74 speeches delivered by white presidential candidates over the course of 25 years, about half to minority audiences and about half to white audiences. The speeches were then analyzed for the number of words related to ability and status (competence words), and the number of words related to friendliness (warmth words).
The results: white liberals tended to radically increase the number of warmth words and decrease the number of competence words used when speaking with minority audiences. According to the study, “Democratic candidates used fewer competence-related words in speeches delivered to mostly minority audiences than they did in speeches delivered to mostly white audiences.”
The study didn’t end there.
Next, the study organizers asked white participants to email with a partner without seeing that partner. The partner would be named in either stereotypically white or stereotypically black fashion. The study found, shockingly, that “well-intentioned liberal whites may draw on low-status/competence stereotypes to affiliate with minorities.”
How about conservatives? It turns out that conservatives spoke to white people in the same way they spoke to black people. “It was kind of an unpleasant surprise to see this subtle but persistent effect,” Dupree stated. “Even if it’s ultimately well-intentioned, it could be seen as patronizing.”
The fact that white liberals tend to treat minority audiences more emotionally, and without resort to competence-related language, is certainly patronizing. It’s ridiculous for white liberals to think that they have to dumb themselves down in some way to speak with minority voters.
But the study also raises a more serious implicit question: why have minority voters resonated overwhelmingly to those Democratic presidential candidates who emphasize warmth over competence? In other words, why is it working? While we can point out the double standard of applying warmth rather than competence to minority audiences by white liberals, those same white liberals have been winning an ever-increasing share of the minority vote. By contrast, white Americans have been voting in ever-larger numbers for Republicans over that same period.
Why? The obvious answer is that many minority Americans may react poorly to competence-based language — that different communities approach education and linguistic exactitude differently. That’s a bad thing, and catering to it is a bad thing as well. In 2000, George W. Bush spoke before the NAACP and took on precisely this assumption, slamming the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and adding that he aspired to an equality wherein no one was “segregated by low expectations.” But the Left has objected to that idea, instead reveling in the soft bigotry of low expectations, suggesting that those who call for equal enthusiasm for a meritocracy are in fact emissaries of bigotry and racism. The subtle bias the study’s authors cite isn’t so subtle — it’s baked into the very foundations of modern liberalism.
It will take an act of will for white liberals to abandon their racial double standard. They will have to adhere to a philosophy that everyone, regardless of race, ought to be treated with an equal level of competence. If they don’t, they’re likely to continue polarizing the nation along racial lines.