Sociologists have known (and measured) for decades that different jobs or fields can have very different levels of status (the more academic term: occupational prestige). A new study puts this social fact together with identifying people of different races and came to an interesting conclusion:
When it comes to determining the race of a stranger, our minds see more than skin color. That’s the conclusion of a study co-authored by UCI sociologist Andrew Penner, which was really quite simple when it came to the research. Viewers were shown images of the same man in business attire and a janitor’s uniform. Photos of a different man were added to the mix, as were those of women. Above the photos were boxes marked “white” and “black” so the viewers could assign the race of each person shown. You can imagine what the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation-funded research found.
Tracking the movements of each viewer’s mouse as it selected the race of the model, the researchers discovered that, initially, those in the business clothing were most often perceived to be white, while those in the janitor uniforms were usually ranked as black, despite the person in the respective photos being the same person of the same race.
Keep in mind that the person being tested may have ultimately chosen the correct race of the model. What the researchers were after was that initial assumption. The pattern grew more pronounced as faces became more racially ambiguous, the study concluded.
This is a reminder that there is a lot of interplay between race and social class. There are perceptions about people in certain jobs, represented in this study by particular clothing, that override our knowledge of the skin color of the person within the clothing. In Malcolm Gladwell Blink style, we make quick assumptions and then make more “rational” conclusions.
I wonder if the researchers looked at jobs where the perceptions about those workers might be similar. Would research subjects make such quick conclusions and if so, what would guide those snap judgments?