A new study from Yale University concludes that white liberals actually make themselves appear less competent when interacting with African Americans.
In the first part of Self-Presentations in Interracial Settings: The Competence Downshift by White Liberals, researchers analyzed 25 years of speeches delivered by white presidential candidates to predominantly black audiences and predominantly white audiences. The study found that liberal candidates tended to use words that downplayed their language competence.
“For example, using the word ‘good’ instead of the word ‘exquisite.’ If you use the word ‘good’ instead of the word ‘exquisite’ you are going to appear less competent,” explained Cydney Dupree, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale School of Management and lead author of the study.
A perfect example of what the study calls “competence downshift” is this transcript of a speech former President Bill Clinton gave to the NAACP in 2015.
One of their representatives, I really respected it because he sort of manned up and told the truth. He said "you gotta understand," he said "we're doing this not because we are racist, we're doing this 'cause those folks don't vote for us. If they voted for us, we would make it easier for them to vote." I mean, you gotta like it when a guy's sticking it to ya if he looks you in the eye and tells you the truth.
The study concluded that in all of the speeches analyzed white liberal candidates engaged in very predictable behavior.
“It was statistically significant,” said Dupree, “across these studies this seems to be a subtle but persistent effect.”
The study also directed white subjects who identified as liberal to write emails or other correspondences to what the subject believed was either a white or black person. Much like the liberal politicians, the tendency for the white liberals in the study was to use words that downplayed their competence when communicating with a black person.
So why are liberals engaging in this competence downshift? Dupree thinks it's a sympathetic, but ultimately misguided effort to engage with African Americans.
“It appears that white liberals, who tend to be more motivated to get along with racial minorities, and who want to try to forge that connection, unfortunately seem to be relying on stereotypes to do so. And these stereotypes still tend to depict racial minorities as being less competent than whites,” said Dupree.
Dupree says the next step in her research is to figure out how black people perceive this downshift, and whether they change their competence level when interacting with white people.
The study is slated to be published soon in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.