Racial prejudice and the elderly
By Howard Witt | Tribune correspondent
7:04 PM CDT, September 23, 2008
HOUSTON - The personality is familiar to us all: the sweet old aunt, the loving grandfather or the generous widow down the street, each of them unfailingly kind toward friends and family but given to flights of shocking prejudice when the conversation turns toward ethnic groups to which they don't belong.
Often the response is a nervous laugh, a wan smile or a hasty effort to change the subject. We assume that old people are the products of less-enlightened times, they're unlikely to change and their comments, however ugly, are largely innocuous.
Now, though, in the midst of the nation's first presidential campaign between a black candidate and a white one, a convergence of new political and scientific research suggests that prejudice and stereotyping among elderly white Americans in particular may not be so innocuous after all.
Older white voters heavily favored Sen. Hillary Clinton over Sen. Barack Obama during the Democratic primary season, and national polls indicate that group now leans toward Sen. John McCain by 10 percentage points or more.
RACE IN AMERICA Pollsters and political scientists cannot pinpoint how much of that anti-Obama sentiment may be related to racial prejudice. But sociologists say their research indicates that implicit racial biases influence the voting decisions of many Americans of all ages—and that, for very basic physiological reasons related to the aging of their brains, many older citizens may be unable to suppress their prejudicial impulses, whether at the family dinner table or in the privacy of a voting booth.
In other words, Grandma's biased outbursts may not be her fault. And Obama's election strategists may want to schedule more campaign stops at nursing homes.
"We learn stereotyping at a young age when we can't really appreciate it's not the right thing to do," said William von Hippel, a psychologist who studies age-related declines in the area of the brain devoted to inhibiting unwanted or socially inappropriate thoughts. "Once we get older, we can decide that racial stereotypes are wrong and we can inhibit them with an effortful act. But older adults gradually lose that ability to inhibit."
Von Hippel, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, has found that as the brain's frontal lobe begins to atrophy with age, elderly adults exhibit greater social inappropriateness and increased stereotyping and prejudice. And it happens despite their best intentions.