In a university setting, students are often confronted with issues of race much more frequently, and the issues may be more thoroughly discussed, than in other settings. There is an interesting basis in the research literature for the relationship between language and racism. This research is very applicable to the college campus due to all of the communication that takes place there - in lecture halls, in the student newspaper, in the couple hundred student organizations, and in late-night, old-fashioned bull sessions with dormitory pals. So, exactly how does language relate to issues of campus racism?

  Researchers Schnake and Ruscher (1998) examined the relationship between modern racism and the linguistic intergroup bias, originally described by Maass, Salvi, Arcuri, and Semin (1989). The linguistic intergroup bias states that people use A) less abstraction when responding to positive behaviors of out-group members (individuals who are not considered part of your group affiliation) or negative behaviors of in-group members (individuals considered part of your group affiliation), and B) more abstraction when reacting to negative behaviors of out-group members or positive behaviors of in-group members (Maass et al., 1989). To explain this phenomenon, imagine an incident in which one African American man, John, hits another African American man, Jim. First, this is considered an extremely stereotypical behavior, one that many people would think was likely to occur between two Black men. A person describing this behavior might say, "It looks like John hit Jim," a very concrete use of language, whereas another person might describe the incident by saying, "John is obviously an aggressive person." This latter statement is an example of an abstract use of language. In light of the linguistic intergroup bias, Schnake and Ruscher (1998) predicted that high modern racists would characterize the stereotypical behavior of African Americans more abstractly than would low modern racists.

The researchers used McConahay, Hardee, and Batt's (1981, cited in Schnake & Ruscher, 1998) definition of modern racism, which describes "certain European Americans' conflict between egalitarian beliefs on one hand and residual negative affect toward African Americans on the other hand." The participants, all of whom were Caucasian, were each shown two series of drawings - the first depicted a Caucasian man, and the second, an African American man, each of whom were engaged in various stereotypical and countertypical situations (behaviors that are unexpected). Each participant was then to describe, to a person who was supposedly in the next room, what they had viewed. The researchers measured both the linguistic level used in the descriptions and the overall negativity of these descriptions. The results showed that, indeed, participants who were high in modern racism described stereotypical behaviors of African Americans at a higher level of abstraction than did participants who were low in modern racism (Schnake and Ruscher, 1998).

The Court allows content-based restrictions on speech when: 
  a) it creates a clear and present danger of imminent lawless action, 
  b) it constitutes fighting words, 
  c) the speech, film, and so forth are obscene, 
  d) the speech constitutes defamation
  e) the speech violates regulations against false/deceptive advertising,
  f) the government can demonstrate a compelling interest.

  -(Leets & Giles, 1997) 

Researchers Leets and Giles (1997) examined the literatures of both jurisprudence and communication to determine the conditions under which racist speech is perceived as harmful. The definition of hate speech is used in the legal community to address speech that denigrates persons on the basis of their race or ethnic origin, religion, gender, age, physical condition, disability, sexual orientation, and so forth (Sedler, 1992, as cited in Leets & Giles, 1997). The "fighting words" exception noted by the Court has proven to be a popular means of intervention with university speech codes. Hodulik (1991, as cited in Leets & Giles, 1997) notes that in order to be considered hate speech, it must be directed at a particular individual and be an intentional statement to comprise fighting words (words that would prompt the "average" addressee to fight).

The communication literature focuses mainly on the issue of verbal aggression to describe the concept of racist speech. Infante and Wigley (1986, as cited in Leets & Giles, 1997) define verbal aggression as speech that attacks the self-concept of the receiver to deliver psychological pain. The linguistic intergroup bias model (Fiedler & Semin, as cited in Leets & Giles, 1997) suggests that language constitutes a "subtle way of maintaining and transmitting positive in-group and negative out-group perceptions." To assess the harm and liability of overt racist speech, Leets and Giles (1997) looked at Asian American college students' reactions to direct and indirect racist expressions. The researchers defined direct speech as "utterances in which the propositional content (sentence meaning) of the utterance is consistent with what the speaker intends to accomplish (speaker meaning)." Indirect speech refers to "utterances in which sentence meaning and the speaker meaning are not necessarily identical...[these acts] convey multiple speaker meanings, which lessen the speaker's accountability."

The study examined how the attribution of harm was influenced by a number of variables including group membership, message severity, and message explicitness. Participants in the study were Asian American and Caucasian college students at a predominantly Caucasian university. Since the racist speech introduced in the study was clearly against Asians, the Asian Americans were considered the "out-group" and the Caucasians were considered the "in-group." As predicted, the results of the first study showed that racist speech is perceived as more harmful when it is severe. However, out-group members considered the severe speech as more harmful than did the in-group members in either the mild or the severe condition. Leets and Giles (1997) attributed this surprising finding to the black sheep effect, which is "an attempt to ensure a positive social identity when it is threatened by embarrassing members."

The second study found that the in-group found indirect racist speech acts more harmful than out-group members, who felt that direct racist speech acts were more harmful (Leets & Giles, 1997). The researchers look to other studies (Essed, 1992, as cited in Leets & Giles, 1997) to explain: when dominant group members are confronted with indirect racism, they claim that the sender probably did not mean it in such a manner and the receiver was being oversensitive. It was also suggested that indirect racist speech is perceived as more harmful to in-group members as a result of the time and energy they invest in sorting out the source's intention or meaning of the message (Leets & Giles, 1997).

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By: Jerry M. Greene, Claudia Peschiera, Jessica E. Shuleva, Elizabeth Stricklen

This project was produced for Psy 324, Living in a Social World, Spring 1999, at Miami University. All images in these pages are used by permission or were produce by the authors. Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 23:42:59 .   This document has been accessed 1 times since 1 May 1999. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman