benefits of virtue-signaling: professors’ antiracist tweets predict private behavior

(Dayton, OH) Deivis Angeli, Matt Lowe, and a group called The Village Team sent emails requesting informational meetings about graduate school to 18,514 academics in the USA, none of whom were Black. Half of the requests were signed by a prospective student with a “distinctively Black name,” and half with “a distinctively White name.”*

Overall, the professors did not discriminate, accepting 30-31% of the requests from people whose names sounded Black or White. In a separate survey of graduate students, most of them predicted that professors would discriminate in this situation, and it turns out these students were too pessimistic.

However, there were differences among the professors. Those who had tweeted at least once between January 2020 and March 2022 with a “racial justice-related word or phrase (e.g. racism, George Floyd)” were 1.9 percentage points more likely to accept a meeting with a person they might assume was Black, whereas those who never used a racial-justice word in their tweets during that period were “5.3 percentage points … less likely to accept a meeting with a Black student than with a White student.”

In other words, an academic with a Twitter handle who never tweeted about racism in those years would be somewhat likely to discriminate against a Black prospective student, whereas an academic who had tweeted about racial justice would be more prone to meet with a prospective student who is Black than with one who is White. For a prospective student, a tweet–which is a cheap expression of opinion–provides a meaningful signal about the professor’s likely personal behavior. Even though academics as a whole would not discriminate, there is some anti-Black bias, and it is concentrated among those who never take a public stance against racism.

I take Musa al-Gharbi’s points that “very public demonstrations of morality” typically have “impure motives” and that “the whites who seem most eager to condemn ‘ideological racism’ … and who are most ostentatious in demonstrating their own ‘wokeness,’ also tend to be the people who benefit the most from what sociologists describe as ‘institutional’ or ‘systemic’ racism.”

For instance, we college professors hold valuable, protected social roles in institutions that disproportionately serve white people, and many (like me) also benefit from policies like zoning, policing, and school-district boundaries that we rarely work to change. Writ large, the Democratic Party’s coalition tilts toward advantaged people, even as the party expresses rhetorical commitment to equity.** These are troubling phenomena at the group level. They help to explain our failure to achieve deeper change.

Al-Gharbi quotes an apt warning from the New Testament:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full… When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they like to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full.

Matthew 6: 1-16

But it is also interesting that public expressions of anti-racism correlate with private acts that promote equity–more so than most students believe. Angeli et al. can reject a hypothesis about individual hypocrisy among the people they investigated. In this context, “virtue-signaling” may serve both to reinforce valuable group norms and to convey genuine information about an individual’s likely behavior.

We do suffer from contradictions at the group level–in other words, from systematic failures to address social inequities that benefit the people who denounce them. It’s perhaps no surprise that people are willing to put their beliefs into practice by, for example, taking half an hour to talk to a prospective student online, yet they won’t transform institutions that benefit them. But it is actually difficult to change systems, or even to know how to start. It may be that people are not so much hypocrites as bad at making systemic change.

*Angeli, Deivis and Lowe, Matt and Team, The Village, Virtue Signals (2022). CESifo Working Paper No. 10475. ** Social class inversion in the 2022 US elections. See also how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.