A study in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media reports that students who listened to white rock music (White Stripes, Bruce Springsteen) prior to an activity involving allotting funds among four supposedly racially identified groups made decisions biased toward the supposedly white group. Those who listened to racially mixed top forty (Gwen Stefani, Akon) allotted funds more equitably, while those who listened to white power, white nationalist groups (Screwdriver) were even more punitive in their funding decisions.
The study is being reported in various places under headlines like “Does Listening to Rock Make You Racist?” Thus, it should get a lot of publicity. It certainly grabbed my attention. However, the study was small and the methodology questionable. The students waited for seven minutes in a room with one of the genres of music in the background:
“The participants were then called in and told they had the opportunity to give feedback about how their tuition money should be distributed to four student groups – called the Centers of African American Studies, Latino American Studies, Arab American Studies, and Rural and Agricultural Studies.”
The students then made decisions the study’s authors interpret as showing racial bias. Now the problem is that there is no clearly white group on that list. Is “Rural and Agricultural Studies” code for white? Does choosing that group over the others mean racial bias or are there other totally legitimate reasons for such a choice? I can imagine many reasons, one being that “Rural and Agricultural Studies” might be seen as more inclusive than the other three. Why not include a center for European-American Studies to equal out the choices? Also, did they control for the race and background of the students, where they grew up, what their majors were, what music they listen to the rest of the time?
This study also raises more general queries. What about white artists playing music by artists of color? What about the reverse situation? Since I listened to predominantly classic rock growing up, was I predisposed to racism until I started listening to classic blues artists? Does it matter that a lot of the classic rock involved white artists copying those blues artists? Where does world music fit in? What about jazz?
There is so much potential for discussion here, but in terms of science, I think this study works from a weak foundation. I just hope that people reading the catchy headline will look closer.