7 February 2012

Covert prejudice and negative perceptions towards minority groups are a significant problem for Australian communities, according to a new Australian study.

The Australian Community Capacity Study, led by University of Queensland criminologist, Dr Rebecca Wickes, was conducted among almost 10,000 Brisbane and Melbourne residents living across 300 suburbs.

The study results show that residents are more likely to perceive disorder — such as public drinking, loitering and drug use — when they over-estimate the number of ethnic minorities, in particular Muslims, and Indigenous Australians.

“The study found perceptions of neighbourhood crime and disorder are heightened when residents distort the number of non-Anglo Saxon living in their suburb,” said Dr Wickes of UQ's Institute for Social Science Research.

“It showed that when people see more ethnic diversity in their suburb, they see more disorder," she said.

"This is irrespective of the neighbourhood’s socio-economic status and the rate of violent crime.”

It also found that residents in Brisbane were more likely to associate ethnic diversity with crime and disorder when compared to their Melbourne counterparts.

“In the suburbs that we studied, people use cues like language, religion and race to gauge the severity of community problems," Dr Wickes said.

"This is not to say that these people are prejudiced, rather it suggests that they may subconsciously associate a given group with disorder.

“While obvious acts of prejudice are often easier to see, covert prejudice is just as harmful as it compromises the accuracy and fairness of judgments about people.”

The study has important ramifications in terms of people’s behaviour.

“When people hold negative beliefs about groups of people, they may be less likely to work with neighbours to solve local problems," Dr Wickes said.

"These ethnically biased associations can be especially detrimental for people living in socially disadvantaged communities.”

However, these associations, she says, are not fixed and can be changed.

Dr Wickes and her colleagues found that when residents lived in a community where people trusted each other and shared common values, they not only reported lower levels of disorder, but they also displayed lower levels of covert prejudice.

She said while there was no doubt that lower crime was beneficial for all members of society, it may have little impact on covert prejudice.

The findings from this study suggesedt that as long as there are negative associations between particular groups of people and particular types of problems, covert prejudice would remain a significant issue in Australia.
For more information on this study and the Australian Community Capacity Study please contact Dr Rebecca Wickes at the University of Queensland on 07 3365 2204 or email r.wickes@uq.edu.au.