Thursday, November 16, 2017

White Conservatives and Black Lives

I was about to post this article on the day that Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges in the killing of Philando Castille. That felt like the absolutely wrong moment to share a piece about how to talk across the ideological divide that separates Black Lives Matter from its detractors. It was a moment for the unrestrained expression of grief and rage. Since then, of course, we’ve seen the white supremacist alt-right assert itself more publicly and violently than it had in recent times, so I also want to emphasize that, when I refer to conservatives in this piece, I mean the traditional sort, not the alt-right, though I am under no illusions about the very real connections between the putrid ideology of the latter and the everyday ways white supremacy is implicit in both liberal and conservative politics.
With that said, here is the original piece:
Black Lives Matter is probably the most successful U.S. based civil and human rights movement in a generation. Its simple and elegant message has gone around the world and spawned many imitators. Yet one sector of the U.S. populace has remained largely unmoved by BLM’s message — white conservatives. Indeed, they have fulminated against it from the beginning. It is, of course, commonplace to attribute this communication breakdown to simple racism. And that’s certainly legit. But it’s ultimately not that useful.
I want to clarify at the outset that this should, in no way, be construed as a critique of Black Lives Matter, the movement by Black folks to assert their right to exist with freedom and dignity. I am not here to white-mansplain how they should improve their message. The movement’s success speaks for itself. However, there is no denying it has its limits, as any communication strategy does. The limitation I want to discuss concerns what often happens when white liberals try to talk to our conservative-leaning friends and family.
Moral Foundations Theory
For a good long while, I was genuinely bewildered by the reaction of conservatives to BLM. And it’s not just right-wingers, either. This includes many folks who might identify as independent but have a more traditional outlook on social matters. I was thoroughly perplexed, for example, by the rejoinder, “all lives matter.” How is it possible to not understand that “black lives matter” means black lives matter, too, not black lives matter more or only?
There had to be more going on than lack of comprehension. If that were all it was, a simple clarification would do the job. In reality, when white liberals try to convince conservatives there is often anger and digging in of heels. And the person trying to defend BLM ends up regarding their conservative counterpart as an uncaring, irredeemable racist. This experience is frustrating, of course, but it is also secretly satisfying to know with certainty that you’re on the right side of the issue.
I recently came across research on Moral Foundations Theory(MFT), that kind of blew my mind. The ideas, which are explained in the book, The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt offer some powerful insight into the communication fail that happens between liberals and conservatives. Let me start with a brief primer on the theory. MFT was developed by a group of social and cultural psychologists trying to understand the confounding moral diversity found across various cultures. The theory proposes that the wide variety of moral systems governing human societies are based on a common set of moral foundations shared by all humans. This is not to say that nature rather than culture determines human morality. Rather, according to MFT, specific beliefs about right and wrong arise through the complex interaction between nature and culture. It might be helpful to think of these moral foundations as differently colored threads out of which a moral community weaves a unique moral tapestry.
MFT postulates six moral foundations:
  • The first foundation is care/harm. It is the basis for admiring those in need and repudiating cruelty.
  • The second is liberty/oppression. This foundation informs the conviction that it is wrong to impinge on an individual’s inherent right to freedom from unjust domination.
  • The third foundation is fairness/cheating. It informs the principle that people should get what they deserve, but no more. People who work hard are entitled to recompense and people who commit misdeeds deserve appropriate punishment.
  • The fourth foundation is sanctity/degradation, which concerns the importance of preserving the sacred. Religious strictures regarding the handling of holy objects and the performance of ceremonies rest on this foundation.
  • The fifth foundation is loyalty/betrayal, which is about commitment to an ingroup. It may be expressed as team spirit or patriotism or even racial solidarity.
  • The sixth foundation is authority/subversion. The moral duty to honor and respect one’s social superiors, such as parents, teachers, and other authority figures, stands on this foundation.

Countless intersecting historical, cultural, and contingent factors shape the way moral communities draw on these foundations to weave a functioning moral system. White liberals and white conservatives in the United States have constructed distinct moral communities with alternative moral systems (I’ll drop the modifiers “white” and “in the US”, but they are implied). Liberalism tends to emphasize the care/harm and liberty/oppression foundations, almost exclusively. For liberals, empathy for those who are suffering and the willingness to help them is the highest moral good. The actions seen as most immoral, meanwhile, are those that entail intentional harm or the domination of the weak by the strong.
Generally speaking, liberals see the notion of moral duties based on sanctity/degradation and loyalty/betrayal as backward (though environmentalists may see “nature” as sacred). The morality of loyalty is suspect for liberals because they tend to understand moral obligations as universal, meaning that ingroup and outgroup members are due the same moral consideration. Moreover, many liberals are contemptuous of the authority/subversion foundation and reject the notion that we have any moral obligation to obey or show deference to authority. On the contrary, liberals celebrate underdogs who defy the powerful (George Washington, Martin Luther King, etc.). A decent synopsis of the liberal morality might be: take care of the vulnerable and stand up for the oppressed.
That morality of care and liberation may seem like common sense if you’re a liberal, but then that’s precisely what makes you a liberal. Conservatives, by contrast, tend to give all six moral foundations roughly equal weight. Thus, while they value care and compassion, they value respect for authority and ingroup loyalty just as much. And protecting the sacred from debasement is at least as important as opposing oppression, especially if the oppressed are members of an outgroup. If the conservative moral matrix could be summed up in a single injunction, it would be: uphold the social institutions and sacred traditions responsible for preserving the social order. The heroes of this morality tend to be law enforcement officers and military veterans.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Back to Black Lives Matter
From the conservative perspective, society has an unwritten compact whereby the police protect us from crime and social breakdown, and, in exchange, we agree to grant them our trust and even a certain amount of reverence. Yet BLM activists are saying that police abuse their authority by brutalizing and killing innocent people, and that the institution itself is basically corrupt. Since, for conservatives, the compact with the police is sacred and indispensable to an orderly society, this message must be false, and to suggest otherwise is dangerously subversive. After all, the police routinely risk their lives in maintaining the thin blue line between social order and chaos.
In addition to considering it wrong to criticize the police because of their vital social role, conservatives also tend to feel a sense of ingroup loyalty toward law enforcement personnel. Outgroups, of course, may include the liberal elite, the mainstream media, and “social justice warriors.” The ultimate outgroup member, however, not only for many conservatives but for a vast swath of white America, is the young Black male from an inner-city neighborhood with sagging pants and a (presumed) gang affiliation. This figure is seen (implicitly, if not explicitly) as a grave threat to the social order, which is precisely why he is so often abused or killed by police, sometimes for the “crime” of talking back or running away. This stereotype is where the racism of the All Lives Matter crowd is most manifest. It is precisely because of this ingroup/outgroup mentality that many white folks are unable to hear the implicit but obvious “too.”
I should emphasize, parenthetically, that these racist stereotypes are by no means limited to conservatives. It is true, for the reasons I mentioned, that conservatives are more likely to believe that someone shot by police probably had it coming. But liberals, despite their professed care for victims of violence, tend to obsess over the victim’s guiltlessness, often losing interest when a victim turns out to have a criminal record or a gang affiliation.
It should be obvious that the standard liberal strategy of appealing to sympathy for victims of police violence is never going to be effective with those who feel strong loyalty to the police and a reflexive suspicion of their victims.
The Example of Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest, in which he sat refused to stand during the national anthem
(Photo: Kelley L Cox, USA TODAY Sports)
before his NFL football games, represents a near perfect example of this clash of moral foundations. While his protest was extremely powerful on a symbolic level, many saw it as a denigration of our society’s sacred symbols. From their perspective, he was being disloyal, not only to the police, but to the military, and to all those who have sacrificed to make our country what it is.
In addition, conservatives (as well as many liberals) are wedded to a racial progress narrative. This story assures us that our racist past is passed, and nowadays anyone in America can be successful. The wealth and celebrity status of athletes such as Kaepernick is seen as proof that the American dream is fully accessible to Black people. By publicly rejecting that narrative, Kaepernick was exhibiting not only disloyalty and disrespect, but ingratitude. Not surprisingly the backlash was swift and intense, and continues to negatively impact Kaepernick’s athletic career.
Allow me to re-emphasize that it is not the responsibility of Black folks to deal with the anger and resentment engendered by their requests for dignity and human rights. Kaepernick’s actions were an authentic and, in many ways, highly effective expression of his valid disappointment that his country is not living up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. He doesn’t need to change anything. It is on us white folks, those of us who are moved by the movement and want to take the message further, to consider why the message has failed to move our conservative friends and family. And we can begin by understanding how their moral worldview is organized. Simply assuming that our moral concerns are self-evidently right and calling anyone who doesn’t share them “hateful” may offer us a sense of moral superiority, but it isn’t going to reduce police violence.
Some Thoughts on Strategy
The situation may sound hopeless, but I don’t think it is. We may have to be willing to reign in our smug moral certainty, but there are possibilities for finding common ground on the goal of reducing police violence. Inroads are already appearing. For example, an article on The Federalist website argues that police accountability and transparency are essential to protect the integrity of policing. And this post on The American Conservative rejects the oft-heard rhetoric about a few bad apples being responsible for police brutality, and argues that the problem is systemic.
We may be entirely right that “the police have always been at the root of a system for managing and producing inequality.” It may also be true that out of control hooligans with badges routinely get away with murdering people of color because police culture protects them, and the larger society doesn’t care enough to ensure the system holds them accountable. But our righteousness about these things is unhelpful when we’re talking to people who do not share our moral foundations.
If we want to find common ground with conservatives, we (white folks) need to set aside our righteousness and focus on what will move them. We might, for example, emphasize the need to keep bad police from sullying the otherwise honorable profession. We could talk about the cost to taxpayers of settling lawsuits due to police misconduct. I know this one is deeply problematic, but perhaps we should be making a more of a commotion when white people are killed by the police, rather than when they are treated with kid gloves.
These approaches may feel unsatisfying because they don’t address the deepest roots of the problem. That’s to be expected. But the point is not to satisfy our moral intuitions or score moral points; it is to convince conservatives to join us in demanding greater scrutiny of the police. While it is vital that we stay connected to our own moral values, it is equally vital that we recognize the moral values of those we wish to persuade.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Trump, Implicit Bias, and the Dream of Racial Progress

“We have made progress in everything, yet nothing has changed” – Derrick Bell

Only eight short years ago, the United States elected its first Black president, and lo, the end of racism was heralded across the land. Commentators of all political stripes breathlessly reported the redemptive significance of Obama’s ascendance; the US had finally, once and for all, transcended its ugly racist past. Eight years later, that apple has certainly lost its luster. The deep and broad racial divisions revealed by the Obama presidency have thoroughly spoiled our post-racial happy ending. Thanks a lot Tea Party!

It is easy to see why rational people are willing to buy into the post-racial myth. Besides our longing to believe in racial progress, there is evidence for it. Surveys of white people have shown a steady drop in explicit racist sentiments since the 1960s. And, every time a racially charged incident occurs, remind ourselves of how far we’ve come. So, how are we to understand the Obama backlash? How did we end up electing as President of the United States an epically unqualified buffoon who built his political profile on reality TV and birther conspiracies and based his presidential campaign on stoking white racial fear and resentment?

Ironically, it appears that our investment in the story of racial progress may played a role. We white people seem to have been blind to the way racial attitudes have evolved until this seething undercurrent of racism erupted into the political sphere. Conventional surveys seem to have missed it, but researchers have known about it for decades. This unspoken form of racism is most commonly known as implicit racial bias, and is measured using the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The test has revealed that a striking 88 percent of white IAT participants show pro-white, or anti-black bias. Still, although this discovery was greeted with surprise, it has never been seen as a serious challenge to racial progress story. Indeed, it is often discussed as if it supports the racial progress story.

In the remainder of this piece, I outline three specific examples of how the discovery of implicit racial bias is framed as supporting rather than undermining the racial progress story. First, mainstream discussions tend to emphasize that implicit bias is unconscious without clarifying that, within cognitive science, the term does not mean hidden so much as overlooked. Second, racial bias is typically discussed as if it is a psychological remnant of past racism rather than a contemporary phenomenon with contemporary causes. Third, instead of asking what the prevalence of implicit racial bias might suggest about society at large, discussions typically treat it as simply a form of personal racism. These three interpretative strategies are mutually supporting, and together, allow us to sustain our belief in racial progress.

Implicit Bias and the Cognitive Unconscious

It is common to see the word unconscious substituted for implicit in mainstream reporting as well as in the scientific literature on implicit cognition. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, since the two words are technically synonymous. However, the word unconscious can be read as suggesting that our biases are harder to see than they are. Unlike the word implicit, which is unfamiliar to most non-specialists, the word unconscious, derived from psychoanalysis, has a rich history in popular culture. For the non-specialist, the word may imply that relevant mental content is inaccessible to our conscious minds. This can end up letting us off the hook from taking responsibility for our biases.

Popular writings about implicit racial bias tend to emphasize that most people renounce prejudice and are therefore shocked when they learn, usually via the IAT, that they harbor hidden racial biases. In their excellent book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Bajani and Anthony Greenwald affirm this trope in the title of their book. But the evidence does not quite justify it. Research only shows that associative memory works independently of explicit cognition, and therefore people can endorse egalitarian beliefs and be unaware that they also harbor negative racial associations. But not being aware of something does not make it hidden.

In the public imagination, unconscious often implies a shadowy realm of animalistic drives, shameful desires, and repressed memories. Thus conceived, the unconscious is so obscure that its murky depths can only be explored with the guidance of a professional. It is otherwise inaccessible to our conscious minds. For cognitive psychology, by contrast, the unconscious is relatively mundane. When cognitive psychologists talk about unconscious cognition, they are simply referring to the involuntary and automatic processes, such as framing effects, representativeness, and priming. Thus, when they describe a process as unconscious, they simply mean that its operation is not available to direct introspection. But just because a process is unobservable does not mean the products are. We are perfectly able to know that we hold negative racial stereotypes. We only need to notice them.

The real issue is that we white people have good reasons to deny our implicit biases, thanks in part to the racial progress story. The social stigma associated with racism is so powerful that even the Ku Klux Klan denies being racist. To become aware of a racist thought threatens our belief that we are decent people, creating cognitive dissonance. The mind tries to reduce this dissonance by reflexively pushing unwelcome thoughts out of awareness. We may tell ourselves that this is OK since we don’t believe our biases anyway. However, one of the most important findings of implicit bias research is that these stereotypes can affect our behavior whether or not we believe in them. In fact, the less awareness we have of them, the more vulnerable we are to their influence.

Implicit Bias as Residue

The commitment to racial progress in mainstream discussions also downplays implicit racial bias by portraying it as a remnant of an earlier era. Descriptions often refer to bias using words like “persistence” or “remains,” which suggest that it has no relationship to the present. The website for Teaching Tolerance describes implicit bias as “mental residue.” An article in Psychology Today argues that MRI results “explain why bias stubbornly persists even if our cultural mores tell us it’s wrong” (emphasis added). This language suggests that our racism is not really ours, as if it’s somehow left over from our grandparents. Moreover, the “residue” frame subtly implies that the move from conscious to unconscious is just a step on the path to extinction. In fact, implicit racial biases are a function of associative memory, and associative memory gets its content from our own direct life experiences.

It is uncomfortable to examine the source of our negative racial associations because it forces us to confront unpleasant truths. My own story is emblematic. I grew up in an all-white suburb of Youngstown, thanks to racist 20th century housing policies. My school system was practically all white. My Boy Scout troop was all white. The employees and most of the customers at the supermarket where I worked were white. The shopping centers, restaurants, and nightclubs I frequented were essentially all white. Even the local university I attended, Youngstown State, was practically all white. I literally didn’t know a single people of color until I started my post college career.

In addition, from early childhood, I imbibed a steady stream of associations between blackness and criminality, blackness and poverty, blackness and violence, blackness and sports/entertainment. I encountered few associations between blackness and heroism, blackness and genius, or even blackness and middle-class ordinariness. Most of these negative associations came from TV and film. In real life, I lived in a safe, quiet, all-white neighborhood where I caught the school bus each weekday morning to attend a well-resourced school full of college-bound white kids. In school, I learned a white-washed history full of white heroes and villains, white geniuses, and white “regular folks.” Meanwhile, my direct experience taught me that there are good neighborhoods, like mine, and bad ones, where the schools fail to educate, crime and drugs are rampant, and black and brown folks kill each other over nothing. I mostly saw the latter on the nightly news, but I understood where these neighborhoods were in relation to my house. It’s hard to imagine coming out the other side of this without anti-black and pro-white biases.

Meanwhile I learned from television that racial prejudice is wrong and backward. Reasonable people like Phil Donahue and Michael Stivic rejected bigotry, while we all laughed at Archie Bunker. The story of racial progress was also being represented through the rising status of TV’s Black families. Good Times and Sanford and Son portrayed folks living in ghettos and struggling to keep it together. Then, on The Jeffersons, a working-class family moves on up to the owning-class, but brings their working-class sensibilities with them. Finally, on The Cosby Show, Black professional-class security and familial harmony was portrayed as ordinary and natural.

The ascent of the Black TV family was a positive influence on me, and I assume others, but it may have had an unintended consequence. The rise of the Black middle class on TV and in real life occurred at the same time the crack epidemic was ravaging inner-city Black communities and feeding a panic about Black crime. Political and media exploitation ensured that for every minute of Huxtable harmony on TV there was an hour of crack-related crime and consternation. I suspect that this duality contributed to the divergence of my own explicit and implicit racial attitudes. I’m probably not alone in being able to enjoy Black sitcoms and vote for a Black president while at the same time holding a cluster of implicit anti-black associations. These associations are not left over from my racist ancestors; they are simply products of growing up in this racist society.

Implicit Bias and Individual Psychology

Perhaps the most insidious way the racial progress story distorts our understanding of implicit bias is its inability to acknowledge the structural level of racism. For the racial progress story, structural racism is a thing of the past, and all that remains is individual bigotry and discrimination. This is why mainstream commentators have trouble explaining the racialized impact of voter ID laws, but they can’t get enough of Donald Sterling and Paula Deen. Indeed, implicit bias is useful for those pressing the racial progress narrative precisely because it seems to explain continued racial inequality without appealing to structural causes or widespread bigotry. Moreover, by classifying racial bias as a glitch in individual psychology, it can be framed as an isolated problem that can be remedied through training, medication, or a bias cleanse.

This excessive focus on individual bias is playing out in the police brutality controversies. Thanks to smart phones and social media, the white public is finally waking up to police violence in communities of color to the killing of unarmed Black men, in particular. Many observers attribute these killings to the racism of individual officers. The police strongly deny this. And since explicit racist intent is almost impossible to prove, such accusations usually go nowhere. The implicit bias approach, however, is being welcomed by the public as well as law enforcement agencies because it helps account for racial disparities in the use of force without assuming racist intent. In addition, it offers the promise of solving the problem with anti-bias training.

Unfortunately, structural questions are largely ignored because the racial progress narrative focuses our attention on individual psychology. But an understanding of the larger historical context, including the war on drugs and the cynical political calculations that launched it, is essential for grappling with police violence. In fact, to understand why communities of color are aggressively policed, we need to recall how these communities were created. These economically and racially isolated pockets of urban poverty are products of the federal government policies that subsidized the creation of white suburbs. While generations of white families were given a chance to accumulate wealth through home ownership, black and brown families were trapped in inner-cities, with failing schools, where their choices were limited to renting or being exploited by predatory lenders. When unemployment and hopelessness led to addiction and family decay, the public policy response was to “get tough on crime,” adding more police with more weapons and more ‘intrusive practices’. Given this structural reality, people of color are assured of suffering disproportionate police violence with or without racial bias.


For decades many independent lines of inquiry have pointed to the same disturbing conclusion: a cesspool of racist stereotypes & attitudes churns just beneath the surface of our post-racial good manners. Racism has certainly evolved since the days of public lynchings and legal apartheid. But the racial progress story obscures more than it reveals. While congratulating ourselves for using the same water fountains, we failed to notice when our implicit fears were channeled into the creation of a system of racialized mass incarceration on a scale unprecedented in human history. More recently we’ve been allowing a systematic attack on voting rights, based partly on racially charged claims of inner-city voter fraud. Now a megalomaniacal demagogue has been elected president despite (or because of) his willingness to foment explicit racial resentments and pal around with white supremacists. Old fashion racism is making a comeback. And no amount of implicit bias or diversity training is likely to stem this noxious tide.

The resilience of racism in the US is not the result of antiquated attitudes buried in the dusty corners of individual minds. It is not really about attitudes at all. Whether implicit or explicit, racist attitudes are outward symptoms of a deeper sickness. Racism, specifically white supremacy, infects white America’s collective identity at its core. This sickness produces not only our biases but also our denial. And it supports our conviction that we are steadily moving toward a multicultural utopia. In reality, the only way forward is back. We must grapple seriously with the nation’s historic atrocities and work to heal the wounds wrought by slavery, genocide, Jim Crow, the war on drugs, and the continuing legacies of colonialism and capitalism. Only by collectively acknowledging and repairing these historical harms can we achieve sustainable progress toward society with liberty and justice for everyone.