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.  

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