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"Implicit Bias Insights as Preconditions to Structural Change,"

by john powell & Rachel Godsil September/October 2011 issue of Poverty & Race

We generally assume that we “control” our behavior most of the time—particularly when an issue is important. This assumption, like many assumptions, is wrong. Scientists estimate that we have conscious access to only 2% of our brains’ emotional and cognitive process. Neuroscientists have also determined that we process 11 million bits of information at a time but have the capacity only to be aware at best of 40 bits. In other words, the vast majority of our behavior is dictated by the 98% of our brain that works without our express cognition. This startling fact, social psychologists contend, is crucial to our ability to understand an array of seeming inconsistencies between our conscious attitudes and our behavior. Lawyers, law professors and activists have begun to look to this body of research to address our nation’s otherwise baffling contradictions surrounding race.

Professors Banks and Ford—able scholars who have devoted much of their academic writing to issues of racial justice—argue that the move to embrace this research may disserve this cause. We disagree—and instead are convinced that scholars, as well as racial justice activists and advocates, need the insights into human behavior available from the mind sciences for our work to advance our nation toward social justice goals.

The argument that other scholars’ use of implicit bias research is somehow an impediment to progress is surprising coming from Banks and Ford —both of whom have written in complex and thoughtful ways about race. In this context, however, their argument seems to presume that but for the improvident attempt to use implicit bias insights, our country would be open to a discussion of the role race plays in limiting life opportunities for many people of color. It also appears to be undergirded by the presumption that following this frank discussion about race, our polity will support policies intended to eliminate these structural barriers. As Banks and Ford have discussed in other work, the evidence does not support these assumptions.

What the Evidence Shows

First, the Right has successfully co-opted the concept of “color-blindness” to suggest that any attention paid to race is itself racist—and therefore created a strong presumption against any conversations about race. Richard Ford’s 2008 book, The Race Card: How Bluffing About Race Makes Racial Bias Worse, describes this phenomenon brilliantly. Second, the reasons progressives seek to address issues of race follow from the extraordinary racial disparities found in virtually every aspect of life. However, the fact of racial disparities does not suffice to prompt a constructive discussion about race. And the insights from the implicit bias research help explain why not. If we have bias toward members of a particular group, even when structures are clearly shown to be the cause of disparity, we are likely to attribute the cause to personal behavior. Scholars have termed this tendency the “the attribution error.” The combination of the rhetorical success of the “color-blindness” frame and attribution error are crucial to understanding why cold hard facts about significant racial disparities do not result in any moral urgency to address these disparities.

In our view, Americans’ cognitive dissonance regarding race is on the rise. We can boast that we have elected a Black man as our President and confirmed another Black man as Attorney General, while our prisons house a shockingly large number of Black men. Black and Latino men and women serve as executives at Fortune 500 companies and as presidents of our finest universities, yet Black and Latino children are 3 times as likely to live in poverty and 20% less likely to graduate from high school than White children.

The challenge of addressing these opposing racial realities has never been more difficult. Many Whites see the continuing string of racial firsts along with the broad acceptance of inter-marriage and support for anti-discrimination laws as signs that, as a nation, we have finally moved beyond our origins in slavery and the dark years of Jim Crow. If a person in public life uses a racial epithet or other language suggesting a disagreement with the prevailing anti-discrimination norm, that person is immediately condemned by people across the political spectrum. The combination of these factors makes a powerful case to most Whites that issues of class and individual initiative explain how different individuals and families are situated.

Many people of color and racial justice advocates of all races see an additional set of facts that complicate the picture. Despite the progress our nation has experienced on issues of race, dramatic racial disparities in imprisonment, wealth, academic achievement, rates of housing foreclosure, and environmental protection, along with housing and educational segregation, continue to create harsh obstacles to the full inclusion of people of color into American life. People of color regularly experience micro-aggressions in workplaces, schools, stores and restaurants. For racial justice advocates, the combination of the data and lived experience are seen as proof that we have far to go before we can truly claim the mantle of racial equality.

How to Move Past This Impasse

The political challenge is how to move past this impasse. To address these polarized points of view, we must create a political space in which it is possible to first have a constructive dialogue about the continuing salience of race, then generate support for the policies necessary to address the role race continues to play, and finally, and as importantly, develop implementation measures that will allow these policies to achieve the sought-after outcomes. Contrary to Banks and Ford, we think the insights from social psychologists about how the human brain functions—and how humans see themselves and their environment—have great promise to make these steps possible.

Social psychologists, with a scientific sophistication Freud would have found unimaginable, have developed the ability to test and measure biases we hold implicitly. These implicit biases are important because they can determine our behavior—even if we consciously hold a different set of values. Implicit attitudes flow from our brain’s natural tendency to categorize stimuli—to create schemas. As our brains develop, we create schemas for objects we encounter (tables, cars, cell phones), which rarely have political salience, but instead are helpful in allowing us to function in a complex world. Not surprisingly, we also create schemas for humans (men, women, old, young). These schemas need not be problematic if the categories within a society are considered worthy of equal respect. However, if categories applied to humans are subject to negative stereotypes or otherwise determine “out-groups,” these schemas can result in bias. A wide array of data, from political opinion surveys to marked disparities, support the idea that race continues to be salient. Yet, as we note above, it is now a deeply held American value to reject racial stereotypes. Those people who seek to subscribe to the egalitarian ideal, but whose brains schematize people on the basis of race, then, are said to hold an implicit bias.

Banks and Ford argue against the use of this research in law reform on two primary grounds. First, that it fails to distinguish with complete confidence between implicit (or unconscious) bias and covert bias. Second, they suggest that accepting the conclusions from this research with respect to race may disserve the goals of racial justice. Implicit bias research, they contend, will result in a diversion of energies away from addressing the substantive inequalities that form the most destructive aspects of our country’s racial hierarchy and instead will result in a move to the diversity training room or the therapists’ couch rather than the legislative table.

Critiquing Banks and Ford

We will begin with the latter critique. First, implicit bias researchers reject the reductionist trap that concludes that the study of how information operates in individuals necessarily entails ignoring the connection between individual and society. Indeed, the vast majority of those who study implicit social cognition are “social" psychologists. And the research concludes that bias in our society is social rather than individual and that our material conditions can act as primes. Implicit bias is the result of the pervasive stereotypical images (of Blacks as unequal and criminal, of Latinos as “other” and illegal, of women as passive—the list goes on) in our society—not individual views and ideas.

Implicit bias researchers are also not so naïve as to think that implicit bias will be “cured” by diversity training. This is a straw argument. Social psychologists are acutely aware of the challenges of addressing bias. And it is notable that, though relatively nascent, the research suggests that truly to overcome those biases, broad societal change will be required. People will need to experience sustained inter-group contact, the presence of racial exemplars, interactions with people of color in positions of authority, and an end to the cultural barrage of negative images. In addition, changes in the material environment will be important in disturbing the negative associations. For those conditions to be present, we will have to address the over-incarceration of young Black men, racial isolation in education from K to higher education, the paucity of people of color in positions of authority throughout our society—this list is also long. In other words, our unconscious minds are highly cognizant of current inequalities even if our conscious selves try to ignore them so that we can consider our society to be fair and our own positions to be earned. Our unconscious minds are not so easily fooled.

We agree with Ford and Banks that bias (implicit or explicit) does not account for many of the most troubling racial injustices. As co-author powell has argued in many other settings, individual racial attitudes are only one form of how race affects human interactions; to achieve reform, we must focus our efforts on structural racialization. Racialization refers to the set of practices, cultural norms and institutional arrangements that both are reflective of and simultaneously help create and maintain racialized outcomes in society.

However, implicit bias insights are crucial to addressing the substantive inequalities that result from structural racialization in two respects. First, they will allow us to enter into the political discourse effectively rather than being heard only by those (fairly few) who already agree with us. Second, these insights, along with other insights from social psychology about the effects of racial anxiety, will be necessary for successful implementation of any political victories. If we achieve substantive victories either through legislation or litigation, any remedial scheme will likely require human implementation. So long as humans are guided by their implicit biases, conditions of inequality will continue to be present.

Some might argue that if Banks and Ford are correct that a significant percent of Americans are in fact consciously hiding their bias rather than holding egalitarian values but still possessing implicit bias, then our view that people will choose to overcome or correct for their bias is naïve. A large body of social science data, however, shows that people go to considerable lengths to correct for any potential racial bias if the potential for such bias is evident—even if there is no reason to think that their bias will be made public. Jury studies, for example, demonstrate that when race is made explicitly relevant, White jurors will treat Black and a White defendant identically. However, when race is present as a factor but not highlighted, White jurors tend to treat Black defendants more harshly.

Nonetheless, we agree with Banks and Ford that the line between implicit (literally unknown) and conscious but hidden bias may not be stark. It can be argued that people are perhaps choosing to ignore their biases so that their sense of themselves as “good” people with egalitarian values can be maintained. Yet people’s desire to maintain their self-concept is powerful—and can induce changes in behavior when they are aware that their actions conflict with their self-concept. So even if we accept that implicit social cognition and the measures of bias such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT) cannot perfectly distinguish between implicit bias and deliberately hidden bias, the value of the tool for measurement is clear. In contrast with self-reporting (which, as Banks and Ford acknowledge, is unlikely to unearth honest results), the IAT provides a window into the bias that would otherwise be effectively hidden. And it serves as a more objective mechanism to measure the degree to which that bias continues to be present.

The final argument Banks and Ford’s article seems to raise is that using the language of implicit bias— if it is possible that hidden bias is in fact at play—is somehow a form of political pandering that lets racists off the hook. We disagree. The fact that our nation has adopted such a powerful sense that anti-discrimination and equality of race are necessary attributes of our fundamental values is deeply important. To allow people to maintain a self-concept as egalitarian —but to challenge behavior and structural conditions that are inconsistent with those values—is the only route to progress. Saying bias is implicit does not rob us of our moral obligation to act—just as structures that unintentionally create racialized outcomes require a social response. Continuing to argue about “hidden” racism will keep us locked in a polarized debate that is ultimately impossible to win.

john powell , a PRRAC Board member, directs the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the Univ. of California-Berkeley.
Rachel Godsil is a Professor of Law at Seton Hall University and Director of Research and Co-Founder of Perception Institute

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