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"Banks and Ford Response"

September/October 2011 issue of Poverty & Race

We are grateful that so many scholars and civil rights activists took the time to consider our arguments and to reply to them. We cannot address to all of the important issues that the commentators raise, so we have decided to respond to what we see as their major themes. One set of issues is substantive: What does the research show? How do we conceptualize racial inequality? The other set of issues is pragmatic and political: What are the most promising avenues of reform?

Substantive Concerns

Many commentators remarked that the implicit bias research is more nuanced than we acknowledged. We are very familiar with the empirical research and we agree that the primary research is remarkably nuanced and careful. But any fair reading of that research would have to acknowledge the difficulty that we discuss in our original article: that of disentangling covert bias from unconscious bias. Andrew Grant-Thomas notes that the purpose of the IAT is to “probe attitudes that people may be unable or unwilling to report.” That characterization both highlights and elides precisely our point: the distinction between covert and unconscious attitudes. We view the IAT more as a useful and subtle measure of covert racial attitudes than as a measure of wholly unconscious attitudes.

The thrust of our critique, though, is not simply to quibble with the research. We think that the research exemplifies a widely shared view: that the problem of racial inequality is in large part a problem of individuals’ biased attitudes. We do not embrace that characterization. We think that in contemporary society the problem of racial inequality is not primarily one of people having “biased” thoughts or acting on such biased thoughts. Pervasive racial inequalities persist, to be sure, and race remains salient largely because of those inequalities. But we think that the “problem” is those inequalities, not some supposedly biased mental state that has led to them.

This is not to say that racial bias doesn’t exist or that people are color-blind. They most certainly are not. It is to say that many racial attitudes and stereotypes are in part a reflection of the social world that we all inhabit, a world in which racial disparities are pervasive, and in which prevailing contemporary racial attitudes are as much a symptom of inequality as its cause. Our view is perfectly consistent with the IAT research, if it is understood as a psychological reflection of substantive inequalities, but it is inconsistent with the use to which that research is often put, which is to unearth the hidden causes of biased decisions.

We are convinced that the now-dominant civil rights focus on mental state is misguided and that implicit bias analysis is just another way to focus on mental state. We think mental state has always been too elusive to serve as the basis for liability and remediation in specific disputes and it has very little to do with today’s social injustices, and so we question the wisdom of a new focus on mental state.

Political and Pragmatic Concerns

Typically, of course, the IAT is not portrayed as a measure of how substantive inequalities shape people’s views. Nor do advocates highlight the difficulty of disentangling covert and unconscious attitudes. Rather, the research is often characterized in the media and by racial justice advocates in ways that eclipse the subtlety and limitations of the empirical findings. Commentators have suggested, for example, that the research links implicit bias to a wide range of discriminatory behaviors even when, in fact, the evidence was quite sparse.

Racial justice advocates are all too eager to the link implicit bias to all manner of race-related disparities. For example, the commentaries on our article suggest that the findings of Devah Pager’s excellent work on race and incarceration in the job-seeking process and of Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan’s well-known resume studies as evidence of implicit bias. In fact, neither study measured implicit bias—both were consistent with a range of explanations, including consciously concealed racial biases and more complex reactions to social familiarity and acculturation.

While some advocates genuinely have come to believe that implicit bias does account for some substantial portion of contemporary racial disparities, we suspect that others deploy implicit bias, either knowingly or not(!), in response to the political pressures with which all racial justice advocates must contend. We suspect that deep down, even many proponents of the implicit bias research sense that the findings are being stretched and deployed in ways that are not supported by the actual research. Yet they feel they have little choice.

As many of the commentators remarked, racial justice advocates face a political quandary: Many people don’t want to talk about race; they would prefer to believe, especially after having elected a black President, that our nation’s racial problems are behind us. And under no circumstances will people talk about race if there is a risk they will be labeled a racist. To this political impasse, implicit bias seems to come to the rescue. It seems to offer a way of encouraging people to talk about race, without fear of being labeled a racist. (After all, even many blacks, the research tells us, are implicitly biased against African Americans.)

We agree that it may be beneficial to have people talk more honestly about race, but we are less sanguine about whether the implicit bias framework will produce that conversation. But we worry that the prominence of the implicit bias framework depends in part on the exaggerated claims that so often are thrown around in the media and by some advocates. We suspect that if advocates consistently limited themselves to what rigorous social science research has actually demonstrated, much of the rhetorical punch of implicit bias would be lost and it would be one of the thousands of sound and useful social science theories that few outside the field are interested in. But the strong claims are speculative at best and reckless at worst. For example, some in the popular press have proposed that we could use the IAT to disqualify racist jurors. No respectable social psychologist would embrace this proposal, but it’s just this kind of thinking that has made the IAT so popular.

Another problem arises if the implicit bias framework is successful in capturing the attention of policymakers. As the stakes become greater, the research and the claims made on its behalf will be subject to greater scrutiny. And as people begin to look more closely, many will conclude that implicit bias is not in fact the primary cause of racial differences in incarceration, employment or education, to name a few. Having relied so heavily on implicit bias, advocates will then be at a loss when people can reasonably disagree about whether implicit bias is the source of some particular social problem. Implicit bias will become yet another in a long line of tactical arguments used in the now depressingly repetitive debates about race and racism.

We suspect—and many of the comments confirm this suspicion—that many scholars and advocates know that implicit bias is not the real problem, but embrace it as a politically effective means of getting people to focus on the substantive racial disparities with which we are all concerned. If it weren’t for the pressure to frame racial problems in terms of bias—as a result of the court-centric disparate treatment framework that animates the legal and political approach to racial inequality—we suspect that many researchers would be freer to acknowledge the ambiguity of the findings, and not to attempt so relentlessly to force a set of various and complex social problems into the narrow box labeled “unconscious bias.”

Implicit bias is unlikely to cause people to focus on the substantive disparities; in fact, it is more likely, in the long run, to reinforce the view that a situation is not racially unjust unless a “biased” decision-maker can be identified and blamed. If no biased decision-maker is available, or the decision-maker is found not to be biased, then, according to this logic, there is no injustice. Although many of the commentators hope that a focus on implicit bias will expand our focus beyond isolated acts of discrimination, we think that the implicit bias approach is more likely to reinforce the misguided idea that malignant mental state is the crux of racial injustice.

This strikes us as another case in which liberals and progressives have been politically out-maneuvered by conservatives. Once progressives focused directly on substantive inequalities and the importance of policy reform, while conservatives preferred the piecemeal and inevitably incomplete approach of courts focused on individual acts of discrimination. Ironically, today many progressive advocates have embraced a framework that tends to eclipse the structural and substantive inequalities that generate contemporary racial problems. We believe that individual psychology is simply the wrong focus for civil rights law. The Left knew this in the 1970s, when it was less true than it is today. But after decades of conservative insistence that individual animus is the sine qua non of a civil rights violation, the Left, having basically accepted this bad premise, is frantically trying to gin up new forms of “bias” to attack.

The political payoff of the implicit bias approach is uncertain and the substantive focus misplaced, so why not turn our sights directly on the real problems? Why not zero in unapologetically on the complicated historical and contemporary forces that sustain and promote harmful racial inequalities? This would not guarantee results, as many of the commentators note, nor would it magically surmount all the obstacles to sustained and serious conversation about racial injustice, but it would at least direct our own analytic energies in the right direction. It would direct attention to real problems, rather than politically expedient measures, and it would move us closer to practical solutions and away from futile conceptual puzzles (can a person be biased and not know it?).

Of course the implicit bias framework is not the primary impediment to a more substantive and fruitful analysis of racial inequality (and we have never suggested otherwise), but it certainly doesn’t help matters. The current focus on implicit bias is grossly out of proportion to its utility or capacity to advance our understanding of social injustice and law reform. As such, it threatens to both divert energies better spent on more practical solutions and to reinforce the dangerous belief that mental state is the central issue in civil rights law. The obsession with implicit bias strikes us as an act of desperation by advocates and scholars who have watched civil rights law undermined, dismantled or turned against itself year after year. We sympathize: Desperation is an understandable response in the era of the Roberts Court, and implicit bias seems to offer at least a modest response to a growing hostility to civil rights claims: any port in a storm. Still, we believe the implicit bias “solution” to the unraveling of civil rights law is a false hope, and we hope to discourage those we see as our allies from mistaking shallow and rocky shoals for a safe harbor.


Annotated bibliography on implicit bias research and commentary:

A comprehensive primer on implicit bias from UCLA Professor Jerry Kang:

Bennet, Judge Mark W., “Unraveling the Gordian Knot of Implicit Bias in Jury Selection,” 4 Harv. L. & Pol’y Rev.149 (2010).

Bertrand, Marianne & Sendhil Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” The American Economic Review, 94(4), 991-1013 (2004).

Bobo, Lawrence and Camille Charles. 2009. "Race in the American Mind: From the Moynihan Report to the Obama Candidacy." The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621: 243-259. Available at

Brown, Michael K. et al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Univ. of California Press, 2003)

Dovidio, John F. et al., “Implicit and Explicit Prejudice and Interracial Interaction,” 82 J. Personality & Soc. Psychol. 62 (2002).

Gladwell, Malcolm, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking 14 (Little, Brown 2005).

Greenwald, Anthony, Andrew Poehlman, Eric Uhlmann, Mahzarin Banaji. 2009. “Understanding and Using the Implicit Association Test: III. Meta-analysis of Predictive Validity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97: 17–41.

“The Id, The Ego, and Equal Protection: Reckoning with Unconscious Racism,” 39 Stan. L. Rev.317, 323 (1987).

Jost, John, Laurie Rudman, Irene Blair, Dana Carney, Nilanjana Dasgupta, Jack Glaser & Curtis Hardin. 2009. “The Existence of Implicit Bias is Beyond Reasonable Doubt: A Refutation of Ideological and Methodological Objections and Executive Summary of Ten Studies that No Manager Should Ignore.” Research in Organizational Behavior 29: 39–69.

Krysan, Maria, Mick Couper, Reynolds Farley & Tyrone Forman. 2009. “Does Race Matter in Neighborhood Preferences? Results from a Video Experiment,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 115 (2): 527-559.

Loury, Glenn C., The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (Harvard Univ. Press, 2003)

Mauer, Marc, “Racial Impact Statements: Changing Policies to Address Disparities,” available at

Nosek, Brian, Anthony Greenwald & Mahzarin Banaji. 2005. “Understanding and Using the Implicit Association Test: II. Method Variables and Construct Validity.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 31: 166–180.

Pager, Devah, Race, Crime and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007).

Pérez, Efrén. 2010. “Explicit Evidence on the Import of Implicit Attitudes: The IAT and Immigration Policy Judgments.” Political Behavior 32(4): 517-545.

Pew Research Center. 2007. “Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class.” Available at

Remapping Debate. Available at

Resolution on Marriage Equality for Same-Sex Couples, American Psychological Association (Aug.11 & 15, 2011), .

Royster, Deidre A., Race and the Invisible Hand: How White Networks Exclude Black Men From Blue-Collar Jobs (Univ. of California Press, 2003).

Shuford, Reggie, “Reclaiming the 14th Amendment,” Daily Journal (Feb. 3, 2010)

“The Ten Most Segregated Urban Areas in America.” Available at

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