What Can We Do About Subconscious Racism?

Ester Bloom has joined Ta-Nehisi Coates in urging us to have a frank conversation about how to fix the massive racial injustices that inhere in our country. Coates proposes monetary reparations as an institutional remedy for the crushing toll of slavery, Jim Crow terrorism, and subsequent racist public policy. But what about the deeply ingrained attitudes, especially among white people, that perpetuate racial injustice? I don’t mean the cartoon plutocrat racism of Donald Sterling, which is ultimately a distracting anomaly. I mean the subtle favoritism that crops up in the choices we make when dating, hiring, and choosing where to live—the implicit racism we never consider. What’s the reparations for that, and are we willing to pay the price?

Coates’s sweeping argument encapsulates perfectly the massive economic barriers that black Americans face, and how those barriers were created by centuries of policies that were sometimes explicitly and always effectively racist. Even if you accept the premise that current policies are not racist, Coates cogently makes the point that the nation is still firmly mired in the effects of long-standing structural racism:

In 2010, Jacob S. Rugh, then a doctoral candidate at Princeton, and the sociologist Douglas S. Massey published a study of the recent foreclosure crisis. Among its drivers, they found an old foe: segregation. Black home buyers – even after controlling for factors like creditworthiness – were still more likely than white home buyers to be steered toward subprime loans. Decades of racist housing policies by the American government, along with decades of racist housing practices by American businesses, had conspired to concentrate African Americans in the same neighborhoods. . . . [T]hese neighborhoods were filled with people who had been cut off from mainstream financial institutions. When subprime lenders went looking for prey, they found black people waiting like ducks in a pen.

“High levels of segregation create a natural market for subprime lending,” Rugh and Massey write, “and cause riskier mortgages, and thus foreclosures, to accumulate disproportionately in racially segregated cities’ minority neighborhoods.”

That economic disadvantage radiates outward into black lives, even without actively racist feelings or actions by white people now: Home ownership is more elusive, which hurts not just stability, but the ability to pay for college. Even when home ownership is achieved, it’s more likely to be at less advantageous rates and with less equity. My own city, Hartford, Connecticut, is a perfect example: We are 83% black and Hispanic, our median income is half the national median, and we lead the nation in the percentage of mortgages that are underwater (57%!).


A piece in New York magazine notes another, related way that economic disadvantage for black people continues, even in the absence of explicitly racist decisions: People tend to favor others whom they view as similar to them, whether it’s because they’re from the same neighborhood, they share some common cultural touchpoints that make for easy conversation (“You like Gucci Mane? I LOVE Gucci Mane! You’re hired!”), or because (gasp!) they are the same color. Since we live in a society that is breathtakingly segregated along racial, ethnic, and economic lines (see Coates), our warm, fuzzy, in-group feelings frequently line up with race, even when they’re not motivated by explicitly negative assumptions about the out-group. Thus, the group that already benefits from years of explicitly racist action and is more likely to occupy hiring positions and other sources of power and influence (white people) is likely to perpetuate its advantage inadvertently.

What can be done about this? Is it enough for white people to be aware of the fact that they are likely subtly biased in favor of other white people?

No. We are already aware. Awareness is not enough. The problem is that the in-group favoritism that girds modern racism is subconscious, so no one can force herself to be conscious of it and resist it in her day-to-day interactions. Just as economic disadvantage was built into the vast majority of black lives by racist policies in the past, so has psychological bias has been built into white attitudes by years of cultural messages that denigrate African Americans and, even with the recent diminuition in explicitly negative images of blackness, pervasive residential segregation by race. Most white people grow up mostly among other white people, so their subconscious image of “a person who is like me” is always going to be a white person.

I don’t make this argument as an excuse for prejudiced white behavior, no matter how subtle. On the contrary, I’m suggesting that based on the science behind implicit bias, white people could take actions to eliminate that bias over the span of a generation. But it will take a lot more than being aware of the problem. Maybe more than most white people are willing to do.

Let’s start by talking about the way subconscious bias is measured and how it works: The Implicit Associations Test is a computer-based test developed by research psychologists that asks participants to associate certain broad concepts (e.g. “good” and “bad”) with certain group associations (e.g. “male” and “female” or “black” and “white”), and then draws conclusions based on how long it takes them to make the connections. I’ve done it and you can too. For example, you might be instructed to press the “L” key when you see a picture of a man or a word you associate with logical thinking, and the “A” key when you see a picture of a woman or a word associated with creativity. After a series of pictures and words, you’ll be instructed to press “L” for men and creative words, and “A” for women and logic words. They run the test a lot and always in a random order (sometimes logic+women is in the first set of instructions, and sometimes it’s in the second), and are able to discern statistically significant differences in response times. Usually, people are slower to respond when they have to use the same key for women and logic, suggesting that most people have subconscious difficulty associating women with logic-based work (e.g., math, physics, etc.).

(There have been some criticisms of the IAT, but research has mostly backed up its ability predict behavior in relevant circumstances. The wikipedia article has a good rundown of the criticisms and responses.)

One reason the IAT is important is because it’s very hard to trick it just by thinking positive thoughts. When given a test that measures their ability to associate white and African-American faces with concepts related to “good,” white participants generally show a strong preference for white faces, even though most white people in this day and age will no longer openly express explicitly negative race-based opinions. Here’s how the developers of the test at Harvard explain it:

When will implicit attitudes agree with explicit attitudes?

Answer:  There are two reasons why direct (explicit) and indirect (implicit) attitudes may not be the same. The simpler explanation is that a person may be unwilling to accurately report some attitude. For example, if a professor asks a student “Do you like soap operas?” a student who is fully aware of spending two hours each day watching soap operas may nevertheless say “no” because of being embarrassed (unwilling) to reveal this fondness. The second explanation for explicit-implicit disagreement is that a person may be unable to accurately report an attitude. For example, if asked “Do you like Turks?” many Germans will respond “yes” because they regard themselves as unprejudiced. However, an IAT may reveal that these same Germans have automatic negative associations toward Turks. (This IAT result has been demonstrated quite clearly in Germany.) Germans who show such a response are unaware of their implicit negativity and are therefore unable to report it explicitly.

Another reason the IAT matters, and the one that I think goes directly to the insufficiency of “being conscious of the actions we take,” is that its results on race don’t break down strictly along in-group preference. White people show a strong preference for white faces, but black people show a much more moderate preference for black faces, and Asian-Americans (who would, presumably, show no preference if the test measured only same-ethnic-group association), also strongly favor white. “We conclude from such data,” say the researchers, “that the IAT preference is some combination of an automatic preference for one’s own, moderated by what one learns is regarded to be ‘good’ in the larger culture.”

That’s important because it means that the way a person defines her “in group” can be influenced by factors other than physical appearance. Principle among these is familiarity. The IAT researchers say that “there is a known relation between familiarity and liking—people tend to like things that are familiar more than things that are unfamiliar. In this way, familiarity might be importantly related to implicit attitudes… So, there may be a role for familiarity in liking of the categories – people tend to like things that they are familiar with compared to things that they are not. What might emerge as an implicit prejudice may have its basis in unfamiliarity.”

You see where I’m going here? Even in “post-racial” America, white people seem to harbor significant subconscious prejudice against black people. At the same time, children in this country attend schools that are more racially segregated than they have been in half a century, not least of all because residential racial segregation is going strong. So despite a public discourse on race that embraces egalitarian ideals, we lack day-to-day familiarity with people of other races and ethnicities. This is especially true for white people, who tend to live in neighborhoods that don’t reflect the diversity of their towns and cities. Here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, from his piece on reparations:

[J]ust as black families of all incomes remain handicapped by a lack of wealth, so too do they remain handicapped by their restricted choice of neighborhood. Black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Sharkey’s research shows that black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000. “Blacks and whites inhabit such different neighborhoods,” Sharkey writes, “that it is not possible to compare the economic outcomes of black and white children.”

The reason I believe that this lack of day-to-day familiarity with other races is at the root of ongoing subconscious prejudice has less to do with the statistics and science of the preceding paragraphs than with my own experience. My parents were liberal hippies and instilled in me a healthy love of equality and justice (my dad was at the 1963 march on Washington!), but I doubt they were very different from most liberal white parents whose children grow up to favor white faces on the IAT, work at non-profit jobs that advance social justice, vote the Democratic ticket, and move to the suburbs when they have children (“for the schools”). I mean, they sent me to a private school (on full scholarship! and a much more diverse and liberal private school than average, but still).

Later, I was married to someone who was getting a Ph.D. in developmental psychology at Harvard, in the same department where one of the developers of the IAT, Mazharin Banaji, was a professor. Naturally, all of my ex’s colleagues made their friends and significant others take the IAT, and it was then that I learned that I am something of a psychological anomaly: I became a point of much speculation and discussion because I was the only white person in the group who showed a preference (a “slight” preference, to be precise) for black faces. I say this not to prove how progressive and awesome I am, but because it makes sense: In almost every respect, I was very much like the other white people in my ex-wife’s group of grad students and plus-ones: a college-educated, east coast liberal. The only difference was the fact that I’d had one parent whose progressing drug abuse and mental health issues pushed her out of financial stability and out of Brooklyn’s whiter enclaves. As a result, when I was young enough to be in the process of defining my sense of normal, I got to be the only white person who stayed on the B41 bus past Grand Army Plaza, the only white person in my group of friends on the block, and the only white person (aside from my mom) at picnics and neighborhood events.

Charles Blow expressed this eloquently in the New York Times, responding to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s recent comments, in which he conceded that his prejudices and would motivate him to cross the street to avoid a “black kid in a hoodie” or “a white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere”:

It is important to recognize that not everyone experiences the types of threat responses Cuban does based on race, attire and tattoos — and as far as we can tell from his comment, without articulated attitudes or demonstrated hostility. This casual ascribing of intention, based solely on appearance, draws on deep-seated suspicions constructed over a lifetime of subtle and sometimes overt racial conditioning.

In other words, those early experiences matter! Have you ever heard white people talk about how they don’t feel safe in certain neighborhoods because they “stand out”? I don’t get that unsafe feeling – at least, not on account of race. My first memory of really noticing race in public, and feeling like something was out of balance, was when I moved to Portland, Oregon, when I was 13 and took the city bus for the first time: I remember thinking I’d never seen so many white people in public in one place before. Today, I live happily in one of those neighborhoods where a lot of white people profess to feel uncomfortably out of place. None of this is because of my own efforts or the remarkable strength of my character. It’s because I was conditioned a certain way from a young age.

So I’m proposing a formula for what middle class white people of good conscience should do, if they really want to undermine the subconscious assumptions and preferences that make up The New Racism: integrate. They should forego the suburbs and the comfortable white enclaves and send their kids to urban public schools and take them to the local playgrounds. They should do it even though the neighborhoods make them uncomfortable, and even though they don’t have to, so their kids will grow up feeling at home among people of color and will be less likely to perpetuate prejudice. I think this is the only way to rid the majority of white people of the subconscious biases which, along with the massive structural inequalities that Coates details, perpetuate racial inequality in this country.

I don’t expect this to happen. We live in an era when explicit racism is the one thing that people across the political spectrum can agree to condemn, so no one wants to admit that she is even subconsciously racist, let alone that her subconscious racism contributes in some way to the economic adversity of others. And as Americans, we’re in love with the idea of our own (or our parents’) scrappy, middle-class self-sufficiency. We’re not good at admitting we don’t deserve everything we have. We’re also deeply wedded to the idea of doing everything conceivable to give our children a leg up, which makes an argument that middle class white people should raise their children in poor, minority neighborhoods seem almost absurd.

What do you think? Is it absurd, or quixotic, or downright unproductive to sacrifice personal comfort for some abstract ideal of justice? If you’re white and you could know with certainty that your children could grow up without implicit bias if you raised them in a neighborhood where they were in the minority, would you do it?


Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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