Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Persistence of Implicit Racial Bias

Although many of the world’s most powerful nations have participated in slavery, the United States was unique in the extent to which it based its political structure and its economy on the institution of slavery.  In so doing, it created a situation that it has struggled to deal with for the last 150 years.  The inevitable end to enslavement for millions of black African Americans left a white-dominated society with a need to incorporate all of these new citizens.

People who enslave others must produce a moral justification for themselves.  If one chooses to make slaves of members of a race, then that race must consist of people who are deserving of subjugation.  If whites are humans, then blacks must be subhuman in some way or another.  It was as simple as that.  And that belief, imprinted over centuries, did not disappear with the end of the institution of slavery.  In fact, it persisted openly throughout much of the twentieth century.  It seems to continue to propagate within our culture even though overt forms of discrimination have become illegal.

Keith Payne addresses the implicit form of racial bias that has continued in the US in his book The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die.  In one chapter Payne devotes a chapter to the ties between racial bias and inequality.  He concludes that discrimination persists although it has become more covert.  He also demonstrates that while explicit bias is much less apparent, implicit bias is quite common.  Most troubling, but perhaps most enlightening, he provides examples which indicate racial bias is often subconscious, resulting from a lifetime of conditioning.  Payne provides this perspective.

“When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed overt racial discrimination, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended explicitly discriminatory voting practices, society did not change overnight in response.  Following that 350-year period of perfectly legal subjugation, a mere half century—less than a single lifetime—separates us from whites-only lunch counters, water fountains and schools.  How much have things changed since then?  It depends whom you ask.”

“If you look at polls, the proportion of Americans favoring overtly racist ideas like segregated schools and hiring discrimination has declined from clear majorities in the 1960s to single digits today.  These trends have been regarded as an encouraging sign, but perhaps we have drawn too much encouragement from them.”

There are a number of studies that indicate racial discrimination, while more subtle, is still alive and well.  One of the more famous studies, by sociologist Devah Pager, consisted of sending out equal numbers of young black and white men with résumés crafted to be equivalent.  They were also given equivalent narratives to introduce themselves to prospective employers.

“The white applicant was called back twice as often as the equally qualified black applicant.  Similar studies have been repeated with the same results in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and other cities.  They have also been replicated in areas other than employment.  Black renters are much more likely than equally qualified white renters to be told there are no vacant apartments.  Black shoppers are offered less favorable deals on cars and higher interest rates on mortgages than equally qualified whites.  Antiblack bias is alive and well in twenty-first-century America.”

People acquire their racial attitudes from family, from friends, and from what they view.  Since de facto segregation is still common, much of what is learned about other races is absorbed from the media.  The sum of all those inputs programs an individual to respond to other races in certain ways.  The examples of bias listed above derive from conscious decisions to discriminate.  What Payne wants us to realize is that racial bias can arise from subconscious mechanisms and lead to what he refers to as implicit bias. One can be biased without actually realizing it.

Payne describes his own enlightenment as he sought a tool to measure implicit bias in a rather important context.  He was interested in learning the probability that a person would mistakenly assume a harmless object was a gun when it was associated with a black person.  His objects were mostly tools like wrenches and pliers that were chosen to be metal and similar in size to a handgun.  The idea was to quickly flash a picture of a white or black person, followed by an image of an object.  The subjects participating in the measurement were given only a brief instant to decide whether the object was or was not a gun.  Payne tried the program out on himself as he verified that it was working properly.  He was startled by what he discovered.

“When I looked at my data I got about 80 percent correct.  That was not a bad result, but the pattern of my errors was disturbing: I was much more likely to mistake harmless objects for guns when a black face had been flashed initially.”

“Sitting there in my lab, trying to beat my own bias test and failing, I felt for the first time the discomforting gap between my good intentions and my biased behavior, known as implicit bias.”

His explanation for his own behavior, and that of the average person who would take such a test, is that when we are faced with ambiguous data, our subconscious has been programmed to make a choice, and that choice will be the one we subconsciously expect to be the case.

“One of the best-established findings in all of psychology is that people make sense of uncertain or ambiguous circumstances by relying on their expectations.  The less time there is to think carefully, the more they depend on them.”

Payne’s experience certainly is relevant to the rash of police shootings of black people that have occurred in recent years.  His data indicates that not everyone exhibits this bias, but enough do to allow him to assert that the average person will be biased with respect to race.  One might expect that this knowledge can be used to eliminate this tendency, but that is not the case.

“In some versions of the experiment, we even warned the subjects that the race of the face would bias them and urged them to resist that prejudice.  But cautioning didn’t help, and in fact it made the bias even worse, because then the topic of race was more prominent in subjects’ minds.  Good intentions don’t protect us from unintended biases.”

Payne’s results have been duplicated by other researchers in their own laboratories.  This is a significant finding.  One has to wonder how this mental programming was accomplished.  How did this association of black people with guns occur?  Payne perhaps provides us with a clue in a discussion of another bias against blacks.

According to Payne, we have been programmed to think of poor people who are deserving of assistance as whites, and those who are on “welfare” as undeserving blacks.

“Not only does income inequality heighten racial bias, but prejudice can also perpetuate income inequality.  Decades of studies have found a strong correlation between dislike of black people and opposition to social welfare policies aimed at helping the poor.”

“’Welfare’ simply refers to the suite of race-neutral government programs aimed at helping the poor, so these results don’t make much sense on their surface.”

“But it turns out that when Americans talk about ‘the poor,’ they mean something very different from when they talk about ‘welfare recipients.’  The best predictor of wanting to slash funding for welfare recipients is racial prejudice.  People who believe that black Americans are lazy and undeserving are the most likely to oppose welfare spending.”

It seems the traditional media has played a role in establishing biases.  It is scary to consider what social media will contribute to interracial strife.

“While it may not be surprising that the average person views welfare in racially tinged terms, the truth is that welfare recipients are about evenly divided among white, black, and Hispanic recipients.  But when [political scientist Martin] Gilens analyzed depictions of welfare recipients in television and newsmagazines since the 1960s, he found a clear racial bias: When welfare recipients were depicted as the ‘deserving poor,’ they were mostly white, but when they were portrayed as lazy and dishonest, they were overwhelmingly black.”

Insidious cultural messaging coming from parents and peers might be foreseen damping out in a few generations.  But when it is deeply imbedded in our mass media, that situation can be corrected quickly.  Whether or not change occurs depends on people like Payne getting the message out.

Payne leaves us with this final thought on the matter of implicit racial bias.

“Understanding implicit bias requires taking a more nuanced approach to the individuals we are easily tempted to label as ‘racist’ or ‘not racist.’  If you consider whether you yourself are biased, and why, you will likely focus on your conscious thoughts and beliefs, your values and good intentions.  Having reflected on what a fundamentally good person you are, you will conclude that implicit bias is other people’s problem.  Although we would all like to believe ourselves to be members of the ‘not racist’ club, we are all steeped in a culture whose history and present is built on massive racial inequality.  Research has shown that a majority of even well-meaning people—and their children—show signs of implicit bias when tested.”


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