We’re All Racists at Heart

(Dec. 1, 2005)

Wall Street Journal 12/01/05, Page A16

December 1, 2005; Page A16

“It was once easy to spot a racial bigot: The casual use of the n-word, the sweeping hostility, and the rigid unwillingness to abandon vulgar stereotypes left little doubt that a person harbored prejudice toward blacks as a group. But 50 years of survey research has shown a sharp decline in overt racial prejudice. Instead of being a cause for celebration, however, this trend has set off an ever more strident insistence in academia that whites are pervasively biased.

“Some psychologists went low-tech: They simply expanded the definition of racism to include any endorsement of politically conservative views grounded in the values of self-reliance and individual responsibility. Opposition to busing, affirmative action or generous welfare programs were tarred as manifestations of “modern” or symbolic racism.
Load / Reload “Favorite Editorials” Index.
RETURN to Adversity.Net HOME Page

“Others took a high-tech path: Racists could be identified by ignoring expressed beliefs and tapping into the workings of the unconscious mind. Thus was born the so-called “implicit association test.” The IAT builds on the fact that people react faster to the word “butter” if they have just seen the word “bread” momentarily flashed on a screen. The quicker response suggests that the mind closely associates those concepts. Applying this technique, researchers such as Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard have found that people recognize “negative” words such as “angry,” “criminal” or “poor” more quickly after being momentarily exposed to a black (as opposed to a white) face. And this effect holds up for the vast majority of white respondents — and sometimes even for majorities of blacks.

“What do investigators conclude from their findings that “blackness” often primes bad associations and “whiteness” good ones? According to some, it shows that prejudice permeates our unconscious minds and is not just confined to the 10% of hard-core bigots. Know it or not, we are all vessels of racial bias. From this sweeping conclusion, based on a small if intriguing scientific finding, social scientists, legal scholars, opinion leaders and “diversity experts” leap from thought to conduct and from unconscious association to harmful actions. Because most of us are biased, these individuals claim, we can safely assume that every aspect of social life — every school, institution, organization and workplace — is a bastion of discrimination. The most strenuous measures, whether they be diversity programs, bureaucratic oversight, accountability or guilt-ridden self-monitoring, cannot guarantee a level playing field.

“What is wrong with this picture? In the first place, split-second associations between negative stimuli and minority group images don’t necessarily imply unconscious bias. Such associations may merely reflect awareness of common cultural stereotypes. Not everyone who knows the stereotypes necessarily endorses them.

“Or the associations might reflect simple awareness of the social reality: Some groups are more disadvantaged than others, and more individuals in these groups are likely to behave in undesirable ways. Consider the two Jesses — Jackson and Helms. Both know that the black family is in trouble, that crime rates in this community are far too high, and that black educational test scores are too low. That common awareness might lead to sympathy, to indifference, or to hostility. Because the IAT can distinguish none of these parameters, both kinds of Jesses often get similar, failing scores on tests of
unconscious association.

“Measures of unconscious prejudice are especially untrustworthy predictors of discriminatory behavior. MIT psychologist Michael Norton has recently noted that there is virtually no published research showing a systematic link between racist attitudes, overt or subconscious, and real-world discrimination. A few studies show that openly-biased persons sometimes favor whites over blacks in simulations of job hiring and promotion. But no research demonstrates that, after subtracting the influence of residual old-fashioned prejudice, split-second reactions in the laboratory predict real-world decisions. On the contrary, the few results available suggest that persons who are “high bias” on subconscious criteria are no more likely than others to treat minorities badly and may sometimes even favor them.

“There is likewise no credible proof that actual business behavior is pervasively influenced by unconscious racial prejudice.

“This should not be surprising. Demonstrating racial bias is no easy matter because there is often no straightforward way to detect discrimination of any kind, let alone discrimination that is hidden from those doing the deciding. As anyone who has ever tried a job-discrimination case knows, showing that an organization is systematically skewed against members of one group requires a benchmark for how each worker would be treated if race or sex never entered the equation. This in turn depends on defining the standards actually used to judge performance, a task that often requires meticulous data collection and abstruse statistical analysis.

“Assuming everyone is biased makes the job easy: The problem of demonstrating actual discrimination goes away and claims of discrimination become irrefutable. Anything short of straight group representation — equal outcomes rather than equal opportunity [emphasis added]– is “proof” that the process is unfair.

“Advocates want to have it both ways. On the one hand, any steps taken against discrimination are by definition insufficient, because good intentions and traditional checks on workplace prejudice can never eliminate unconscious bias. On the other, researchers and “diversity experts” purport to know what’s needed and do not hesitate to recommend more expensive and strenuous measures to purge pervasive racism. There is no more evidence that such efforts dispel supposed unconscious racism than that such racism affects decisions in the first place.

“But facts have nothing to do with it. What began as science has morphed into unassailable faith. However we think, feel or act, and however much apparent progress has been made, there is no hope for us. We are all racists at heart.” -30-

© Wall Street Journal

[Ms. Wax is professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Mr. Tetlock is the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Endowed Professor in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.]