By Sally Kohn
Most people don’t throw around racial epithets, let alone admit they do so to researchers. Yet we know that racial stereotypes still exist in America, leading scientists now to focus on implicit bias: unconscious mental shortcuts that we form based on our life experience as well as the stories, culture and history we absorb around us.
In one study, researchers used computers to generate several faces that were exactly the same except for the skin color—half were black and half were white. All respondents (yes, including black people studied for the project) were more likely to rate the black faces as showing greater hostility. In another study, scientists showed a group of subjects a video of one person pushing another person. When the “shover” was black and the “victim” was white, 75 percent of research subjects said the push was aggressive. When the “shover” was white and the victim was “black,” only 17 percent of subjects said the push was aggressive.
Implicit racial bias has also been found in what researchers call a “shooter bias”—in which subjects playing a simulated video game are more likely to mistakenly pull the trigger on unarmed black men than on unarmed white suspects. The phenomenon has been tested and proved with police officers, too.
Watching conservative attacks on Obama, it’s hard not to conclude that they are tainted by implicit bias. Consider: President Barack Obama is the first African-American president of the United States of America. From day one, conservatives have attacked the president’s religion, citizenship and essential patriotism. Conservatives condemned healthcare reform in general and the individual mandate in particular, even though the mandate was originally a Republican proposal. Republicans, who historically never met a tax cut they didn’t like, have opposed virtually every tax cut proposal that President Obama has put forth. Amidst high unemployment and a crumbling economy, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said his number one goal was to destroy the president’s chance for re-election.
Now, I do not believe that Mitch McConnell or most Republican leaders or rank-and-file voters are overt racists. But their rhetoric often evokes the same racial animus that Zimmerman seems to have expressed. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has labeled President Obama “the most dangerous president in history.” Glenn Beck once accused President Obama of having a “deep-seated hatred of white people.” And long before he called Sandra Fluke a slut, conservative mascot Rush Limbaugh said: “Obama is an angry black guy.” The parallel imagery is clear: President Obama, like Trayvon Martin, is a dangerous, suspicious black man clearly up to no good, guilty of Governing While Black.
The bias against blacks also occurs against Latinos, Indians, and Muslims, among others. It used to happen to the Irish, Jews, and other white immigrants. It's an ingrained part of the American character--a part conservatives don't want to discuss.
For more on Trayvon's case, see Tim Wise on Trayvon Martin. For more on implicit bias, see Understanding Implicit Bias and Americans Refuse to Acknowledge Prejudice. For more on America's racism, see White Privilege Will End Soon and Conservatives Seek Return to 1957.