We all agree that "racism" is immoral--that's not the argument. The problem is how too many redefine the word
By Brittney Cooper
Since this is the time of year when people set their intentions for moving forward in the New Year, I think it is important to apply one of those fluffy self-help truths to this moment. I think most people intend to be anti-racist. Just like we intend at the beginning of each year to lose weight, be healthier, save more money and generally be better people. But old habits die hard. If you are anything like me, each December you step on the scale and realize that the results of your unhealthy actions far outweigh your healthy intentions. This is why I have stopped making New Year’s resolutions. I always feel like I’m setting myself up for failure.
And we collectively set ourselves up for failure when we continue in the old, outmoded belief that racism is solely defined by a conscious, malicious disregard for another group of people based on skin color. In a piece at the New York Times, professor Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard outlined the myriad ways that people of color experience racial disparities because of implicit bias.
Among the examples of note that he gave about the material impact of implicit (not explicit) bias were that physicians were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization to black heart patients than they were to white heart patients, “even when medical files were statistically identical”; when bargaining for used cars black people were on average offered prices at $700 higher and received smaller concessions than white buyers; when iPods were auctioned on eBay, an ad showing a white hand received 21 more offers than an ad showing a black hand. A 2009 study found that black job applicants with no criminal record were offered jobs at rates as low as white applicants with criminal records. There have been similar results of racial disparity when comparing white and black applicants looking for housing, white and black citizens emailing and hoping to receive replies from Congresspeople, and of course, racial disparities are rife in the criminal justice system. In every area of American life, from business to commerce to education to healthcare to criminal justice, we can see broad evidence of racial disparity. In his classic book, “Racism Without Racists,” Eduardo Bonilla Silva calls this phenomenon, in which racial disparity persists, though little evidence of explicit racial bias is apparent, “colorblind racism.”
Persistent racial disparity cannot be reduced solely or primarily to the presence of racist intentions. Growing up in the U.S. means we are bombarded with messages from birth that tell us that white people lead, white people are middle class, white people are articulate, white people are safe, white people are powerful, white people are to be trusted. Meanwhile, we receive the exact opposite messages about black and brown people. That one is presumed capable, intelligent and trustworthy simply by virtue of the color of one’s skin is white privilege.
Does it uphold white supremacy?
That's it. This rule depends upon the definition of white supremacy given above, one that recognizes it as a consciousness that goes beyond dominant associations with discrimination and hatred. Of course, the rule works for discriminatory and hateful things such as racist jokes and images. But it also explains why even seemingly positive exchanges can be racist as well. Consider, for instance, "microaggressions," those less overt, everyday instances of racism that nevertheless cumulatively add to the oppression of people of color. A microaggression that usually targets Asians and Latinos is the statement "You speak English very well" when it is spoken by a white person. Many people would not regard it as racist, and when I was a child, I even welcomed it as a compliment. But it is racist. The statement upholds white supremacy because the white speaker must be the de facto judge of whether someone's English is any good. "Where are you really from?" is a related microaggression, with the white person again arrogating the role of cultural gatekeeper. Just imagine how odd, how irrational it would seem for a middle-aged Latina to say these things to a young white woman.
The first step to ending racism is acknowledging that most of us harbor "implicit bias," whether we realize it or not.
By Tim Donovan
It's an admittedly uncomfortable question, as it puts all of us—me as I write this, you reading it, our friends, our relatives, our colleagues—under a type of scrutiny to which we're unaccustomed. But a growing body of research suggests that this idea holds merit: Implicit racial bias undergirds our culture's relationship with race, even as explicit displays are increasingly uncommon.
So what is "implicit bias," and how is it different from the more overt bias we typically focus on when discussing racism in this country?
The most comprehensive study of implicit bias to date comes from "Project Implicit," a nonprofit organization founded by researchers from Harvard, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia in 1998. Project Implicit uses a novel technique to test the hidden biases we hold toward certain demographics, employing a short online test that brings the results of their findings right into your living room. (I highly recommend you take their test here.)
In the Implicit Bias module on race, for instance, "positive" and "negative" words are paired with computer-generated images of Black African faces and White European faces. The test instructs you to match the categories by quickly pressing a button on the left or right side of your keyboard, so that you're connecting "good" words with black faces and "bad" words with white faces—and vice versa. The test measures how quickly you're able to successfully follow the exam's instructions; if you're better at pairing "good" words with white faces than with black faces, you probably have some measure of implicit bias against black people. (As I did when I took the test.) Other modules explore one's potential gender bias, age bias, religious bias, and so forth.
The results are as disturbing as they are instructive, and they're buttressed by an increasingly robust body of research. The overwhelming majority of white people who've taken the test exhibit a preference for whiteness; for blacks, respondents are split nearly down the middle, with about half favoring black faces and half favoring white faces.