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Scholars: ‘unconscious bias’ leads to discrimination

Kimberly N. Alleyne

NEW ORLEANS — Leading social justice scholars believe that “unconscious bias” leads to negative racial stereotyping that can unknowingly prompt discriminatory actions and attitudes toward people of color.

At the Healing for Democracy conference hosted by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) last week, a panel — moderated by Maria Hinajosa, anchor and managing editor of NPR’s Latino USA — discussed the role that unconscious bias plays in access to employment opportunities, school discipline action, immigration, health care access, criminal justice and social opportunities for minorities in the United States.

Hinojosa said it is “irrefutable” what is happening in America today. “We are clearly becoming a more multicultural, multiracial, mixed country. That is the future.”

But she noted that the changing demographics are causing tension and fear among the majority. “There’s an element of unconsciousness there,” she said, “but there’s also an element of consciousness that is saying ‘at this moment I’m in the world of being a non-Hispanic Anglo … I don’t want to become a minority.’ ”

One panelist, Dr. David Williams, professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, cited studies documenting that when Latinos and African Americans were treated for a broken bone in their leg, physicians often gave them significantly less pain medication than they gave white patients with the same injury.

“How on earth do we make sense of this?” Williams asked. “How is it possible that for the best trained medical workforce in the world to produce … care that appears to be so discriminatory? The answer: unconscious discrimination.

“Research shows that when one holds a negative stereotype about a group and meets someone from that group, without their conscious awareness, it is an unconscious process and it is automatic. They will treat that person differently and honestly not know that they did it.”

Williams noted that most Americans would resist a label saying they are discriminating, but he added, “Welcome to the human race. It’s a normal process of how all of us process information. And the problem about our society is that the levels of negative stereotypes are very high.”

He cited findings from the General Social Survey, a national social indicators study that found in 1990 that 44 percent of whites believe that blacks are lazy; 56 percent of whites believe that blacks prefer to live off welfare; 51 percent of whites believe that blacks are prone to violence; and 29 percent of whites believe that blacks are unintelligent.

“Not only are blacks viewed negatively, they’re viewed markedly more negatively than whites view themselves,” Williams said.

“Not only do whites view blacks negatively, one-in-five whites or fewer are willing to say that blacks are hardworking, prefer to be self-supporting, are not prone to violence or are intelligent … Where do these stereotypes come from?,” Williams asked.

He said that researchers have put together a database of American culture, all of the texts, all of the books, all of the magazine articles that the average college-educated American would read over the course of their lifetime. When examining this material, he said researchers found that when the word, “black,” appears in American culture, the most commonly associated word with blacks is “poor” and then “violent” and then “religious” and then “lazy” and then “cheerful” and then “dangerous.”

“The common stereotypes, negative stereotypes of violent, lazy, dangerous, are deeply embedded in American culture,” Williams said. “People are not being mean; they’re just being normal Americans.”

By contrast, Williams said that what’s associated with “white” in American culture is completely different. “Wealthy, progressive, conventional, stubborn, successful, educated,” he said. “These are the stereotypes that we have been fed, and then they’ve become a part of who we are and shape our behavior in powerful ways. These negative racial stereotypes lead to societal discrimination.”

Understanding the power of unconscious bias has emerged as a new mission for leaders and advocates working to bring racial healing and racial equity to communities across the United States.

Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president for program strategy at the Kellogg Foundation, explained that centuries of a racial hierarchy in America has left its mark on our society, especially pertaining to how people of color are perceived by whites.

“Our society assigns value to groups of people,” she said. “It is a process that is embedded in the consciousness of Americans and impacted by centuries of bias.”

During the discussion, panelists shared insights demonstrating how people make unconscious decisions. Dr. Phillip Goff, assistant psychology professor at UCLA, showed examples of how law enforcement officials can be motivated by unconscious bias not only to race, but also to what they perceive as threats to their masculinity.

Moreover, Rachel Godsil, director of research for the American Values Institute, maintained that many Americans believe that racism no longer exists and they want to be colorblind.

“For many whites, what the culture has told us, what the right has successfully convinced us of, is racial equality equals color blindness, that to be non-racist means not to talk about nor even to notice race,” he said. “And so those of you who are Stephen Colbert fans, we’re just not supposed to be able to see it, right? I don’t know that I’m white. I don’t see that. And as we know, that’s an illusion.”

Godsil said that researchers have found that “not talking about race allows those precise, implicit biases, those negative stereotypes that our toxic culture feeds us to actually continue to grow and metastasize and to affect our behavior.”

The last panelist, John Powell, director of the Haas Center for Diversity and Inclusion and Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion at the University of California at Berkeley, closed the session sharing several examples of how our mind looks at pictures, images and the world around us – and the impact on our unconscious.

“We have to learn to talk to the unconscious,” he said. “The unconscious doesn’t like facts and figures. It doesn’t like numbers. It doesn’t like analysis. It likes metaphors; it likes stories.

“I’ll give you an example and I’ll close with this. Some people say they don’t trust President Obama because he had this fiery Christian minister named Minister Jeremiah Wright. And then the same people would turn around and say they don’t like Obama because he’s a Muslim.

“Now most Muslims I know don’t have a fiery Christian minister. What they’re really doing is talking to the unconscious. They’re saying he’s not one of us. They’re not making a factual claim; they’re making an emotional claim. And when we come back with factual refutation, we’ve missed the point.

“We’re not talking to the unconscious,” he explained. “We’re talking to the conscious and they’re talking to the unconscious. And when there’s a tension in large societies, the unconscious normally wins. So we have to become much more aware of the unconscious and learn how to talk to the unconscious.”

America’s Wire is an independent, nonprofit news service run by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.