Race in America: Could You be Prejudiced Without Knowing It?

Over the rest of this century, judgments about the prominence and impact of race in American society will need to take into account a series of recent critical events. The outright social rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore, the racially motivated massacre in Charleston, and the ever-continuing series of unarmed black men, women, and children being killed by police will continue to have important ramifications.

The shocking truth is that these events have occurred while the residents of the White House were an African-American family. Once, undisguised expressions of prejudice and racial antagonism were rife throughout American society, but since the Civil Rights Era, racial vitriol has virtually withered away.

Today, only a small minority of Americans endorse any form of anti-black sentiment. If old-fashioned racism is clearly not a viable cause, why are outcomes for blacks increasingly worse than those for whites in so many important dimensions of life? And why is the current state of affairs in race relations—epitomized by policing, incarceration, and unemployment—viewed so differently by black Americans and white Americans?

Dr. Anthony Greenwald and Dr. Mahzarin Banaji

Important answers to these questions can be found in the unconscious biases that many of us unknowingly carry. In their book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Delacorte Press), Dr. Anthony Greenwald, professor of social psychology at the University of Washington, and Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a Yale University social psychologist, share the results of 30 years of psychological research to provide a deeper understanding of our current racial gaps.

I had an in-depth conversation with Dr. Greenwald about the often-surprising insights from Blindspot.

Jay Richards: What inspired you to write Blindspot?

Anthony Greenwald: In the mid-1990s, my co-author, Mahzarin Banaji, Brian Nosac (another researcher from University of Virginia), and I created the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to test people’s unconscious biases and stereotypes. The IAT has produced some very robust and very intriguing results. So many people were interested that we felt we had to get something out that was informative, readable, and that would point out some of the implications of this kind of research.

JR: The IAT is not just another pencil and paper questionnaire. Can you explain what kind of test it is and how it is able to measure biases that an individual is not aware of having?

AG: Yes, but the quickest way to learn about how the IAT works it to take one of the tests. The race test is on the Project Implicit website and only takes a few minutes.

In a nutshell, the IAT is a two-part task involving responding to a series of words and faces that appear on a computer screen. The words are either pleasant or unpleasant and the faces are faces of black or white people. On the first part of the IAT you are asked to make the same response (push the same key) when either a white face or a pleasant word appears on the screen and to push a different key if a black face or an unpleasant word appears. You try to do this as fast as you can without making errors. In the second part, you have new instructions. Now, white faces and unpleasant words are keyed together, and you respond to black faces and pleasant words using a different key. The difference between the time it takes to do the two trials is a measure of preference. If, like many people, you are faster when white faces and pleasant words are keyed together than when black faces are keyed with pleasant words, you have an automatic bias in favor of viewing white faces, and white people, more favorably than black people.

JR: What surprises readers most about what’s in the book?

AG: The thing that has been most challenging for readers who have taken the IAT is the pervasiveness of the biases that are revealed in the research we do. When I say pervasive, I don’t just mean the number of people who hold these biases. There’s also a very wide range of different implicit attitudes, such as liking whites more than blacks, young more than old, Americans more than Asians, and a whole lot more. The extremity of the data is also surprising. For example, the IAT shows that 70 percent of people prefer younger people over older people, and this implicit age bias is held just as strongly in people 70 or 80 years old as it is for people in their 20s and 30s.

The Implicit Association Test determines unconscious racial preference and bias.

JR: And what do you mean by “implicit”?

AG: The mind does things automatically that feed into our conscious thought and provide the basis for judgments. The result is that we make conscious judgments that are guided by things that are outside of our awareness. We only get the end products, and we don’t recognize the extent to which those products have been altered by our past experience. That’s where those biases and stereotypes come in.

JR: I have heard this referred to as different levels of consciousness. Is that language that you would use to describe it?

AG: Yes, these levels have been described in different ways, but what is important is the idea that there are levels. There is a slower, automatically operating level that is outside of awareness, and a higher attentional level that can operate deliberately and rationally with conscious intention. That’s the distinction that actually defines the Implicit Revolution. We are elevating this lower level—the implicit level, the automatic level, the intuitive level—to a prominence that corresponds with the importance of the work it does.

An example I like to use to explain this distinction is that of a Google search. When you look something up in Google, advertisements just sort of pop up on your computer screen that relate to what you were looking for. Every time we enter a query into a search engine, there are very rapid and invisible processes that we couldn’t even begin to follow. All we see is the end-product which shows up on the screen. That distinction between the behind-the-screen level, which operates very rapidly, and what we see on the screen that we can read and interpret and make use of corresponds to the two levels were talking about now in psychology.

JR: One of the interesting findings you describe in your book is that many African-Americans also have an unconscious preference for whites.

AG: That is true. Among African-Americans in the United States, there is close to an even split between those who have a preference for white faces relative to black and those who have preference for black relative to white. Yet, if those same people are asked if they feel warmer toward whites versus blacks, the African-Americans will very strongly make it clear that they feel more warmly to black people than white people. Interestingly, it seems that many African-Americans are not governed by political correctness like whites, many of whom think that if they feel more warmly toward one race than another that they shouldn’t express this feeling. But not among black people. African-Americans do show different patterns on the race IAT than whites, but it’s not exactly the opposite. They are very balanced and on average show very little net preference one way or the other. But what is similar is the distinction between what their words say about preference and what the IAT says about their preferences. What they honestly believe about themselves often differs from their implicit preferences, as is often the case with whites.

JR: What would you consider to be the important take-home message that you would like people to get from Blindspot?

AG: It’s sort of a “know thyself” message. In this book, we were trying to show what psychology has learned recently about how our minds function and what we can do to better align our behavior with our conscious beliefs, as opposed to our unconscious biases. Part of the secret to doing that is to simply do things that cause your mind to do more than merely operate automatically. You can do this by monitoring closely what you’re doing.

Jay Richards croppedJAY RICHARDS, Ph.D. is a forensic psychologist whose specialty is the evaluation and treatment of violent offenders, such as homicide perpetrators, mentally ill killers and sexually violent predators. In the field of criminal psychology, he is known for ground-breaking research, innovative and provocative theoretical papers, and evocative and insightful case studies of psychopaths and other mentally disordered offenders. With more than three decades of experience diagnosing and studying psychopaths and sex offenders, Richards offers an authentic portrayal of complex characters. His exploration of moral dilemmas, choices, and character motivations in Silhouette of Virtue (Face Rock Press, 2014) results in a psychological thriller that weaves together the culture and politics of the era with racial tension, mystery, and suspense.