Monday, December 8, 2014

The prejudice in you and me

It’s easy to see racism in others’ attitudes and behaviors, but often difficult and disturbing to see that we are also prejudiced.

Every so often, the U.S. enters a racially charged period. This seems to be one of them. Accusations of racism have swirled around the shootings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and now most recently, the police shooting of Rumain Brisbon, an unarmed black man in Phoenix.

But no one thinks they’re racists nowadays. Even the Ku Klux Klan claims it isn’t racist. But make no mistake, prejudice is alive and well in our society and in our minds.

Schools disproportionately punish minority students, with the U.S. Department of Education reporting in 2012 that Hispanic and black students were three times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled.

The penalty for possession of crack cocaine is 18 times greater than the punishment for powdered cocaine (down from 100 times greater). African-Americans are far more likely to use crack and whites tend to use powdered cocaine. This ultimately has led to vastly different punishments for whites and blacks who commit virtually the same crime.

Perhaps most personally bothersome is when we detect underlying racism in our own thoughts and behaviors.

I think of myself as a pretty open-minded person who doesn’t discriminate based on racial preferences and I’ve usually succeeded at rationalizing away any racially unpleasant thoughts. But at a certain point, I had to stop ignoring my own prejudice.

This summer, I walked home from work one evening. I heard a group of black men being loud and obnoxious somewhere behind me. I got nervous. I felt my heart rate speed up. I started walking faster and glancing over my shoulder, worried for my safety. Interestingly, hordes of noisy, annoying white people never got the same response from me.

I highlight this example, not to confess that I’m a paranoid, closeted racist, but to show how racism can suddenly jump into our thoughts when we feel unsafe.

Residents of Iowa City gather before the Unity March, held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this year. (IPN File Photo)
Explicit racism is almost universally frowned upon in the United States, but prejudice and discrimination still sneak into our thoughts and behaviors with very real consequences.

For the longest time, I thought I wasn’t one of those people. I didn’t consciously fear racial minorities. I thought I was enlightened. In spite of these beliefs, my unconscious attitudes indicated otherwise.

Psychologists devised clever ways to bypass anti-racist beliefs to reveal what’s happening just below the surface of our conscious mind. The implicit association test gives participants a simple task. Using a computer, they sort images and words into two categories (e.g. black faces and negative words on one side and white faces with positive words on the other).

The implicit association test has been conducted repeatedly with surprising results. White people with strong anti-racist beliefs found it easier to associate white faces with positive words and black faces with negative words. It’s tempting to pin this all on in-group/out-group dynamics, but black people and other minorities showed no implicit preference for their racial groups. Researchers often suggest that because whites are the dominant, socially favored group, it amplifies bias against minorities for white respondents and decreases anti-white bias among minorities.

It’s also tempting to think that maybe our levels of overt prejudice affect our unconscious feelings about minorities. In one study, the experimenter flashed racially charged words on a screen like Negroes, poor, lazy, and ordinary words like water, thought, something. Participants in the racially charged or neutral condition had to judge the behavior of a fictional man who made demands that could be construed as reasonable or hostile. The group that saw racially charged words thought the man’s behavior was more aggressive, regardless of their conscious racial feelings.

Perhaps most concerning were the findings of a study showing that when people saw black faces, they identified images of guns more quickly than when they had seen white faces. Participants were also more likely to misidentify tools as guns when primed with black faces, compared to white faces.

Not only do people automatically believe racial minorities are more violent, this belief also comes out in real world behaviors. Prejudiced hostility is more likely to arise when people feel threatened. White participants in one experiment were told their job was to administer electrical shocks to a patient’s heart whenever his heart rate dropped below a certain level. No shocks were administered in reality. The patient was either black or white. When the patient insulted the participant, shocks became far more severe for the black patient than for the white one.

These results show that unconscious prejudice can manifest itself in very real forms. They may explain why police and others can be so quick to use lethal force against black men in a scuffle. When people feel unsafe, they fall back on unconscious prejudices, and lash out. 

Still, there are signs of hope. U.S. society has made enormous, yet uneven progress over the past 150 years in decreasing racial disparities.

The crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity has fallen, but it’s still substantial.

Black and Hispanic students are increasingly getting higher education degrees, but studies show they often stop after community college, whereas whites often go on to get a four-year degree or more.

Racial biases often arise subtly. It’s doubtful that we will ever truly overcome all subconscious prejudices that we hold. Those tendencies are virtually hard-wired into humans. Drawing dividing lines between us and them is what we’re good at, even along the most trivial borders. But once that us vs. them mindset exists, it’s easy to start creating stereotypes, especially negative ones about the menacing, unfamiliar other.”

Some studies have shown that we can bridge the gap between us and them, that there are ways to erase old dividing lines and expand the definition of “us.” Using the term “African-American” instead of “black” has been found to reduce racial prejudice.

Scientists have even developed intervention programs that have been shown to reduce implicit racial biases, lasting as long as eight weeks.

If we can recognize that we are all prejudiced and we keep working to overcome it, we can meaningfully reduce our subconscious prejudices, but it requires us to accept that we may never truly win. But we’ll also never lose as long as we keep trying.

Jon Overton is the Media Editor of Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology.

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