Leaving the Past
Posted by Adam Benforado on July 25, 2009
Sam has been an active racist his entire life. For decades, he has called blacks demeaning names; he has written about their inferiority; he has threatened them and beaten them; he has attended lynchings.
Under great pressure from various acquaintances and friends, in his seventieth year of life, he stops using the “n” word and ends the explicit prohibition on hiring blacks at his factory.
Ten years later, however, his business still has an almost all white workforce, despite getting lots of black applications, and no managers.
Should we trust Sam that racial bias has nothing to do with the disparity?
If you are like me, despite hoping that Sam has changed, you are deeply skeptical. A person carries his past with him, and it continues to shape his life—even when he genuinely believes he has left it far behind
The same is true of countries.
Our own dear old Uncle Sam has come a long way from the Montgomery bus boycott and the Greensboro sit-ins: today, fifty years later, there is broad agreement in society that bias and discrimination based on race are abhorrent.
But we must not forget that, in the history of our country, this consensus is a very recent development. For most of our past, bias and discrimination were the norm—permitted by statutory and constitutional law and supported by public opinion that openly held whites to be superior to blacks.
At a speech last week celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, President Obama made exactly that point, even as he urged black America to do its part to help black children succeed: “Make no mistake, no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America.”
When asked several days later about the arrest of African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his own home, Obama emphasized the “long history in this country of African-Americans being stopped disproportionately by the police” and suggested that the incident was “a sign of how race remains a factor in this society.”
There are many out there who strongly disagree with the president, who believe that we have reached the end of our long journey out of night—that we stand at the dawning of post-racial America. As former Bush administration official John Yoo argued in the Philadelphia Inquirer, protections for minorities written into employment law, election law, and college admissions “might have been justified in the 1960s . . . [but] they are necessary no longer.” Our nation has fulfilled its promise of creating a nation that ensures “the proposition that all men are created equal.”
While I share Yoo’s desire to embrace progress and to step into the light, I cannot ignore the evidence that suggests that his assessment is wrong.
First, blacks do not enjoy equal outcomes to whites with respect to income, education, health care, and numerous other areas.
Consider just the statistics on criminal law: Forty percent of felony defendants are black and a black male is five times more likely to serve time in prison over his lifetime than a white male. Blacks also receive significantly higher bail amounts, are given longer sentences, and are more likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts. In fact, the more stereotypically black your features are, the more likely you are to receive the death penalty.
Second, this disparate impact appears to have its roots in implicit biases held by many Americans beyond their conscious awareness or control.
Over the last 10 years, hundreds of thousands of individuals have participated in research studies measuring their racial stereotypical associations using the Implicit Association Test, developed by psychology professors from Harvard, the University of Washington, and the University of Virginia.
Approximately 70 percent of those who have taken the test have demonstrated a preference for whites to blacks.
Just as critically, the test has significant value at predicting social judgment and behavior, as an overview analysis of 122 research reports published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last month documented. Physicians with a white preference on the Implicit Association Test, for example, provided less effective treatments to hypothetical black coronary artery disease patients than to white patients. Likewise, individuals with a white preference on the test were more likely to shoot a black target in a simulation than a white target engaging in identical behavior.
This evidence does not mean that, today, Americans are all hate-filled bigots. One of the major findings is that many egalitarians—those genuinely committed to racial equality, including the test designers themselves—show automatic race preference.
What it means is that the hundreds of years of explicit racism in our country have left a mark within us. We may be completely unaware of its existence, but it is influencing our actions.
Uncle Sam is on the right path. The election of our first minority president and the likely confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court are testaments to how far we have come, but they are welcome signs of progress not an indication that we have reached our destination.
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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” “Black History is Now,” “Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” - Video,” “A Situationist Considers the Implications of Simpson Sentencing,” “What does an Obama victory mean?,” “The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,” “The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV.”