Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t
Posted by Jon Hanson on February 19, 2009
The image to the left is a portion of a controversial cartoon that ran in yesterday’s New York Post. The cartoon (the entirety of which is here) includes this punchline: “Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.”
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A common assumption among most Americans is that race is not an issue these days; after all, most of us rarely if ever feel ourselves being “racist.” If we are not thinking about race when we go about our daily lives and if we are not harboring any racial animus when we interact or socialize inter-racially, then, we assume, race is not influencing us. We may not be blind to color, but we might as well be. Most Americans, I’m guessing, would therefore not have a problem with this cartoon.
Rev. Al Sharpton, on the other hand, does:
“The cartoon is troubling at best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys. One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual reference to this when in the cartoon they have police saying after shooting a chimpanzee that ‘Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.’
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“Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama (the first African American president) and has become synonymous with him it is not a reach to wonder are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?”
The New York Post’s editor-in-chief, Col Allan, dismissed Sharpton’s remarks with this retort: “The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy. . . .”
But why couldn’t Mr. Allan and Rev. Sharpton both be right? Why, in other words, would Mr. Allan conclude that a parody of a violent chimpanzee cannot also reflect and encourage troubling racial associations?
Perhaps it is because neither he nor his cartoonist were consciously thinking about race when creating or publishing the cartoon. If they did not think about race, then they know race didn’t influence them. From that perspective, Sharpton’s suggestion that race may have played some role seems preposterous.
But that sort of reasoning is itself preposterous when one takes seriously what social psychology and related mind sciences have discovered about the role of unconscious or implicit associations. Our brains, it seems, have a mind of their own, and that mind is often operating automatically and powerfully in ways that reflect common cultural stereotypes — including those that we might consciously reject. What we think we know about what is moving us is only a tiny, and often a misleading, part of what is actually going on in those parts of our brains that elude introspection but that can nonetheless manifest in our perceptions, emotions, and actions.
If one examines the cartoon mindful of racial stereotypes, the image scores a hat-trick and then some. The association of blacks to guns, to crime, violence, and to hostile interactions with law enforcement officers is so strong and should be so well understood that I won’t take time to review the evidence.
What some people may not be aware of is the disturbingly robust implicit associations of African Americans to monkeys, chimps, and apes.
As social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt recently observed, “one of the oldest race battles that blacks have fought in this country has been the battle to be recognized as fully human. To be regarded not in the in-between status somewhere between ape and human but to be fully human.” And with a black American now the President of the United States, the tendency to link black Americans to apes might be dismissed as an irrelevant relic of the past.
But is it? In the video excerpts below (from the Project on Law and Mind Sciences 2007 Conference), Jennifer Eberhardt’s describes some of her research examining whether such a de-humanizing association continues to operate beneath the radar of our consciousness (10 minutes total).
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While it is no doubt affirming to believe that we live in a post-racial society as revealed by Barack Obama’s election, it is probably more accurate to say that race is alive and well in the recesses of our brains and that the election of Barack Obama is — particularly when he is connected to policies we disfavor — likely to activate some of those unseen associations.
If one didn’t think about race while imagining and sketching a cartoon, that doesn’t imply that race didn’t play a role in shaping those processes. Nor does it justify indifference, much less indignance, toward those who urge us to consider whether race did somehow play a role.
Quite the contrary, given our history and the hierarchies and inequalities that continue to define our country, all of us should be especially attentive and sensitive to the possibilities that what we “know” to be true about what is moving us is often mistaken and that those mistakes have consequences.
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For a sample of related Situationst posts, see “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.” For other Situationist posts on President-Elect Obama, click here, and for posts discussing the Jennifer Eberhardt’s research, click here.