Racial bias so deeply embedded that you might not recognize it in you

January 21, 2008|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- After a recent column describing Sen. Barack Obama as "a presidential candidate who happens to be black - not a black presidential candidate," I received many responses from readers, a handful of them odd. That odd handful declared they take no notice of superficial traits such as skin color, and they took me to task for making any reference to Mr. Obama's race.

"If people really, truly want racial equality, then the first step has to be to STOP looking at skin color," wrote one reader. "When I look at a person, the last thing I think about is skin color or heritage," wrote another.

Sorry, but I'm not buying it. While I am sympathetic to any desire to get past dated and useless habits of mind, that's just nonsense. None of us, black, white or brown, is colorblind.

Those readers may think they don't notice skin color, but it's just not so, says University of Washington psychology professor Anthony Greenwald, an expert on implicit biases and common stereotypes.

That's not a condemnation, or a presumption of malicious bigotry. It's just an acknowledgment of the peculiar burdens of humanity, especially in the U.S.

Each of us is stuck with prejudices. But we don't have to be governed by them.

Cutting-edge work by Mr. Greenwald and his colleagues suggests that people can learn to put aside their biases to make rational, fact-based judgments about people who may be black or Mexican or Mormon.

But the first step - as in any self-help project - is to own up to the problem. That self-knowledge is not necessarily difficult to acquire, but it's quite often difficult to accept.

Racial bigotry is a social taboo in this country, so much so that only an extremist fringe - assorted neo-Nazis and skinheads - admit their rank prejudices. That may explain why some volunteers who have taken Mr. Greenwald's Implicit Association Test, which uses word association to detect unconscious biases, are furious when the test shows they hold hidden negative views of black Americans.

But his research has also pointed out that most people simply aren't aware of their implicit assumptions.

Take the current Democratic primary. Mr. Greenwald and colleagues modified the Implicit Association Test to search for unconscious biases among Democratic voters. When asked who they planned to cast ballots for, a sample of voters reported strong support for Mr. Obama, who held a strong lead - 42 percent to 34 percent - over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton among the sample, with John Edwards coming in at 12. But when the same people took the Implicit Association Test, measuring their unconscious preferences, Mrs. Clinton was "the runaway winner," favored by 48 percent of them, and Mr. Obama was dead last, with 25 percent. Mr. Edwards was favored by 27 percent, according to the researchers.

And here's one finding that upends conventional wisdom: According to the test, black voters, too, held implicit biases that worked against Mr. Obama. But how could it be otherwise? Black Americans are products of the same culture as white Americans, with its myriad stereotypes of black incompetence. And black Americans have internalized many of the same stereotypes.

Today we celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who dreamed of a day when his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." But that day has not yet arrived. We might hasten its dawning if we'd admit that what we see is not necessarily what we believe.

Correction: In a column last week about rigid voter ID laws, I mistakenly referred to the Bill of Rights in underscoring the right to vote. The right to vote is explicit in the 15th, 19th and 26th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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