Magazine article Poverty & Race

Does Unconscious Bias Matter?

Magazine article Poverty & Race

Does Unconscious Bias Matter?

Article excerpt

During the past several years, psychological research on unconscious racial bias has grabbed headlines, as well as the attention of legal scholars. The most well-known test of unconscious bias is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a sophisticated and methodologically rigorous computer-administered measure that has been taken by millions of people and featured in major media. Its proponents contend that the IAT reveals widespread unconscious bias against African Americans, even among individuals who believe themselves to be free of racial bias.

A computer-administered test available over the Internet, the IAT is a compelling interactive experience that has been taken by millions of people, and featured in print and broadcast media. The IAT measures the strength of the association between social categories (e.g., blacks or whites) and positive and negative attributes (e.g., "joy" and "love" versus "agony" and "evil"). Akin to a computer game for grownups, the IAT requires momentary immersion into the interactive medium. In a series of trials, the participant categorizes images or words that appear on the computer screen by pressing particular computer keyboard keys as quickly as possible. At the end of the exercise, the computer calculates a score that reflects the nature and magnitude of one's implicit bias. Most participants are found to have an implicit bias against African Americans. The overt racism of the Jim Crow era, the psychological research suggests, has given way to racial bias that is predominantly unconscious.

In fact, the findings of the IAT are ambiguous. The characterization of the IAT as a measure of implicit bias depends on being able to distinguish implicit bias from conscious bias. Yet it is extraordinarily difficult to disentangle the two because, since the disavowal of racism during the civil rights era, research participants have become increasingly unwilling to openly express views that may be condemned as racist. Thus, the IAT could defensibly be viewed as a subtle measure of conscious psychological processes, of attitudes and beliefs that are known to oneself yet intentionally concealed from researchers. This empirical ambiguity has been practically eclipsed by the unconscious bias account. Why?

Scholars may focus on unconscious bias because they think it poses unique challenges for anti-discrimination doctrine. This explanation for the ascendance of the unconscious bias discourse is intuitively appealing and widely embraced. But it is wrong. Anti-discrimination law grapples as well, or as poorly, with unconscious bias as with covert bias. Neither statutory nor constitutional anti-discrimination law turns on the distinction between the two. While the research cannot distinguish between conscious and unconscious bias, the law (fortunately) does not require courts to do so.

The better explanation for the prominence of the unconscious bias discourse relates to the comforting narrative it offers about our nation's progress in overcoming its racist history. Assertions of widespread unconscious bias are more palatable than parallel claims about covert bias. The invocation of unconscious bias levels neither accusation nor blame so much as it identifies a quasi-medical problem buried deep within us all, an ailment that distorts our thinking and behavior. People may be willing to accept that unconscious bias influences their behavior, even if they would vigorously deny harboring conscious bias. Assertions of conscious bias would open a constellation of vexing issues - for example, whether racial disparities reflect discrimination or group differences, whether discrimination may be rational, and if so whether it should be prohibited. …

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