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Unconscious Racism at the University of California

05/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Currently, the University of California appears to be facing several unrelated problems that bring into focus the central issue facing all public universities: how can schools maintain access, affordability, and quality during a time of decreased public support. For many people inside and outside of higher education, the solution to this problem is to push states to increase their funding for higher education; however, this necessary correction is only part of the problem: universities need to not only campaign for more money, but they also have to show that they are using their funds in an effective and efficient manner. Moreover, public universities need to actively fight ethnic and racial conflicts that threaten to arise during times of economic downsizing.

While at first glance the question of racism seems to be unrelated to the issue of funding, it is evident from recent events at the University of California that increased racial tensions often occur during an economic downturn. In fact, one obvious connection between racism and economics concerns enrollment policies and decisions. As many people have reported, less than 2% of the undergraduates at several of the UC campuses are African American, and although this low level of enrollment might not be blamed directly on racism, the effects of this situation is to fan racial tensions. Not only do some African-American students feel that they are not welcomed on their campuses, but studies show that when an ethnic or racial group only represents a small minority, the people from the dominant group revert to unconscious prejudices to categorize and stigmatize the minority group.

Racism in the Hidden Brain

In his book, The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam reviews the latest studies of how racism works, and he documents some surprising findings. One of the more upsetting discoveries is that children as young as three-years-old will associate positive traits with white people and negative traits with black people regardless of the race of the child or the attitudes of the children's parents and teachers. As Vedantam stresses, these associations are learned through cultural experience and continue to exist in the unconscious of people even if these same individuals espouse tolerant and progressive stances on a conscious level. From this perspective, the only way to fight racism is to openly admit that we all harbor racist associations and that we need to become aware of our unconscious tendencies.

Another interesting finding that Vedantam analyzes is the notion that people equate blackness to crime and welfare on an unconscious level. In reviewing several psychological tests that are based on word and picture associations, we are confronted with the fact that even if politicians do not mention race when discussing crime and welfare, people draw associations between deviance and blackness in their hidden minds, and these associations often determine how people vote.

Racism and Pop Culture

While the election of Barack Obama might make us think that we have moved beyond these race-based prejudices, the recent events at the University of California, San Diego reveal how we cannot simply escape unconscious racism. For example, after a fraternity held a party dubbed the "Compton Cookout," which invited people to come dressed in stereotypical ghetto attire, the students who came up with this idea said that it was only a joke, and they meant no harm. Moreover, they added that they got their ideas from popular culture, and so they were only playing on stereotypes that black actors and rappers portray themselves.

As Vedantam's research shows, the first problem with these students' attempt to deny wrongdoing is that they fail to see how popular culture maintains and circulates racist stereotypes. In other words, from the perspective of the hidden, unconscious mind, there is no such thing as a joke, and, even if people do not consciously intend to offend, they are drawing from an unconscious reservoir of offensive associations. Here, we see how we cannot base personal responsibility solely on what people intend in a conscious way; rather, people must be held accountable for their unconscious associations.

Unconscious Racism

A week after the Compton Cookout created a stir, a noose was found in the main library at UCSD, and several events were held by the administration to address the growing sense of racial conflict. While these interventions were well intended, they failed to get to the root of the problem, which is how do we teach people not to act on their unconscious racist beliefs. This need for education was evident when the student who placed the noose in the library explained that she did not intend to do any harm, and she did not think about the racial significance of the noose.

Whether you accept or do not accept her explanation, it is important to examine how a university student could be unaware of the cultural association tying the noose to racism. On one level, we can blame her education, but on another level, we have to look at the fact that our stereotypes are both unconscious and social; in other words, we share a common language, but we don't even admit that this language exists.

Educating Against Racism

For the past ten years, I have been trying to get university students to explore their own unconscious cultural racism, and this effort is often stalled by the way people resist learning about uncomfortable aspects of themselves and their culture. For example, when I asked my students at UCLA what they thought about the racist events at UCSD, there was an obvious tension in the classroom, and several students sighed and looked away as if to signal to the other students that we should not enter this uncomfortable subject area. I believe that this type of group passive resistance is a method of social control that students use unconsciously.

One of my main strategies to deal with classroom anxiety is to ask students to take out a piece of paper and write down anonymously and quickly what they think the other students are thinking about the current classroom discussion. In making this assignment quick and anonymous, I am trying to get students to not censor themselves, and by having them write about what they think others are thinking, I am able to circumvent some of their defense mechanisms.

After I collect students' comments, I then write down some common themes, and I distribute them to the class for an open discussion. This process usually starts with nervous laughter, but it often quickly moves to a serious conversation on how people do not want to deal with uncomfortable subjects like racism and the unconscious. What many students tell me is that they have never really dealt with any of these issues in their classes, and while they have taken ethnic studies classes and courses on prejudices, they have never been asked to discuss these issues as they relate to themselves and their fellow students. In fact, several of my students have told me that most of their classes are too large to allow for any class discussion, and so these issues are dealt with in an abstract and intellectual manner.

The Problem with Impersonal Instruction

We now see that the problem with teaching about racism is not only that these cultural associations are unconscious, but the university educational structure usually does not allow for personal engagement with the material. Moreover, most instructors do not pay careful attention to how students actually think and process new information; in fact, many professors never study or learn how to teach, and universities assume that professors will just learn how to do this essential task on their own.

What I am suggesting here is that not only do we have to teach about our hidden prejudices, but we have to demand that our teachers know how to teach and that classes are structured so they involve personal involvement in the subject matter. Some may respond that universities cannot afford smaller classes, and while I would dispute this claim, I also would argue that even in large classes, teachers could have students write anonymous comments, and this type of feedback could be discussed directly in class.

Since all of us grow up internalizing racists associations, it is imperative for educators to teach students how to detect and deny their own unconscious social prejudices. It is also important for social institutions, like public universities, to realize that social inequality and the lack of economic opportunity often breeds a return to primitive racist associations. In short, we need to provide access to higher education as we make sure that instruction remains personal and interactive.