Is Post-Racialism an Implicit Bias?

03/15/2015 09:44 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2015
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On March 9, a 15-year old Brooklyn teenager was viciously attacked by a group of girls inside a local McDonald's. Video of the incident shows five or six girls repeatedly punching and kicking the victim, even stomping on her head as she is huddled in a ball on the floor. Both the victim and her attackers are Black. Several news reports called the incident a "fight." Yet, when three Black teens violently beat a young White, Florida boy on a school bus, the incident was rightfully called a "beating" and "vicious attack." Some reports referred to it as "savage." In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Associated Press showed a photograph of two White people wading through the water with groceries and captioned the photo: "Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery." A similar photo, also featured by the Associated Press, showing a young Black man wading through water with groceries is captioned: "A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans."

Despite our declarations of victory over our "racist past," the war against racism is not yet won. What links all of these incidents, spanning almost a decade, is that they are manifestations of racial bias. Not necessarily intentional bias, but bias nonetheless: implicit bias. The Perception Institute has provided a useful definition of implicit bias: "embedded stereotypes that heavily influence our decision making without our conscious knowledge." For example, while many Americans would disclaim holding any negative feelings towards Blacks or Latinos as a group, many in fact hold "automatic associations" of criminality, violence and laziness with Blacks and Latinos. Indeed, one manifestation of implicit bias is the automatic stereotyping of a group that stems from our constant exposure to cultural stereotypes that pervade every aspect of our society.

The classic example is the man who crosses the street when he sees a young Black man approaching from the other direction. The man would never intentionally avow racist thoughts. He may consider himself politically liberal and have a diverse group of friends. But a lifetime of exposure to cultural stereotypes that equate young Black men and criminal behavior triggers an automatic response. This is implicit bias at work.

The existence and impact of implicit bias, and the ways it infiltrates our thinking, our relationships, and our decisions, is becoming a regular part of the conversation about equality. It helps us explain why some of us see a survivor while others see a "looter"; why some may see a fight while others see an assault. But, despite growing awareness of the role of implicit bias, we continue to ignore a critical implicit bias: post-racialism. And until we acknowledge the role that this implicit bias plays, we cannot move beyond defensive conversations about race to a more productive dialogue.

Many Americans embrace a narrative of post-racialism -- the belief that America is now a color-blind society. Our social norms discount the pervasiveness of race in American institutions, and we have a general reluctance to identify our social problems as a product of racial discrimination. It is not that post-racialists do not see the inequalities; it is that they look for non-racial explanations for the disparities they see. Let's revisit the example above. But now, you are a bystander, watching the older man cross the street as the young Black man approaches. The bystander's implicit bias -- their unconscious embrace of post-racialism -- may find a million ways to explain away the older man's behavior. This is a rough neighborhood; I bet he would cross the street for any approaching young person. Perhaps he was going to cross the street anyway. Anything to ignore and explain away the role that intrinsic racial bias might have played.

Most people would say that they can identify instances of racial bias and would not hesitate to speak out against them. But, their bias towards post-racialism causes them to automatically assign race-neutral explanations to situations that are infused with race. The narrative that racism and race are no longer significant seems reasonable to many Americans and it influences their decisions and actions without conscious knowledge.

To move towards racial equality we must abandon the myth of the post-racial, color-blind society. Post-racialism hampers honest discussion about race and about how to address racial disparities. As a society, we must challenge post-racialism as we would any other implicit bias: through awareness that post-racialism is an implicit bias and openly acknowledging that bias; developing an understanding about the effects of that bias on our thinking and our decisions; and the development of personal and societal strategies to reduce the bias and the impact it has on our progress toward a just society. Only then can we move forward.