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John A. Powell Headshot

Understanding the Unconscious Side of Racism

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The New York Times reported on December 1 that even educated blacks may suffer racial discrimination in the job market. Although the article focuses on the job market, it just as easily could have been about the credit market, the housing market or any of the various other markets and institutions in our society. When these stories appear -- and it indeed is a good thing that they do appear -- there is always an element of surprise and a dearth of information on what, if anything, can or should be done as a result.

The revelations in the New York Times story are punctuated by the happy surprise that we have an African American in the White House. But together these two factors create dissonance and even confusion. How can it be that we have an African American president, yet even Yale black graduates still face discrimination? And what about all the progress we have made?

Some of this confusion would go away if we had a more sophisticated understanding of race. We mainly talk about race and racial discrimination in terms of explicit, conscious attitudes; in this domain there is much to suggest we have made progress. But this is far from the whole story. Race occupies many domains, not just what is in our explicit, conscious mind. There are two other important areas on which to focus. One is what is in our unconscious mind, also referred to as implicit mind. The second is the effect of our institutional and cultural interactions in our society.

There is a good deal of work in the field of mind science about out conscious and unconscious. By some account, only about 2% of our cognitive and emotional processes are conscious and that 2% is impacted by what is going on in the other 98%. Movements over the last 30 years have given us better ways to both understand and measure what is going on in the unconscious.

Any given employer, or landlord, might look at an African American candidate, refuse to hire her or rent to her, and honestly say that race was not a consideration. But that response is only reporting information that is available in the conscious 2% of the mind. The processes in the other 98% may be harboring racial resentments and stereotypes that impact choices made.

Does this mean that the employer or landlord is unconsciously racist? Not necessarily. We often have conflicting feelings and thoughts and our explicit or conscious thoughts may differ from our implicit or unconscious ones. As a society, we are more likely to have racial fairness as a conscious value. One of the ways to make sure this value is not tripped up by our unconscious processes is to resolve to talk about race deliberately and constructively. This is not the prescribed norm for dealing with the issue of race. The racially enlightened are told not to talk about race or even to notice. That does not acknowledge the way our unconscious works.

Even if we could control the way we think of race, this would not give us reason to believe we are racially objective. Our lives are not simply a result of our conscious intentions. We must also pay attention to the ways our institutions interact and help shape our lives. We increasingly support integrated schools but send our children to increasingly segregated schools. This is not just a failure of living our values but a failure of aligning the work of our institutions with our stated values. The more complex society becomes, the more we rely on institutional arrangements to do work for us. Yet, seldom do we look at the work these institutions are doing to promote or constrain our stated values. If we are to understand race or any other important issue in our society we must expand our vision beyond the 2% of conscious process that is intentional. We must also look at our implicit processes and at how our institutions are structured.

The election of Barack Obama may indeed tell us much about shifts that are happening in the intentional conscious, but alone it is woefully inadequate to understand our world. If we are serious about racial fairness we must expand our scope.

Cross-posted from Race-Talk.