(Un)Conscious: How Understanding the Subconscious Can Further Efforts for Social Justice

Sara Grossman

Campaigns Coordinator

AS AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT, Lanre Akinsiku was regularly pulled over while navigating the narrow city streets near University of California, Berkeley in his hulking ‘92 Ford Taurus. “Often I’d see a squad car following me and just pull to the curb to get it over with,” Akinsiku recalled in an essay he penned in 2014 for Gawker. “An officer would walk up to the car, one hand on that little button that secures the strap over his gun.” 

Akinsiku’s natural instincts kicked in—he wanted to protest, to argue with the officer that he had done nothing wrong and didn’t deserve to be stopped. But, he wrote, “black boys are supposed to know better.”

Instead, he would silently slip his Berkeley student ID over his driver’s license. “The officer’s eyes would light up. ‘Not your college ID,’ he would say, amused. Then he would go back to his car and dally a little, pretending to check on things, before handing my license back with some mock-heroic advice about staying out of trouble,” Akinsiku wrote.

Akinsiku’s repeated encounters with police are not unique. Indeed, national statistics reveal that a black driver is about 31 percent more likely to be stopped by a police officer than a white driver, and about 23 percent more likely than a Latino one. Perhaps most concerning is that nearly five percent of blacks were given no reason for why they were pulled over, compared with less than three percent of whites.

Akinsiku’s experience may be yet another case of overt, explicit racism, where a police officer actively and insidiously decides to pull over a driver because he is black. 

Yet, at a time when blatant bigotry is generally condemned in society, this could also be a case study in implicit bias, an increasingly recognized phenomena in our supposedly “post-racial” society, where race is often treated as an irrelevant factor in everything from social interactions to institutional inequality.

Events last summer—with the police killing of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson and the choking death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police—ripped that illusion apart, revealing a truth most black Americans already know: race is still a difficult and serious dividing line in America. 

Divisions along racial lines are evident in both attitudes towards race in America and broad social outcomes. In a society where blacks are incarcerated at almost six times the rate of whites, and where black and Latino men are handed significantly harsher sentences than white defendants when committing the same crime, and where nearly eight in ten black Americans say that there is still “a lot” of work to be done on race relations, compared to less than half of whites, it is clear that we are no more “post-racial” than we were in 1965. 

Indeed, some race-based inequalities have either stayed the same or worsened since the Civil Rights era. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center report, “when it comes to household income and household wealth, the gaps between blacks and whites have widened … On other measures, including poverty and homeownership rates, the gaps are roughly the same as they were 40 years ago.” 

For many Americans, the thought that our nation hasn’t made progress on racial issues since the 1960s seems unimaginable. And yet, significant discrepancies remain. So why, when our nation’s public schools are now majority-minority, and our Congress is the most diverse in history (although still not reflective of the demographic makeup of the nation), do these inequalities still exist? 

As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic last year, racism today is more “elegant” than the explicit and oafish claims of white supremacy that were common in earlier decades. “Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism,” Coates wrote. “Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names.”

Implicit bias and racial anxiety are increasingly recognized by both academics and policymakers as significant contributors to this sort of “elegant racism” and its continuation of racial disparities. Implicit bias, or deeply ingrained stereotypes that influence an individual’s decision-making without conscious awareness or acknowledgment, plays a role in both the most basic of social interactions and in institutional treatment of entire groups. Perhaps, for example, a cab driver makes an unconscious snap decision to pick up the white woman on the side of the road, rather than the black man standing next to her. This bias may be so deeply ingrained in his psyche that he doesn’t even recognize the cause of his own actions. 

According to the recent Science of Equality report published by the Perception Institute, the Center for Policing Equity, and the Haas Institute, “implicit biases affect behavior and are far more predictive than self-reported racial attitudes.” These biases have far-reaching implications, ranging from how many call-backs a black job candidate will receive, to the speed and likelihood that an unarmed person of color is shot by law enforcement.

 “These anxieties and biases are fed to us by the frequent negative association with blacks—words and images that strengthen these unconscious but impactful associations,” wrote Haas Institute Director john a. powell in an essay for The Huffington Post. “It is on account of these pervasive, culturally embedded associations that so many black people in this country are not only viewed with suspicion, but also as criminals, regardless of who they are.”

These biases are not exclusive to overt racists—they are pervasive and inescapable. A well-known bias test called the Implicit Association Test indirectly measures biases by asking people to perform a series of matching tasks under pressure of time and stress. The IAT, which by now has been taken by millions of people, has determined that more than 80 percent of white test-takers show a favorable bias towards white skin, implicitly associating lighter individuals with positive ideas and descriptors. About half of blacks also show some bias towards whites, demonstrating that they too are subject to the unconscious prejudices of society. It is perhaps no surprise then, that when police officers face split-second decisions on how to handle a difficult and potentially dangerous situation, the difference between pulling the trigger or holding back might very well be a difference of skin tone.

Similarly, racial anxiety, or a rooted sense of unease about racial difference, is an important contributor to heightened racial tensions. Both people of color and white individuals can experience this anxiety, as the former may be anxious that they will be the target of discrimination or hostility and the latter may be concerned with the prospect of being perceived as racist and therefore met with wariness. 

The effects of implicit biases and racialized anxiety go beyond isolated incidents of uncomfortable interpersonal interactions or even the grossly unfair delivery of criminal justice, they seep into every crevice of society. These phenomena may best be illustrated in the sphere of primary education—an institution that affects nearly every member of American society, regardless of class or ethnic background. 


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IN ITS WATERSHED 1954 DECISIONBrown v. Board of Education, the US Supreme Court affirmed the importance of integrated education on a student’s future opportunity and success. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren in the decision, which the justices came to unanimously after hearing a slew of stunning evidence demonstrating the toxic effects of racism and racial bias upon the nation’s segregated school children. 

One of the most unsettling pieces of evidence were the results of the “doll test,” conducted by Kenneth Clark and Mami Phipps Clark. In the study, children were shown two dolls, nearly identical in features, except one was light skinned and light haired and the other brown skinned and dark haired. The experiment found that across the board, children of all races chose the light skinned doll when asked which was more beautiful, nicer, or better to play with. The study exemplified the pernicious effects of racism and segregation. The justices agreed with the plaintiffs in Brown that a system that promoted such negative outcomes was unsustainable, unjust, and unfit for American society. 

As with the case of the taxi driver, it is likely that these young children didn’t actively or consciously think through their choice—rather, they implicitly decided which doll was better simply because of their internalized biases. The subjects in this study, of course, were mere children, suggesting that these same biases were likely more ingrained in adults.

Six decades after the Brown v. Board decision, racial disparities and racialized outcomes in education remain, the product of continued systemic difficulties related to everything from de facto segregated housing to racial anxiety amongst educators and students. In 2012, for example, Asian and white students graduated at a rate of 88% and 86% respectively, while graduation rates remained stalled at 69% for black students and 73% for Latino children. While only 10% of white males have repeated a grade, more than a quarter of black boys have. Discipline rates are similarly stark. Nearly half of all African American males were suspended, compared to one-third of Latino males and one-fifth of white boys. More often than not, these students of color were suspended for minor infractions, not for particularly violent or aggressive behavior, while their white peers were more likely to receive less severe punishments for similarly acting out. 

A 2012 report from the American Psychological Association (APA), which aggregated dozens of studies on education and race, cited implicit bias and racial anxiety, along with larger structural social problems, as key contributors to these outcomes. “Discrimination may reflect hostility or patronizing attitudes, expressed in explicit or implicit forms and can be experienced as microaggressions or as more overt forms of aggression,” the authors wrote. “[A]ll of which stigmatize these ethnic and racial minority groups and contribute to educational disparities.”

It is unlikely that teachers and administrators are explicitly looking to harm or attack students of color. Like all of us, they are merely part of a society that has perpetuated the myth that dark skinned individuals are more likely to exhibit criminal behavior or be less intelligent. Like most of us, they soak up the biases of a skewed society, its own racism hardened through generations of de jure and later de facto inequality and injustice.

The implications of this sort of non-overt discrimination are deeply consequential, going beyond classroom interactions or even academic outcomes. Students of color who exist in reduced opportunity schools are set up for a future of comparable treatment, including drastically limited job opportunities from employers who, just like school teachers, are subject to socially-produced and implicit biases. Too often, employers mindlessly disregard candidates of color, continuing a cycle of bias that began years before. One well-known study, for example, found that resumes with “white-sounding” names were significantly more likely to receive call-backs from employers than resumes with “black-sounding” names but identical qualifications. Even without human interaction, racial biases continue to manifest.

The APA report laid out the stakes clearly for the continuance of such gaping disparities. “Unless more ethnic and racial minority young people achieve higher levels of education and training, the US society in general will fail to cultivate the human talent that is essential for the health and success of our nation,” it warned.

In 2010, researchers re-performed the famous doll test, seeking to discover if implicit racial attitudes had shifted since 1954. It had been nearly 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education and about 50 years since the March on Washington—things had improved, most agreed. 

The results of the study, however, showed that white children demonstrated the same high levels of white bias as their peers in prior generations. Even black children showed some white bias, albeit less than their white peers.  Insidious implicit biases were still present and still being acted upon. Like generations of children before them, today’s kids are not immune to the prejudices of their friends and parents, civic leaders, teachers, and heroes.

How then can we move towards a more empathetic, more equitable, and more inclusive United States? How do we build one that is free of racial disparities in judicial sentencing, in education, in health, in policing, and in every area of society?

THE RESEARCH IS CLEAR: What happens at the unconscious level cannot be ignored. Mind science research has demonstrated that implicit biases are at work in all human interaction, and that many of the racial disparities we continue to see today, both systemic and interpersonal, have some basis in internalized preferences. The police officer who shoots the unarmed black man, the cab driver who picks up the white woman rather than person of color standing nearby, or the teacher that views the young African American kid as aggressive rather than immature, are all based on these pervasive and sticky implicit biases. 

As we begin to unlock what’s happening at the unconscious level, structural change and cultural change must occur in tandem for radical change to be possible. “We need to be fortified with a new racial language,” john powell wrote. “The choice is to decode structural racialization and implicit bias or be consigned to a confused post-racial world with no translation or escape.”