Unconscious Bias and Moral Imagination

The Arc of the Moral Universe, part 3

Government policy and private lending institutions colluded quite intentionally in various ways to keeps black-looking folk concentrated in certain areas of town. Sociologist John McKnight in the 1960s coined the term "redlining" to refer to the practice of marking a red line on a map to delineate the area where banks would not invest. Our cities and towns to this day remain largely segregated along race -- or perceived-race -- lines. And various versions of redlining continue. Small A small business in a black neighborhood is less likely to receive a loan (even after accounting for business density, business size, industrial mix, neighborhood income, and the credit quality of local businesses), and race continues to affect the policies and practices of the insurance industry. (See Dan Immergluck, "Redlining Redux", Urban Affairs Review, 2002; and Gregory D. Squires, "Racial Profiling, Insurance Style: Insurance Redlining and the Uneven Development of Metropolitan Areas", Journal of Urban Affairs, 2003). Various forms of redlining help preserve housing segregation. As recently as 2009, loan officers at Wells Fargo were revealed to be "systematically singling out blacks in Baltimore and suburban Maryland for high-interest subprime mortgages." The practice "tipped hundreds of homeowners into foreclosure" (NY Times, 2009 Jun 6).

Predominantly black areas, deprived of legitimate opportunity, became higher crime areas, became areas where police were more often sent, because the white power structure sees those areas as dangerous and police serve the interests of protecting the whites from real or perceived danger. If your job is to control, subdue, and keep corralled any visibly-identifiable group of people, over time you will develop contempt for those people, so it’s no surprise that police are more likely to use deadly force against the black-looking.

The whiter a school or a neighborhood is, the more likely it is to be seen as “good.” That’s today.

We watch movies like “12 Years a Slave,” and are rightfully horrified, yet stories of the horrors of 19th-century slaveowners also function to reinforce the idea that racism is a conscious bias held by mean people. Today it’s an unconscious bias perpetuated unconsciously by people like most of us who see ourselves as nice people.

Researchers have developed a test called the Implicit Association Test – IAT. A set of images flashes by on the screen, and each screen has either a face or a word -- words like evil, happy, awful, peace. If the image is a face, the subject must identify it as rapidly as possible as either African American or European American. If it’s a word, the subject identifies its connotation as either good or bad. As the words and faces flash by, the subject finds it challenging to work as quickly as possible while making as few sorting errors as possible.

Here’s the crux. The test has two parts. During one part of the test the same keystroke used to signal a face is African American is also used to signal that a word is bad. During the other part of the test the same keystroke used to signal a face is African American is also used to signal a word is good. In the former case – when signaling that a face is African American is done with the same motion as signaling that a word’s meaning is bad – white test-takers sort with higher average speed and accuracy. That is, the brain more easily links those two, doesn’t have to work as hard as it does when “African American” and words with positive meanings require the same motor response.
“When negative words and black faces are paired together, you're a better, faster categorizer. Which suggests that racially biased messages from the culture around you have shaped the very wiring of your brain" (Mother Jones, 2014 Dec 1)
More than two million people have taken the online Implicit Association Test, and what we’ve founded is that the unconscious bias is unchanged by education level. People who didn’t finish high school average about the same level of bias as people with PhDs or MBAs. More schooling doesn’t generally change a person’s bias.

We do tend to be biased toward our own racial group, but whites much more so than blacks. The white bias toward whites measures at an average of .4. The black bias toward blacks measures at an average of less than .05 – which is essentially no bias at all.

Political orientation correlates with the level of bias. Those who identify politically as conservative reveal higher levels of unconscious bias than those who identify as liberal. But even political liberals have a bias measuring around .3.

Our brains were built to form prejudices. In our evolutionary heritage,
“Assuming that all mushrooms are poisonous, that all lions want to eat you, is a very effective way of coping with your surroundings. Forget being nuanced about nonpoisonous mushrooms and occasionally nonhungry lions—certitude keeps you safe.” (Mother Jones)
We are also built to be strongly tribal. Across the globe and thousands of different cultures, early human history was replete with tribes attacking other tribes. The ones that had greater tribal cohesion – loyalty to the in-group and hostility to all out-groups – survived better. And we are all descendants of the more successful tribes.

But what’s going on in the US is more than just the way evolution has wired our brains. In this country, our evolutionary wiring has combined with a unique and deep-rooted pattern of building a nation through the plunder and appropriation – and concomitant hatred -- of darker-looking bodies.
  • Franklin Roosevelt was able to pass Social Security into law in 1935 only by specifically excluding farmworkers and domestics – jobs heavily occupied by blacks. The law never mentioned race, but because lawmakers could envision the beneficiaries as almost entirely white, they were willing to pass it. Conversely, when benefits do go to the darker-skinned, whites typically oppose the program. Thus, it seems likely that a significant part of white opposition to the Affordable Care Act is rooted in a visceral dislike of providing social services to blacks. (When the ACA was signed into law in 2010, Blacks and Hispanics stood to disproportionately benefit because they were disproportionately represented among the uninsured, and also tend to need more medical care. See Matthew Lynch, "Opposition to the ACA is Rooted in Bigotry, Huffington Post.)
  • In 1988, Michael Dukakis campaign for president was sunk by Willie Horton advertisements – the specter of a black man released from prison on a Massachusetts furlough program was too powerful a negative association.
  • And sociologist Douglas Massey has observed: “All that it would take to sink a new [public works] program would be some skillfully packaged footage of black men leaning on shovels smoking cigarettes” (cited by Ta-Nahisi Coates, Atlantic, 2014 Jun). We see white guys doing that and unconsciously figure they’re just taking a well-deserved break. We see black guys doing the same thing, and it’s just intolerable.
Every human has in-group bias, but in the rest of the world, it doesn’t look like it does in the US.

Can this be fixed? Evidence, facts, and reason can be useful for shaping conscious, cognitive ideas. But how do we change a bias that is unconscious? How do we rewire neural pathways to which we don't have conscious access? This is about you and me. I know that the temptation is strong to identify the perpetrators of our racist system -- people surely other than ourselves -- and seek to change them. It's also true that engaging in the public work of social change is valuable and necessary. But I'm saying we also have some internal work to do. Cornel West, speaking at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in June, told us:
"I've got a lot of vanilla brothers and sisters that walk with me and say, Brother West, Brother West, you know, I'm not a racist any longer. Grandma's got work to do, but I've transcended that. [LAUGHTER] And I say to them, I'm a Jesus-loving, free, black man, and I've tried to be so for 55 years, and I'm 62 now, and when I look in the depths of my soul I see white supremacy because I grew up in America. And if there's white supremacy in me, my hunch is you've got some work to do, too." (Ware Lecture, General Assembly 2015)
If we're going to have any chance of changing the system and changing other people's hearts and minds, we have to change ourselves. So, putting aside for now the anger we feel when we hear about terrible bigotry -- anger directed at other people, howsoever righteous our anger may be -- how do we begin to do the work of confronting our own unconscious biases?
“In a massive study, Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia and his colleagues tested 17 different proposed ways of reducing people's unconscious bias on the IAT.” (Mother Jones)
Most of them had no effect.
“The single best intervention involved putting [white] people into scenarios and mindsets in which a black person became their ally (or even saved their life) while white people were depicted as the bad guys. In this intervention, participants ‘read an evocative story told in second-person narrative in which a White man assaults the participant and a Black man rescues the participant.’ In other words, study subjects are induced to feel as if they have been personally helped or even saved by someone from a different race. Then they took the IAT—and showed 48 percent less bias than a control group.” (Mother Jones)
That’s what works: imaginative exercises, stories; stories that deliberately counteract the kinds of stories American culture tells us over and over; stories that expand and re-train our moral imagination.

If whites are to be free of this awful color line that slashes through our psyches – and which then ends up slashing through the bodies of our darker-skinned siblings -- we must first imagine it. Vividly, concretely, and repeatedly: imagine.

It's important to be aware of the ways that our society devalues black lives, and that's what I've spent most of this post (and the previous two) describing. But merely knowing about the oppression is not sufficient to truly shake the tacit assumption that, maybe, somehow, the oppressed don't all that much "deserve" to not be oppressed. For that, we need stories of heroism, virtue, and kindness. The tired yet popular "Magical Negro" trope (paradigm cases would include the films "The Green Mile," "The Legend of Bagger Vance," and "Bruce Almighty") may be tempting, but stories of realistic human characters are better. Let us, moreover, remember that it is not the responsibility of African Americans to provide whites with the healing narrative medicine we need to overcome unconscious bias. Rather, it's up to us to do the work of training not only our rational awareness but also our moral imaginations. It's up to us to find the novels, short stories, films, and plays that are already available. We need to not only have our sympathy, empathy, and compassion evoked, but also our admiration and gratitude.

I do not believe that the arc of the moral universe bends by itself. Sometimes it just doesn’t bend, or bends the wrong way. When it does bend toward justice, it does so because we bend it. And the arc of the moral universe bends in parallel with the arc of our moral imagination.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "The Arc of the Moral Universe"
See also
Part 1: Bending Toward Justice?
Part 2: A Powerful Perception


  1. Replies
    1. Not all religion. Where religion isn't defined by belief, it's a different story.