Quiet Bias: The Racism of 2013

Straight Up: Let's get real -- and start talking -- about the anti-black prejudice that infects the U.S.

(The Root) — America is not yet done with the illness of racism, the electoral success of Barack Obama notwithstanding. Yet most white folks don’t want to talk about or hear about race anymore. And a good many black folks fret that it is strategically wiser for us to let it alone for now.

I am uncomfortable with both prescriptions. Some underlying maladies, to be sure, do heal on their own. Despite its modern subtlety and complexity, however, the current strain of racism infecting the U.S. is unlikely to be self-healing.

Let’s be honest: Our culture is still deeply suffused with anti-black bias, despite an African-American president in office. National surveys (pdf) continue to reveal commonly held stereotypes of African Americans as less hardworking and less intelligent than whites. Political resentments of blacks remain a centerpiece — indeed, a genuine third rail — of American domestic politics: Do anything to seriously activate these resentments, and you run the risk of immediate political electrocution. The last time we saw any major political figure come close to touching the rail, of activating these political resentments against blacks, occurred when Obama offered his off-the-cuff remarks about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Roots editor-in-chief, by the Cambridge, Mass., police. 

The level of negative stereotypes and attitudes tapped in polls and surveys may only reveal the most easily observable symptoms of the illness. A number of powerful psychological experiments show the extent to which blackness for Americans is intimately tied to images of violence and danger. Indeed, one of the most depressing lines of research suggests a core underlining psychological association of blackness with apes, an ugly, old racist trope from the age of the Great Chain of Being, in which the African was seen as closer to primitive animals in the hierarchy of species (pdf).

To be sure, this whole issue of racism had a more straightforward quality in the past. We did not have to resort to complex surveys and experiments to reveal its depth. There used to be something loud and obvious and terrible about racism — circumstances with some ironic virtues. A visible and openly declared enemy is so much more directly confronted than one that operates stealthily.

And that is the dilemma of racism in our times. We have hints, suggestions, indications, if you will, of racial bias all around us today. But it is typically unspoken, if not altogether invisible, much of the time. And where it’s not invisible, there is often a plausible cover story that can be told as to why racially differential treatment was somehow justifiable or legitimate.

All of this makes waging the fight against racism much tougher. It is now quiet — or rationalized on some nonracial grounds and thereby hidden in plain view — and seemingly, as a consequence, perhaps not such a bad thing after all.

But it is a bad thing. Let’s be clear: There is plenty of research showing that actual discrimination remains remarkably common. For example, one major study of low-skilled workers in New York found high rates of bias against black job applicants. Princeton sociologist Devah Pager and her colleagues showed that otherwise identical black job seekers were 50 percent less likely to achieve success in a job search (pdf) than their white counterparts.

The discrimination was so subtle that only a systematic experiment could reveal it. This was not the loud de jure discrimination of the era of “no blacks need apply,” but instead today’s quiet bias of “Oh, we already filled that position” or “We were actually looking for someone with more experience” or “Maybe you’d be better suited to this lower-paying job.”