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.

There are few things as sickening as the ongoing, well-known practice of stop-and-frisk policing in New York. Absent a deep-rooted culture of anti-black bias, which is racism, the practice would not be tolerated, given the radically disproportionate intrusion by state police power that it involves in identifiable minority communities.

Records for 2011 show almost 700,000 such incidents, with almost nine out of 10 incidents involving African Americans or Hispanics. In a city where blacks make up just under a quarter of the population, blacks constitute more than half of those so detained by police. Citywide polls show an enormous gap between blacks and whites in approval of the stop-and-frisk practice, with a substantial number of blacks, at 80 percent (and even a plurality of New York’s whites: 48 percent), saying that the police are biased in favor of whites.

It is unclear whether the tactic has any meaningful impact on crime, but it is screamingly plain that it adds to racial tension and misunderstanding while deepening minority cynicism about the police. And so we get today’s quiet bias of a major-city mayor and police commissioner defending a dubious practice of aggressive state intrusion into the lives of black and Hispanic youths on an astonishing scale.

This quiet bias is a routine feature of our national politics as well. We are all aware of how constrained President Obama is in terms of what he can say or do regarding race. I believe that the culture of racism still alive in the U.S. remains potent enough that Obama must, in fact, routinely accomplish a complex, three-part balancing act.

He must consistently rise above prevalent stereotypes of blacks as less capable and intelligent, thus always standing as the exception to the assumed rule. He must never be seen as openly advocating policies that run against the third rail of resentment against blacks as a sort of untouchable special-interest category in the body politic, who lack legitimate claims on the nation’s resources. And he must do all this while somehow keeping African Americans and other people of color highly politically mobilized segments of his constituency.   

But make no mistake, racism remains a living and highly adaptive thing in our times. Yes, Jim Crow racism has effectively been defeated. An insidious quiet bias remains today, however. And in this guise, racism is still distorting American life. The late Stanford University historian George Fredrickson wrote in Racism: A Short History, “The legacy of past racism directed at blacks in the United States is more like a bacillus that we have failed to destroy, a live germ that not only continues to make some of us ill but retains the capacity to generate new strains of a disease for which we have no certain cure.”

We will make little or no progress against this underlying illness by becoming complicit in ignoring the deep-rooted character of anti-black bias in our culture and in so many everyday practices and habits. Racism is a powerful word. Using it can quickly shut down a conversation. But such sensitivity cannot excuse silence in the face of a real problem and ongoing injustice.

For me, a key element of the continued quest for racial justice in America is the outing of today’s “quiet bias.” Like a patient told to take the full regimen of antibiotics or run the risk of the ailment coming back even more strongly in the future, we must remain ready to challenge racism no matter how discreetly or politely it presents itself.

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. He is a contributing editor for The Root.