Quiet Bias: The Racism of 2013


(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 Root's 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."

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.