The Subtle and Corrosive Power of Racial Bias

The day after the weekend of protests in response to the summary and public police execution of George Floyd, a thoughtful, Christian Republican friend wrote on Facebook:

Quick question to some of my fellow conservative friends: Have you ever taken the time and read anything on systematic oppression/racism? If not, perhaps take some time in the next couple of days and get familiar with the literature. I’m sure it will create more understanding and more productive conversations.

I have long admired this friend’s considered combination of conservatism and compassion. I have learned a great deal from him.

To my fellow, more liberal friends: we have not cornered the market on virtue. Good, reflective, intelligent people can be, are, politically conservative.

Yet my thoughtful Christian, Republican friend undermined his initial good point with his followup:

Quick question to my liberal friends: Have you ever taken the time to understand why Republicans might vote for Trump? One reason has to do with caring deeply about unborn black lives. Perhaps reflect on this when you engage in a conversation with a conservative in the coming days.

While generating empathy on both sides is generally good advice, it’s better, in times of crisis, to stick to one issue at a time. Bringing in the abortion issue seems like a dodge — diverting our eyes from the original issue.

And getting white people to generate empathy for black people is no easy task. Enough for one day.

So I commented:

“One reason has to do with caring deeply about unborn black lives.” Honestly, when white people are thinking about the lives of the unborn they care deeply about, I doubt black babies come to mind. If they did, they might care more about born black lives.

I doubt white Americans, in general, think much about unborn black babies, just as I doubt that white Americans, in general, think much about born black lives. So I doubt that white Americans, in general, care deeply about black Americans, born or unborn.

Here’s why: I doubt that white people think much about black unborns because of the subtle and corrosive power of racial bias.

When white Americans think of people, born or unborn, they tend to think of people like themselves. Not so much black people. That’s the subtle power of bias.

Here’s the corrosive power of bias: white people tend to think that white people are good, honest, and hard-working. And the corrosive flip-side: people of color, people not like us, are not.

Decades of bias studies reveal that white people subconsciously, almost instinctively, associate white people, their in-group, with self-reliance, hard work and academic success.

Bias studies likewise reveal that white people subconsciously, almost instinctively, associate black people, an out-group, with special privileges, immorality, and drugs and gangs.

And when we have biases, we unconsciously attend to evidence that confirms those biases and reject evidence that disconfirms them. So every media item of a successful, rich white person confirms our pro-white biases, while every media item of the murder of a black man over a drug deal confirms our anti-black biases.

Such biases lie at the root of our mostly subconscious, almost-instinctive racism.

If one is biased, one might say, for example, that white protestors are “very good people” and that black protestors are “THUGS.”

Alternately, if a study of bias were given today, I suspect that white people would, generally, automatically associate policeman with “the law” and “friend,” while black people would, generally, automatically associate policeman with “injustice” and “enemy.”

Since biases are subconscious, white people seldom explicitly think we are biased against black people. We tend to think our (often racist) beliefs about blacks are hard won through careful reflection. When in fact they were inculcated in us, without resistance, at a very early age by our biased culture, including our parents and churches and schools and media …

So, it’s no surprise that although studies show that biases against people of color swung the vote for Trump, no Trump voter thinks they are racist. But that’s the subtle and corrosive power of biases: they conceal our real and often ignoble motives.

Lest you think this overly political, I think that no people are immune to biases and everyone favors in-group (and, to differing degrees, fears out-group). Biases infect everyone.

So even Democrats are, generally and to some degree, biased against blacks. It’s just that Democrats are better at signaling their anti-racist “virtue” than are Republicans.

Here’s how to tell that bias runs in most of us. Most white Americans have unsummoned fears of “the bad neighborhoods” and of black men in hoodies walking behind them. Most white Democrats, I’m guessing, live in “the good neighborhoods” and avoid encounters with black men in hoodies.

Our biases are lenses through which we view the world. And the world that black Americans see right now is woefully unjust.

We should know by now that blacks are 3 times more likely to be murdered by cops than whites. But death by cop is just the tip of the racism iceberg.

Per capita wealth of whites is ten times that of blacks. Compared to whites, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for drug use (in case your bias made you think that four times as many blacks use drugs as whites, the groups use drugs equally), and much more likely to be charged and convicted (and get much longer sentences) for similar crimes. Blacks are given fewer drugs for pain, have lost considerably more jobs due to the pandemic, and are twice as likely to die from Covid-19, etc, etc, etc.

Black children are more likely to be educated in dilapidated buildings, with less access to new technologies, in considerably larger classes, and with outdated and dog-eared textbooks (results of inadequate funding). As such, blacks are more likely to drop out and score lower on achievement tests; they are considerably less likely to graduate.

Yet next door to most urban school districts is a well-funded suburban district filled with mostly white students, gleaming buildings, shiny new computers, the latest textbooks and smaller class sizes. Their grads will hear that they are “the future of America!”

Every study shows that with smaller class sizes children of poverty learn more, improve achievement test scores, increase retention, and are more likely to graduate.

Since the fastest way out of poverty is a good education, improving school funding for inner-city students is a no brainer. But that would take bias-overcoming thought and commitment and money.

Our biases and fears, those of Republicans and Democrats alike, condone and even encourage our sitting idly by as systemic racism continues unabated. Without admitting our biases and our inaction (Republicans and Democrats alike), we will quickly return to the racist status quo as soon as the protest’s last ember is extinguished.

Or our better self, the one that doesn’t want to accede to blinding bias and is more sensitive to the Light of Love and Justice, can and should tell our biased self that America’s systemic racism must stop now.




Senior research fellow Kaufman Interfaith Inst. Author of many books including Religion & the Sciences of Origins, Abraham’s Children & upcoming God & the Brain

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Kelly James Clark

Kelly James Clark

Senior research fellow Kaufman Interfaith Inst. Author of many books including Religion & the Sciences of Origins, Abraham’s Children & upcoming God & the Brain

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