Review by Andrew Packman
The once radical claim that racism is much more than personal prejudice has become, for many, an article of faith. It goes without saying that racism is a social and systemic reality, the sedimentation of a centuries-long effort to structure every aspect of life according to the logic of white supremacy. To frame racism in terms of prejudiced hearts and minds not only misses the forest for the trees; it is morally and politically suspect. So long as we treat racism as a matter of internal dispositions in need of education and moral exhortation, we culpably neglect the systemic problem in need of legislation and political transformation.
So we are told. But Jennifer Eberhardt, who teaches social psychology at Stanford University, charges us to reconsider this prejudice against prejudice. To be clear, she does not mean to dispute the manifestly structural nature of racism. Rather, her concern is to understand how those structures seep into our inner lives and distort our perceptions and judgments.
So long as we neglect the awkward feelings that emerge in interracial interactions, the subtle hunches that incline jurors toward guilty verdicts, and the nearly reflexive urge many white people feel to lock the car doors in majority black neighborhoods, Eberhardt contends that we will misunderstand what makes racial injustice so recalcitrant and equality so elusive.
To fill in this gap, Eberhardt has devoted her career to the study of implicit racial bias, which she calls “a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both the architecture of our brain and the disparities in our society.” These biases are cognitive associations that link groups of people (black people, women, the elderly, the obese) to evaluative qualities (threatening, needy, slow, irresponsible). Unlike explicit biases, we make these connections unconsciously and automatically.
On the one hand, this is a necessary part of healthy cognitive functioning. Human brains have evolved to quickly and effortlessly sort through the vast barrage of information in our environment. When a venomous snake strikes at my foot, I flag the snake as dangerous and leap out of the way without even thinking. Our prehistoric ancestors survived in part because their brains were good at putting things into boxes.
It gets messier when these evolutionary blessings link up with cultural forces and the racial stereotypes they circulate. Over the last three decades, social psychologists like Eberhardt have repeatedly shown that implicit biases linking black people to negative traits like criminality, hostility, and laziness are widespread among the American population.
Source: Christian Century