Unfortunately, our news and political cycles make it impossible for any of us to stay in a room long enough to reach that transformative moment. At the barest suggestion of race, we line up at opposite corners and start hurling accusations. Attorney General Eric Holder was widely criticized last year for suggesting that we are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to such discussions. The reaction to his comments is a reminder that we cannot continue to ignore this challenge. Yet Americans refuse to acknowledge that, in today’s society, racial attitudes are often complicated, multi-layered and conflicted.
Racial inequality is perpetuated less by individuals than by structural racism and implicit bias. Evidence of structural inequality is everywhere: in the grossly disproportionate numbers of young black men and women in prison; in the color of students shunted into remedial and special education tracks; in the stubborn segregation of our neighborhoods and schools; in the lack of recreational and academic opportunities for children of color in poor communities; in the inferior medical treatment that people of color receive; and in the still appallingly small numbers of men and women of color in law firms, corporations and government. It is evident, too, in the history of blatant discrimination against black farmers practiced by the Agricultural Department.
But that does not make doctors, nurses, police officers, judges, teachers, lawyers, city planners, admission officers or others prejudiced. Most are well-intentioned professionals who believe themselves to be free of racial bias. From their perspective, it is not easy to connect individual actions and decisions to broader structural conditions and environments built up over decades and even centuries.
Implicit bias is a reality we must confront far more openly. A growing mass of compelling research reveals the unconscious racial stereotypes many of us harbor that affect our decisions. Such attitudes do not make us prejudiced; they make us human. Those who take the Implicit Association Test often express shock when results show that their unconscious biases conflict with their explicit egalitarian values and ideals. Nonetheless, white and black test-takers match black faces more quickly than white ones with words representing violent concepts and are more likely to mistake a harmless object for a gun when it is carried by a black person. One study found that the more stereotypically black the features of a criminal defendant, the harsher the sentence he or she is likely to receive. Implicit bias has been shown to factor into hiring decisions and into the quality of health care that individuals receive. Mazharin Banaji and Jerry Kang, leading scholars on implicit bias, have noted: “As disturbing as this evidence is, there is too much of it to be ignored.”
The good news is that structures can be dismantled and replaced and unconscious biases can be transformed, as happened to Shirley Sherrod and the family she helped, the Spooners. First, though, they must be acknowledged. We and others researching race and justice are committed to untangling the web of structures, conditions and policies that lead to unequal opportunities. Our nation has to stop denying the complexity of our racial attitudes, history and progress. Let’s tone down the rhetoric on all sides, slow down and commit to listening with less judgment and more compassion. If Americans did so, we might find that we share more common ground than we could have imagined.
Instead of just going back and forth calling this person racist, or that person racist. Why don’t we actually talk about the structural racism in our country? Bantering back and forth is never going to fix the structural racial inequalities, it will just prolong them.