Column: Calibrating prejudice

By Brian Pierce

I am a racist.

The good news is, so is just about everybody else.

That’s according to a new psychological test developed by Mahzarin Banaji, a social psychologist at Harvard. The test (which you can take online at https://implicit.harvard.edu) times how long it takes you to associate, for example, an image of a white man with positive words like “glorious” or “wonderful” and a black man with negative words like “agony” or “terrible,” then reverses the situation to pair whites with the negative words and blacks with the positive ones.

While the makers of the test, known as the Implicit Association Test, admit it is not 100 percent accurate, it has been shown in studies to reliably predict an individual’s level of bias in situations such as workplace hiring and promotion.

The test can be used to evaluate implicit bias when it comes to race, gender, sexuality, weight and other factors.

The result of Banaji’s research is disheartening, if not always surprising. Eighty-eight percent of white people tested had an implicit anti-black bias, 83 percent of heterosexuals had an implicit anti-gay bias and so on.

A little more surprising were the levels of bias against members of one’s own group. Forty-eight percent of blacks showed an anti-black bias, 38 percent of gays and lesbians showed an anti-gay bias and 36 percent of Arab Muslims showed an anti-Muslim bias.

Taking the test yourself can be a humbling experience. I was found to have a “strong preference for whites,” and I also took a test timing my ability to associate women with scientific pursuits and was genuinely shocked at how difficult it was for me – though I am proud to say I have a “slight preference” for gays (which still doesn’t explain why I can’t find a guy who will date me).

The test has its critics. Philip Tetlock, a professor of organizational behavior at Berkeley, argues that the IAT is meaningless.

“We’ve come a long way from Selma, Alabama if we have to calibrate prejudice in milliseconds,” he says.

But this ignores the new kinds of discrimination that have surfaced in the wake of Selma, Alabama. Racism, sexism and homophobia are not usually the result of open hostility anymore, but rather, consequences of the subconscious biases the IAT is specifically designed to test. That’s why it’s so common for women to discriminate against other women, or blacks against other blacks, or gays against other gays; prejudice has become an all-inclusive, communal, underlying pathology interwoven into the fabric of our society.

In light of the pervasiveness of these biases, we must display a greater level of understanding of one another’s prejudices. To understand another’s prejudices is not to accept or condone them, but it is to recognize that the best way to combat them is not necessarily to be combative. Rather, we must take the deliberate and difficult choice to reach out.

The thing to realize is that almost all of us – even those of us who consciously commit ourselves to combating discrimination – are guilty of these implicit biases. Banaji says it may even be biological.

Our brains are programmed to be “reactive rather than reasoned” and force us to use mental shortcuts, a quality which probably helped keep our prehistoric ancestors alive but which leads us down a detrimental path in the world we live in today.

Of even greater importance than that we’re all guilty, however, is that we are also all accountable. As strong as these implicit biases may be, conscious effort can reverse them – both studies and common sense say so.

The fact that I tested as having an implicit bias for whites does not condemn me to a life of making unfair decisions based on race.

It only means that I must constantly be aware that such a bias exists and I must actively work to eliminate it – truly, that we all must be so aware and work to such an end.

Brian Pierce is a junior in LAS. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at [email protected]