A Different Kind of Racism
By Thera Naiman
In any campaign season, political enthusiasts look to the polls as a way to monitor candidates’ relative success. When a candidate pulls ahead by a few percentage points, speculation abounds: could it be due to a boost in the economy? A US Supreme Court decision? An effective new campaign ad?
When President Obama’s lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney waned in a recent poll of Virginian voters, state Senator Louise Lucas had another explanation for the results: race. Lucas, who is African-American, suggested that some voters support Romney simply because they “do not want to see anybody but a white person in a leadership position.” She continued: “I absolutely believe it’s all about race, and for the first time in my life I’ve been able to convince my children, finally, that racism is alive and well.”1
The second part of Lucas’ quote illuminates a peculiar truth about people’s perspective on race in the United States. Why did she have to convince her children of the persistence of racism in U.S. society? Because of our country’s sordid history of race relations, many think of discrimination only as the blatant acts of hate committed by extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, whose racist intent is clear.
This belief is reflected in our legal system, which primarily uses an intent standard that requires a plaintiff to prove a policy or action was intended to produce racially discriminatory results in order to show it is unconstitutional. A growing body of scientific research on implicit bias—the collection of unconscious mental processes that cause people to unknowingly act with racial bias – has shown that this emphasis on intent is flawed. Contrary to what Lucas’ children thought, implicit bias can have the same pernicious results as explicit racism.
Many groups say that the research on implicit bias should help push the United States legal system to use a legal standard that focuses on effect rather than intent in deciding cases involving racial discrimination. Such a standard already exists: it is known as the disparate impact standard, and national advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Equal Justice Society (EJS) are lobbying on its behalf. Under this standard, practices that have an adverse effect on a minority group are discriminatory (and thus illegal), even if the practices in question are facially neutral. A disparate impact standard would enable victims of institutional discrimination to demand compensation for their injuries and would more accurately reflect the reality of how racial discrimination operates in our society.
Implicit bias: a scientific reality
Twenty-five years ago, Stanford professor Charles R. Lawrence III published a groundbreaking article2 criticizing the intent standard established by Washington v. Davis3 for its failure to address unconscious racism. Lawrence’s argument was (and remains) powerful, but his evidence rested largely upon Freudian notions of the Id and the Ego. Since 1987, the scientific research supporting Lawrence’s thesis has become much more sophisticated.
As neuroscience advances by leaps and bounds, scientists now have a better understanding of the mental processes that underlie implicit racism. Every day, our senses are bombarded with an overwhelming amount of information. It would take an extraordinary amount of mental energy for our brains to process each new stimulus individually. Instead, the mind uses neural shortcuts, known as “schemas”, to sort stimuli into more general categories. This enables us to bring a cup of water up to our lips without first taking the time to consciously identify the object that we’re holding.4
Source: National Center for Youth Law. To read more go to: