Implicit Bias

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing about it, unfortunately, but there was what I think was a very important article in Scientific American back in May about “implicit bias” — unconscious prejudices we all have, no matter how enlightened we think we are, and which affect our day-to-day behavior in ways we generally don’t notice.  Perhaps I’ve just missed it, but I feel like there was woefully insufficient recognition and discussion of the significance of this report (so there’s an additional mea culpa for my being so late in writing about it).

The key findings of this study, assuming I’m understanding the SciAm article correctly, are that these prejudices largely match stereotypes common in the culture; that they are generally things that, individually, seem quite small, rather than big, blatant, overtly hateful ideas; that even people who don’t consider themselves prejudiced do in fact display these biases; that denying the bias doesn’t reduce the degree to which it affects one’s behavior; and that acknowledging and being aware of the bias does.

Why does this seem so important to me?  Because this is (roughly) how liberals have always said prejudice works, and it’s not how conservatives think it works.  This is yet another example of reality’s well-known liberal bias, and it shows why (to take racism in particular as an example) “colorblindness,” high-dudgeon objections to “the race card” and attacks on affirmative action are not only based on a misguided understanding of the nature of prejudice, but actually work to reinforce prejudice, by silencing efforts to point it out and discuss it openly.

To my knowledge, the liberal/progressive view of prejudice has always held that it’s a systemic problem, reinforced by social norms and inculcated unconsciously, and only enforced by overt, ugly, violent hate at the very extremes — that to think of “racism” as being epitomized by the KKK missed the point entirely.  And the conservative view, by contrast, holds that prejudice is only that explicit hatred demonstrated by fringe hate groups, that bias is a characteristic of certain twisted individuals who make up those groups and not at all a trait embedded in the fabric of society.  So on the conservative view, to point out perceived bias is just an attempt by “special interest groups” to garner attention and guilt-trip society into awarding them special privileges; and if everyone stopped claiming to see prejudice everywhere, and thereby making people think about it, there wouldn’t be any more prejudice, because Americans are naturally fair-minded, and all those nasty extremist hate groups would just fade away into obscurity.

But as the SciAm article makes clear, that’s just not true at all, while the liberal view is pretty close to reality; and behaving according to the conservative view — discouraging any discussion of bias in the hopes that if ignored, those nasty prejudiced people (who of course aren’t us) will just go away — actually reinforces and encourages societal prejudice.

Surely I’m not the only one who sees how important this is; it’s very strange to me that I’ve seen so little discussion of it on other liberal blogs.  Many differences between conservatives and liberals are essentially matters of opinion, on which reasonable people can disagree, wherein each side seems “clearly” right if you accept their set of starting assumptions, and “clearly” wrong if you accept the other side’s (yes, of course, this “liberal vs. conservative” two-sides construction is a gross oversimplification).  This issue is no longer one of them, however.  One view — as it happens, the conservative one — is in fact simply, demonstrably, factually incorrect.

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