Thursday, March 12, 2015

Excuse-Making for Racism: On the Inevitable Overuse and Abuse of the Concept Known as 'Implicit Bias'

Language is an effort to describe social reality. Language is also a reflection of a given society’s norms and values. Language is not fixed; it is malleable and changing.

Language is an attempt to communicate our own personal experiences and understandings of the world to other people. 

Language can be precise and exact. Language often fails to capture the full range of the human experience.

Language is also an invention.

Consequently, the language that is used to discuss the colorline in America has changed over time. Black Americans were once “negroes” or “colored”. “Nigger” was once a common term, one used without shame by white people and others to belittle and dehumanize African-Americans, and is now considered verboten in public speech (even allowing for the twisted logic of those who would try to suggest that “nigga” is somehow different in ugliness and its vile antecedents than its parent “nigger”).

The language used to talk about white supremacy in the West has expanded to include academic terms such as “aversive”, “old fashioned”, “meta”, and “institutional” racism.

There, one of the most recent inventions in the discourse of race is the term “implicit bias” (or its variants such as “unconscious”/“subconscious” racism and bias).

For some time, the term has been used by social psychologists and other researchers. It has now leaked out from a relatively insular community of scholars to the general public.

Implicit bias has become a more familiar and common term because of how the mass media and political elites have struggled during the Obama years to explain persistent and overt white racial animus towards the country’s first black President, as well as to somehow make sense of how America’s police (and white identified vigilantes) have continued to kill and murder unarmed black and brown people with relative impunity under the guise of feeling “threatened” or “in fear of their lives”.

In discussing the killing of Michael Brown and other unarmed black people by America’s police, Eric Holder has on more than one occasion deployed the phrase “implicit bias”.

James Comey, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, also used the phrase “unconscious bias” in a recent speech about the recorded on video choking death of Eric Garner by the New York Police Department.

The popularization of terms such as “implicit bias” is a double edged sword.

The concept is critically important for understanding racism and white supremacy in the post civil rights era because of how it adds conceptual specificity, grounded in empirical research, to explain white supremacy’s impact on human behavior.

But, the scientific, historical, cultural, and sociological research that undergirds “implicit bias” as a concept with both high explanatory and descriptive power, can made hollow by how the general public (as well as some elites and opinion leaders) misuses and misunderstands the concept.

This is the challenge of language: it can be twisted and distorted either intentionally by dishonest actors or because of ignorance and habit.

To wit.

There are many “commonsense” understandings of race that are incorrect. However, these commonsense understandings of race persist because individuals accept them as taken for granted assumptions about social and empirical reality.

Implicit bias is also especially vulnerable to being distorted because of its relative novelty.

The concept can impart a false veneer of expertise on those who utter it.

This is especially true in the United States with its peculiar obsessions about race and the colorline—in what is a country where so many people have an opinion about “race” and “racism” but have done very little work to actually understand said concepts with any depth or rigor.

As used by social scientists, implicit bias is understood in the following way.

From the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity:
Defining Implicit Bias
Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.  Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.  Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.
The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance.  These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages.  In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations.
A Few Key Characteristics of Implicit Biases 
Implicit biases are pervasive.  Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality such as judges. 
Implicit and explicit biases are related but distinct mental constructs.  They are not mutually exclusive and may even reinforce each other.
The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.
We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own ingroup, though research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our ingroup.
Implicit biases are malleable.  Our brains are incredibly complex, and the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of debiasing techniques.
Implicit bias is not an excuse or explanation for white supremacy and/or racism.

The concept of “implicit bias” is not to be used in such a manner as to suggest that racism is learned behavior, thus individuals who exhibit subconscious racism are somehow “off the hook” because they are not truly responsible for their actions.

Ultimately, implicit bias is a key component in any effort to have a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of white supremacy because it illustrates the complexity and mixed nature of racial progress and the colorline. For example, white individuals can elect a black president but still have deep animosity towards black people as a group.

Moreover, the social structures and conditions of the United States can evolve and change in a superficial and symbolic way. Yet, white supremacy is so deep in the sinew and bone of the American body politic that it is learned and internalized by both whites and non-whites alike.

America is a society that is profoundly sick with racism and white supremacy. This sickness distorts social and empirical reality (see: white racial paranoiac thinking and white fragility). As such, it also twists and distorts language.

Here, conservatives, and the White Right more generally, have done an excellent job stealing and distorting the anti-racist language of progressives and liberals. Racism has been warped into fictions of “reverse racism” where white people are somehow the real “victims” of bias in the United States. “Equality of opportunity” exists within the same schema where white men can somehow imagine themselves as being discriminated against. 

And in one of the worst hatchet jobs of collective delusion as processed through white supremacy and the Right-wing’s myth making apparatus, the radical Brother Doctor Martin Luther King is transformed into a Republican darling who would support their efforts to destroy the social safety net and the gains of the Black Freedom Struggle.

In an era of lies, distortions, and twists of language along the colorline, there is a real threat that powerful language such as “implicit bias” will be distorted.

Some of this will be a function of ignorance and lazy thinking.

Other efforts to reframe and distort the meaning and context of implicit bias will involve conservatives, the White Right, and liberal racists, who will claim that because there are some black and brown people who also exhibit signs of subconscious bias against African-Americans, that such sentiments are universal. Thus, white supremacy and white racism are not unique; in this framework, white folks are therefore freed from questions of redistributive justice, ethical behavior, and moral responsibility for how they benefit materially, politically, and psychologically from Whiteness and systems of white privilege.

Unfortunately, a distorting of the concept “implicit” bias can (and likely will) be used to buttress the common colorblind white racist deflection that “everyone is racist”.

Terms and concepts are circulated via public discourse. In a perfect world, terms such as “implicit bias” would not be used by those people who actually understand their true meaning and context. This is an impossible dream. Language can be radically democratic—in the worst ways possible—as terms and concepts are often robbed of their true specificity and form.

The colorline is not safe from such a phenomenon. How could it ever be?


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

According the narrative you cite, if "everyone is a racist" then no one is racist. Just take a look at those defending the OU frat brothers as "not racist." This seems like another case where academics need to be out in the public sphere (like you are) intervening so that their language isn't manipulated for reactionary ends.

Buddy H said...

Here's an example of implicit bias:

the DangerousMinds website posted some photos of AA women from the 19th and early 20th century. Beautiful, beautiful ladies. Most of the comments were appropriate. There were two comments (one from a "liberal-looking" white woman) that assumed that the women were too well-dressed to be kitchen help, so they MUST be "fancy ladies" or kept women.

KissedByTheSun said...

We can explain what racism is but to explain how people become racist is to excuse it. Because the moment some trigger, or gene, or circumstance can be found, tested, and peer reviewed as the cause of racism then the responsibility shifts from the person to the "thing". The misuse of the term "implicit bias" seems like an attempt to "thingify" racism rather than inform people as to what racism is.

joe manning said...

Bias, whether implicit or explicit is iniquitous. It is a social construction that is learned, shared, and transmitted. As such, white supremacist and racist words have been, and will continue to be identified, and expunged from the general vocabulary according to a process of lingual evolution. The White will fight tooth and nail to preserve these obsolescent words in defense of its privilege. But such language expurgation continues inexorably and their exposure is the universal solvent.

chauncey devega said...

And of course the OU racists are just "nice kids who made a mistake". Geez. What BS. I also love his letter of apology. If a black or brown person made such a "mistake" there would be no such excuse-making.

Have you seen any examples of the disparities in discipline I mentioned? I have some egregious ones in mind but didn't want to get too specific.

chauncey devega said...

Learned white supremacy. There is also the phenomenon wherein those w. high levels of implicit bias become even more racist and prejudiced when their bias is called out and identified.

Gable1111 said...

On "Morning Joe" they all agreed that this was the fault of "hip hop" music and that the students were copying that and therefore they were not being racist. Since "black people" say the same things. Hanging people from trees isn't any rap song I ever heard.

Of course, the obvious explanations for this, that these students were actually racists themselves repeating what they've learned from parents and peers, and the flood of racist comments and activities inundating the public domain from a sizable portion of the white population drunk on racism because of the Kenyan Muslim Communist Fascist president.

This is of a general thrust of validating whites as "innocent" of any racism. Racism is supposedly something that just occurs like the weather; can't be helped. It just "happens" but just like the weather the weatherman is at fault for predicting rain, those who call out racism are the racists.

balitwilight said...

Race ideology in America is a shape-shifting amoeba. It finds a way to incorporate any new terrain - genetics, biology, psychology - that should otherwise destroy it. The studies of "Implicit Bias" should have ripped apart America's flimsy lie of a meritocratic democracy by revealing the ugly face of pervasive "white" oppression and privilege underneath everything, everywhere, every time.
When similar studies showed male privilege so prevalent that even female CEOs do not hire women - there weren't a lot of American voices claiming "see, this lets men off the hook because everyone is misogynist!". Instead, most people accepted that this shows just how pervasive a problem misogyny is; and how even girls from childhood are socialised to acommodate to its pernicious ideology.
But what about "Implicit Bias"? Somehow it is the one kind of injustice that has no perpetrators. It just floats out there light and invisible and blameless as "whiteness". As natural as sunlight. Instead of "Implicit Bias" I prefer the phrase "Internalised White Oppression".

Lkeke said...

Yes, I fear that that this will become the purpose of the term "implicit bias". It will be used as just so ther way for White people to absolve themselves of any guilt or complicity in overt forms of racism.

It will become yet another way for liberals to breathe a sigh of relief, pat themselves on the back and absolve themselves of any need to do any extra work or deeper thought on the topic.

The prevailing narrative now is for everyone to jump in the bandwagon to excoriate overt racists and smugly cheer themselves for being outraged about it. They can't be racist, after all. They were outraged at some other racists shabby behavior.

kokanee said...

Re: "Race ideology in America is a shape-shifting amoeba."

Totalitarian movements are shape-shifting amoeboe always changing to achieve unachievable goals. Those goals revolve around non-truths (race ideology) and disseminated through propaganda. This is the path the U.S. is on now. Buckle your seat belt.

kokanee said...

CDV - Another important topic and very well articulated.

I went back and listened to your 2 hour interview on COWS. Actually, it was very relevant to this discussion. I wouldn't call Tim Wise a racist, I would call him an anti-racist acknowledging that he and everyone else have implicit biases. We also have a mammalian brain that sits on top of our reptilian brain. We also have a big head to rule the little head. It's what we think and do with our mammalian brains that counts when we have time to think about anything for more than a second.

I also listened to the "Proof" episode of SnapJudgment. Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere. Also very relevant. Racism equals prejudice plus power or in other words prejudice plus oppression. Injustice and oppression must be actively opposed or one is racist by complicity. I think that's the point Gus really was trying to make. White folk really have to step up and prove that they are not racist by opposing oppression. I bet Malcolm X would agree.

Re: "I am a capitalist. People should get paid for the work they do." (COWS interview, paraphrased)

Um, that's what socialists think. Capitalists think workers should be paid as little as possible in order to maximize profits. Socialists think that the workers create the wealth and they should receive ALL the value added from their work. Ideally, the entire company would be employee owned and operated. I highly recommend listening to the "Economic Update" podcast with Richard Wolff. It will change the way you think about capitalism.

chauncey devega said...

I hear you. I didn't want to go down the Capital, Marx Engels rabbit hole with a low level player like the host of COWS.

Capitalism is based on extracting excess labor value and exploiting people to make a profit. I believe in finding a balance between labor value, use, and exchange value while understanding how wages are socially constructed.

I don't talk rocket science with drunk winos like the COWS host. If you want to torture yourself listen to more of that show. Sick stuff. You likely know about Francis Kress Welsing. If not, get a drink and dive in. COWS is the bastard child of that wellspring.

She is a legend. Unfortunately, like many legends she has a cult following. I will let that stand as it may.

Justin M. White said...

What has been irking me about the coverage of the debtors prison system in Ferguson is that everyone has been acting like it was the DOJ report that brought this to light. The lawsuit brought against the city of Ferguson was headline news months before the report came out, yet the media's attention span is so lacking, it can only focus on one thing at a time. On a related note: I wonder how many talking heads have actually read the reports.

And it's not like these schemes are rare news: they just become more prominent when you have a judge profiting from blatant conflict of interest who ends up on charges.

kokanee said...

The idea of black supremacy is ridiculous - as is white supremacy. And FKW's anti-scientific theories is an insult to her social science background. However, BS is a tit for tat response to WS. Secondly, advocating for BS doesn't mean it exists - it doesn't. There is no BS in America. I think you would agree. ;)

Out of favor ethnicities are oppressed. As such, they shouldn't be held to the same standards as the oppressors. For example, Clarence Thomas is a despicable human being but at the same time he's a creation and a victim of WS. Uncle Toms are not the cause of WS, just a byproduct of it. There are bigger fish to fry.

You are forgiven for your capitalist comment. ;) In truth, we live in a mixed economy - a combination of capitalism and socialist programs. I advocate for democracy and human rights over authoritarianism and economic freedom. What I do know is that when wealth accumulates in fewer and fewer hands, it won't end well for anyone.

KissedByTheSun said...

I used to buy into that whole white people hate us because our penises are bigger, butts more ample, lips more fuller, and we're better singers, dancers and just overall awesome nonsense. Until I learned that there are people who hate just for the sake of hating and will hate even more if they can make a dollar from it.

chauncey devega said...

I find that so sad when black folks and other people of color internalize white supremacist tropes about their personhood.

Gable1111 said...

Bottom line, those whites that do hate (and fear) us do so because our very presence is a stark reminder of the evil that's been done in their name. That hate is driven by the guilt resulting from an inability to honestly acknowledge the past for what it was.

They also hate us because they know the white supremacy is bullshit and that "supreme" social position they enjoy is layered on a house of cards.

I can't think of anything they've done that we haven't done and in many cases done better that exposes that lie. Maintaining it anyway results inguilt, and for that they hate us even more.

chauncey devega said...

Got to be careful with race essentialism. Who is this "we"? And who is this "they"?

We talked about this before, I stand by my observation that the vast majority of white folks do not spend much of their time thinking about black or brown people. Why would they? They, like all other folks, have selfish, self-interested, and self-centered lives to live. When I have told black and brown folks who are race obsessed in unhealthy ways, what seems to be a basic fact to me, they get very upset.

chauncey devega said...

"Gus" is not a mentally healthy. There is no standard of evidence or proof that will satisfy his racial paranoia and delusions.

Gable1111 said...

I'm not making any generalizations. "They" in the context of my post are "those whites who do hate and fear us" for who we are. I use "they" as a label for calling such people out. And not white people as a whole because that would not be true. I'm not making any assumptions about to what extent of the size of that population is.

Just by way of explanation, no ill will intended...

chauncey devega said...

We are all friends here. No ill will checked or implied. I always believe in specificity as it is so easy for us to fall into generalities. Once we do that we lose the power of making specific, accurate, and empirically sound claims.

kokanee said...

That's true. At the same time, Gus is also a product and victim of white supremacy and a deeply racist country.

appalachiacat said...

I have found that people can develop a profound hatred for those they've screwed over. If I am unable to honestly face responsibility for my own actions, I will still feel guilt. I will be uncomfortable and become angry over the guilt. Since I have decided (in denial) that I have done nothing wrong, I must project that guilt in the form of blame onto my victim. It's not my fault, it must be somebody's fault, therefore it becomes my victim's fault. Now my victim has been transformed, by magical thinking, into the perpetrator. And through the same process, I have become the victim. This process still does not relieve my painful psyche, I am still uncomfortable and getting more so by the minute. I experience accompanying and growing feelings of resentment, fear, hatred. Because of the increase of the discomfort, the "perpetrator" must still be inflicting me, the "victim". So now one can add paranoia and hypervigilance to the poisonous brew. The moment that I decided to choose willful ignorance over recognition of and responsibility for my actions, I became mentally, emotionally, spiritually ill, which means that I am no longer in touch with reality. At this point, one of my missions in life will be to maintain the disconnect, like a junkie maintains her habit. One way to do this is to surround myself with others who have also bought into the insanity. Oh yeah. Gotta make sure to pass my sickness on to my kids, the future of our world.

Gable1111 said...

That's the mental/emotional mechanics of it; you nailed it.

Another factor in this is the need to be sees as a "good person.". Elevation doesn't do it therefore the victim is "bad" and thus deserving.

Buddy H said...

And that's exactly what has happened!

The white lady (lightning494) who said "these girls are too well-dressed to be kitchen help, they must be courtesans" has doubled down after being called out for her assumptions:

"Your morals are truly Victorian. You are in the right place. Courtesans were the most cultivated and prized women of ancient Rome. It was no disgrace to be one."

"If you think it's more respectable to be a bourgeois fashion plate than a quality sex professional , please examine your prejudice."

So these lovely 19th century black women who put on their finest clothes to be photographed are now "bourgeois fashion plates" rather that simply hookers. A racist white lady masquerading as an enlightened progressive.

dreamjoehill said...

What is racism?
What is a racist?
My understanding is that racism is systemic discrimination against an oppressed group based on the group's race. Racism is reflected in institutions controlled by the dominant race which protect a system that massively discriminates against the oppressed racial group. Racism is different than individual racial prejudice.
So why is the hateful, ignorant, but often economically and socially oppressed, white bigot called a racist? If racism is about powerful institutional forces, why is the lower class "redneck" racial bigotry the poster child for racism in the US?
Aren't the designers of the War on Drugs far more culpable for the massive damage caused by racism?
The conservative justices on the Supreme Court are also central architects of racist police impunity.
The Stupid southern bigot meme, and the dumb white working class Archie Bunker bigot meme both distract from the fundamental fact that working people are not the primary designers of racism. In doing so it helps let the well heeled off the hook for both racism and classist oppression.