Every year in the United States, fatigue, confusion, and carelessness conspire to offer us a teachable moment about prejudice.
Every year, we blow it.
Rick Sanchez’s tirade against Jews who control the media was the latest offering. Previous installments include a) Henry Louis “Skip” Gates getting arrested inside his own home by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., police department; b) Michael “Kramer” Richards telling a black heckler at a nightclub that such impertinence in the past might have gotten the heckler strung up with a noose; and c) former Virginia Sen. George “Macaca” Allen’s reference to a South Asian-American teenager as a kind of rhesus monkey.
The first—and worst—question we ask ourselves when these incidents occur is whether the perpetrator and victim belong to the same ethnic/gender/racial/religious group. If Sanchez were Jewish, Crowley were black, and Allen were South Asian, the incidents would have been brushed aside. That’s because our first assumption about prejudice is that perpetrators and victims have to come from different groups. We assume that Jews cannot be anti-Semitic, that women cannot be sexist, and people of color cannot be racist.
The second—and second-worst—question we ask ourselves is whether the perpetrator meant to cause harm. We expect perpetrators to deny this, of course. So we look to their past to find evidence of hatred toward the victim’s group. That’s because our second assumption about prejudice is that it stems from animosity. Prejudice has to be conscious.
Police departments today insulate themselves against racial profiling lawsuits by hiring cops of color. Corporations make sure that gays and lesbians are in their boardrooms to protect themselves against accusations of homophobia. Equal-opportunity notices abound in workplaces. National surveys show these measures are highly effective in getting no Americans to report being prejudiced in any way. Systematic research, however, shows that thousands of black patients each year receive substandard treatment compared with whites. Millions of women receive less pay for doing the same work as men. And gay and lesbian teenagers throw themselves off tall bridges at a much higher rate than straight kids.
Our conception of prejudice is fearfully wrong. Psychologists Andrew Scott Baron and Mahzarin Banaji once conducted a study evaluating the conscious and unconscious attitudes of 6-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and adults. The 10-year-olds reported less prejudice than the small kids, and the adults reported no prejudices at all. But that was at a conscious level. At an unconscious level, the three groups had identical attitudes. Other research has shown that at an unconscious level, huge majorities of Americans (including sizable numbers of African-Americans) are biased against blacks. Huge numbers of women, as well as men, value men’s professional contributions more than they value women’s professional work. Large majorities of gays, Arabs, and people with disabilities have unconscious biases against people from those groups.
Sanchez, Allen, and Richards offer us teachable moments because they show exactly how the consciously egalitarian attitudes many of us espouse give way to unconscious biases lurking beneath. In nearly every incident, people say prejudiced things while under pressure or when they are distracted, inebriated, or exhausted. Unconscious attitudes, in other words, tend to surface when the conscious mind has its hands full dealing with something else. This is exactly how psychologists unearth unconscious biases in experiments: They disable the conscious mind.
If you ask people whether men and women should be paid the same for doing the same work, everyone says yes. But if you ask volunteers how much a storekeeper who runs a hardware store ought to earn and how much a storekeeper who sells antique china ought to earn, you will see that the work of the storekeeper whom volunteers unconsciously believe to be a man is valued more highly than the work of the storekeeper whom volunteers unconsciously assume is a woman. If you ask physicians whether all patients should be treated equally regardless of race, everyone says yes. But if you ask doctors how they will treat patients with chest pains who are named Michael Smith and Tyrone Smith, the doctors tend to be less aggressive in treating the patient with the black-sounding name. Such disparities in treatment are not predicted by the conscious attitudes that doctors profess, but by their unconscious attitudes—their hidden brains.
In my book, I describe the “life-cycle of bias” in young children, adults, and the elderly. Children say and do nasty things. So do many elderly people. We usually tell ourselves that children don’t know better and that the elderly grew up in an era when prejudice was acceptable. The reality, however, is that we have two brains. At the start of life and toward the end of life, the conscious brain isn’t strong enough to restrain the hidden brain. That’s why the unconscious biases within us all tend to show up more clearly among those groups. They also show up among adults whose conscious brains are temporarily deprived or distracted—a politician in the midst of a hectic campaign, an entertainer dealing with a heckler, an exhausted newsman speaking off the cuff.
Guarding against unconscious attitudes can be enormously taxing. It requires, besides a properly functioning brain, lots of energy. If you give a group of elderly people lemonade with sugar and give another group lemonade laced with Splenda, you will see more inappropriate stuff expressed by the Splenda group because the group that was fed sugar has more fuel to operate their conscious brains.
The people who make the news are the ones who call women “bitches,” blacks “niggers,” or gays “faggots.” Conscious prejudice still exists. But it is a vanishingly small part of the problem. The real challenge is unconscious bias. No one builds museums and memorials to its victims, however, because the perpetrators don’t wear swastikas or string people up from trees—they are ordinary, well-meaning people like you and me.
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