2003-02-16 Holland Sentinel Hidden Bias - Racism is very real, even if it's often unconscious

Hidden Bias - Racism is very real, even if it's often unconscious
Holland Sentinel

Call it the “R” word.

Call someone a racist and the situation almost instantly turns ugly. The defenses go up, tension skyrockets and any real dialogue creases. In modern-day America, the word is the nuclear bomb of insults, a verbal weapon so powerful that it can wipe out reputations and relationships.

No one wants to be considered a racist, even by implication, so it’s understandable that many people react negatively to events like last week’s Ottawa Area Summit on Racism. Why is there all this talk about racism, they complain, when so much progress has been made in civil rights? What’s all the griping about? Aren’t most white people here decent folks who believe in fairness and equality? Those questions are valid, but the truth is that subtle forms of racism are still strong in America.

Relatively few white Americans today fit the traditional mold of the Archie Bunker-style bigot.

Gone are the days when segregation was tolerated, employers openly discriminated in hiring, and whites frequently abd publicly applied demeaning stereotypes to minorities. The great majority of whites progress to believe in standards of fairness and quality, and consider themselves far more enlightened on racial matters than their parents.

So if we’re not racists, why does racism persist? Why, after 50 years of progress in interracial relations, do great disparities still exist among whites, blacks and Hispanics in terms of income, health are professional and academic achievement? The answer in part is that while open prejudice is rare, our unconscious biases, built upon natural psychological processes and generations of social tradition, are very real. Our hearts may be in the right place, but our less noble instincts refuse to go away.

This theme was expounded on by the keynote speaker at the racism summit, Colgate University psychology professor John Dovidio. Prejudice, Dovidio explained, is quite natural in many ways – it is human nature to categorize people, and race is second only to sex as an easy categorizer. And when we categorize people, we tend naturally to favor our own group. While the psychological processes behind bias are basic, the forces that promote fairness and equality – our moral and religious codes – are farm more abstract and harder to apply. We develop prejudice not because we’re bad, Dovidio said, but because we’re normal.

Faced with a choice between good and evil and given the time to think it over, most people will do the right thing. Faced with making spontaneous decisions or complex, multi-layered choices, Dovidio said, unconscious biases show through. In the real word, those biases are manifested in unequal treatment in the work place, in school, and in our neighborhoods.

The solution is not easy. We can start by reassessing our interactions with other ethnic groups and recognizing the disconnection that often exists between our beliefs and our actions. And we can work to overcome the de facto segregation that defines the lives of most people in the Holland area. The more we interact with people of other ethnic groups the less likely we are to identify them as members of a group and the more likely we are to seem the as individuals – individuals deserving the same opportunities that white Americans take for granted.