Deep Racial Framing: Evidence from Implicit Association Tests

The May 2008 issue of Scientific American has an interesting article “Buried Prejudice: The Bigot in Your Brain” by Siri Carpenter dealing with “implicit association tests” (IAT) used in numerous psychological studies. These studies–which often study people’s reactions to white faces and faces of people of color–are relevant to public debates over whether many whites still think from a racist frame and act in racist ways. The article begins with an overview:

Although these implicit biases inhabit us all, we vary in the particulars, depending on our own group membership, our conscious desire to avoid bias and the contours of our everyday environments. For instance, about two thirds of whites have an implicit preference for whites over blacks, whereas blacks show no average preference for one race over the other.

Several IAT studies reveal that a substantial majority of whites have an implicit white preference in face and related choices in IAT testing. As the concept of the white racial frame we use here suggests, there is much more to the age-old negative framing of Americans of color than cognitive stereotyping. There is the old visual imaging and there is an array of white emotions:

Some implicit biases appear to be rooted in strong emotions. In a 2004 study Ohio State psychologist Will A. Cunningham and his colleagues measured white people’s brain activity as they viewed a series of white and black faces. The team found that black faces–as compared with white faces–that they flashed for only 30 milliseconds (too quickly for participants to notice them) triggered greater activity in the amygdala, a brain area associated with vigilance and sometimes fear. The effect was most pronounced among people who demonstrated strong implicit racial bias.

Given nearly four centuries of white oppression of African Americans, and the extensive negative white framing to rationalize that oppression, there is no mystery about why black faces today generate strong white visual and emotional reactions:

Psychologist Jennifer A. Richeson speculates that American cultural stereotypes linking young black men with crime, violence and danger are so robust that our brains may automatically give preferential attention to blacks as a category, just as they do for threatening animals such as snakes. In a recent unpublished study Richeson and her colleagues found that white college students’ visual attention was drawn more quickly to photographs of black versus white men, even though the images were flashed so quickly that participants did not consciously notice them.

Sadly, the implicit studies are similar to ethnographic field studies that have previously shown that the implicit racial bias begins at young ages, especially among young whites:

Many of our implicit associations about social groups form before we are old enough to consider them rationally. In an unpublished experiment Mahzarin R. Banaji . . . and Yarrow Dunham . . . found that white preschoolers tended to categorize racially ambiguous angry faces as black rather than white; they did not do so for happy faces. And a 2006 study by Banaji and Harvard graduate student Andrew S. Baron shows that full-fledged implicit racial bias emerges by age six, and never retreats.

Racist attitudes are not, as some whites today like to argue, of little consequence. Studies have also found that those who show substantial implicit bias are more likely to engage in racial performance and other racial discrimination:

Implicit biases can infect more deliberate decisions, too. In a 2007 study Rutgers University psychologists Laurie A. Rudman and Richard D. Ashmore found that white people who exhibited greater implicit bias toward black people also reported a stronger tendency to engage in a variety of discriminatory acts in their everyday lives. These included avoiding or excluding blacks socially, uttering racial slurs and jokes, and insulting, threatening or physically harming black people.

Given that the implicit bias is strong for a substantial majority of whites, it is not surprising that field studies show large amount of such racist behavior, in both backstage and frontstage settings. White racist thinking and action means a lack of certain emotions as well, a lack of empathy (a social alexithymia).

Fortunately as well, several of the implicit association studies have recently begun to explore whether the deeply held implicit reactions can be altered:

Seeing targeted groups in more favorable social contexts can help thwart biased attitudes. In laboratory studies, seeing a black face with a church as a background, instead of a dilapidated street corner, considering familiar examples of admired blacks such as actor Denzel Washington and athlete Michael Jordan, and reading about Arab-Muslims’ positive contributions to society all weaken people’s implicit racial and ethnic biases. In real college classrooms, students taking a course on prejudice reduction who had a black professor showed greater reductions in both implicit and explicit prejudice at the end of the semester than did those who had a white professor.

What has been created by humans can also be dismantled by human action, where there is the will to change long established systems of racist thinking and framing. Will is of course the operative word.