By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
As of posting time, seven African-American churches have burned down since the racially motivated murders in Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina two weeks ago. One of those fires may have been caused by lightning, but there's a concern that others may have been caused by a belief - namely, racism toward African-Americans. But that understanding of racism as a conscious and pointed belief can limit our understanding of the full spectrum of the bias. Those who say that racism is mostly a thing of the past, for example, might just be thinking of those who hold beliefs in racial inferiority and act in support of those beliefs, via discrimination or worse. Most of us honestly believe we would never treat anyone differently due to race, and in the perceived absence of expressed bigotry from others, we're tempted to believe that for most people in most circumstances, racism is a previous generation's problem, not ours.
Social scientists, however, know better. They understand that racism can't be placed into that neat box of overt animus. Sure, racism can be expressed in conscious beliefs and actions, but it also can be expressed through unconscious bias. For example, millions have taken the Implicit Association Test developed by researchers at Yale University and the University of Washington, and most have been surprised at the extent to which the test can reveal subtle associations and preferences. The test documents a common form of racism that extends beyond the beliefs and attitudes that we're aware of. Under the heading of "aversive racism," current research is looking at the kinds of subconscious bias that can be exhibited by those who believe they have no racial bias at all. The Orange County Register features an article focusing on research by Cal State Fullerton psychologist Russ Espinoza who found that mock jurors are motivated to find reasons, other than race, in order to justify greater punitiveness toward minority defendants. This finding, as well as the broader view of racial bias that it suggests, bears not only on the criminal defendants they study, but also on the biases we anticipate and search for in cases generally.