In case you missed it, PBS aired the documentary American Denial on its Independent Lens program last Monday. (So the free movie is educational… it’s still worth your time, I promise! Watch it here.) The film explores the contradiction between America’s professed ideals of democracy and freedom and the way it has treated its African American citizens, centered around Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. A Swedish academic, Myrdal came to the United States in 1938 to research American race relations on the dime of the Carnegie Corporation. As an admirer of the American philosophy of equality for all, Myrdal was surprised to find little difference between the treatment of blacks in America and Jews in Germany at the time.
It may not be the 1930s anymore, but black people are still largely treated as second-class citizens today. Segregation, poverty, and incarceration all continue to impact black communities the hardest. African American men earn $0.75 to the dollar as compared to white men (it’s even worse for women) and are far more likely to be given subprime mortgages. If you account for assets, white families own, on average, over 20 times the total household wealth of black families. Many black people live in a level of neighborhood poverty virtually unheard of for whites, leaving black children far more likely to attend high poverty schools. And about one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, leading to a system of legalized discrimination and racial control described by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow.
And these are supposed to be the good times!
In light of all this, the proclamation of “liberty and justice for all” rings a little hollow. Yet our denial remains strong. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the majority of white people now believe that they face more discrimination than blacks. And this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon: the majority of white people surveyed before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 believed that black people received equal treatment and had the same opportunities as whites!
Why is it that we are unable to recognize what has been taking place right under our noses throughout our entire national history? In a way, it stems from our steadfast belief in these American ideals. Our belief in the myth of equal opportunity prevents us from seeing the structural barriers holding people back in our society. It’s textbook cognitive dissonance: if our worldview dictates that America is a fair and equal society, then when presented with evidence of inequality our only option is to conclude that the less fortunate are at fault for their plight. We postulate that they are biologically inferior, or that they belong to a culture that dooms them to failure. We point to exceptional cases such as Oprah and the president, and ignore the context that makes their success so remarkable to begin with. We do this because we prefer to believe in a just society, because it justifies our place in it and absolves us from the responsibility of doing anything about it.
But there is another reason that we can’t quite come to terms with what is going on in our country, and it is because we are stuck in an outdated understanding of racism that requires conscious bias, personal hatred, and intentional oppression. It seems that we as a society are very good at understanding that “racism is bad;” what we lack is a complete understanding of what racism actually entails. And while very few people subscribe to the old-fashioned white-hooded version of racist thought these days, anti-black attitudes are still remarkably pervasive in our society. The difference is that they are largely held subconsciously, tucked away from our conscious thoughts and leading us to act in a prejudicial manner without even realizing it.
To demonstrate this subconscious bias, scholars at Harvard developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which you can take online here at Project Implicit. If you have never taken one of these tests before, I highly recommend that you check it out (it will ask you a bunch of survey questions before you get started, but this is only to get a baseline of what your self-perceived attitudes are). The test works by measuring participants’ ability to pair black and white faces with words with positive and negative connotations. Based on incorrect answers and split-second differences in reaction time, the test is able to determine your level of subconscious bias by how easy or difficult it is for you to associate each group with the “good” and “bad” categories.
Over the years, researchers have consistently found high levels of anti-black bias among test-takers. According to Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji, around 75% of white Americans tested displayed at least some level of bias in favor of white people. At first glance, perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising; after all, they are white, their families are white, and their friends are probably mostly white. However, if this were merely a case of in-group favoritism, then we would expect a similar finding for black people. That wasn’t the case. Instead, the results for African Americans were split down the middle, with 40% of participants showing anti-black bias. The dominant narrative of white supremacy is so strong in this country that even many black people have internalized it.
This widespread level of bias can have pretty devastating real-world effects, even in a world containing virtually no “traditional” racists. It affects employment, healthcare, and interactions with the justice system. It can even make the difference between life and death. White applicants are far more likely to get callbacks for job interviews than black candidates with identical resumes, so much so that even white people with a criminal record are more likely to land an interview than black people without one. The film cited a study concluding that doctors were less likely to prescribe necessary medication to black patients than white ones with identical symptoms. And black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than whites, a fact that is finally beginning to take hold of America’s collective conscience since the high-profile killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and the countless other unarmed people of color killed by police or vigilantes. For the victims of these crimes, it makes very little difference whether they were perpetrated by a “good person” or by someone with malice in their heart: the result is the same.
It looks like we really do live in a loveless society. But what now? On an individual level, we must recognize the biases that we may have, even if that makes us uncomfortable. As human beings, we are not slaves to our impulses; we have the power to consciously fight against them, but we have to be aware of them first. On a societal level, to quote Harvard historian Vincent Brown, “we really have to think about whether or not we’re going to manifest our ideals in our society or whether or not we’re just going to tell ourselves a story about who we are.”
We are at a crossroads. It’s time for us to stop living in denial. People’s lives are at stake.
Photo credit: Gordon Parks / The Gordon Parks Foundation