Examining institutionalized racism’s psychological and philosophical roots and how to combat it.
o pretend that we have solved all the problems of overt racism would be delusional, but it would likewise be inaccurate to claim that we have not made major progress. Prominent public or business figures caught making racist statements are regularly forced to resign their positions; antidiscrimination laws have had a strong (though incomplete) impact in reducing openly racist hiring practices; an insistence on diversity at universities and other institutions has in fact increased equality to a notable degree; and, of course, it is impossible not to mention that America’s current first family is black. While I do not mean to diminish the progress we have made or the hard work of those who have fought over many decades to achieve that progress, I do want to turn our attention from the obvious successes in fighting overt and intentional racism toward our increasing failure to address covert and unconscious racism. It is, I will argue, this subtler aspect of current American ideology that is causing the greatest harm to the greatest number of people on the basis of race.
Despite the above-mentioned successes and others over the years, it must be noted that “… since the 1980s racial disparities in incarceration rates, however, have become more, rather than less, pronounced.”1 Now, hold that thought for a moment, because before we discuss how and why this is happening, it is worth briefly describing the difference between the way we use the term “ideology” in common speech and how philosophers tend to use it. In daily usage, we tend to define “ideology” as something like the set of cultural and political beliefs a person or party maintains—that is, we tend to conceive of it as a conscious set of beliefs knowingly subscribed to. Among the philosophers, it is a much more subtle proposition. Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek has extracted a neat one-liner from Marx’s Das Kapital to describe ideology: “They do not know they are doing it, but they are doing it.”2 In other words, ideology is not nearly so conscious but rather a series of unintentional and unconscious (or, as I will argue, quasi-unconscious) assumptions about culture, politics, and race.
As already stated, overt institutional racism has seen a notable decline, as have self-reported attitudes of racism. By this I mean merely that polls of racial attitudes have shown a drastic decline in people identifying themselves as racist and a drastic increase in claims of holding no racial prejudices. And I tend to think most of these poll respondents honestly believe they are not racist. But how do we square this with the results from a 1999 study by Dovidio and Gaertner wherein college students were asked to evaluate black and white job candidates? When the candidates were highly qualified for the job or noticeably unqualified for the job, little or no discrimination was found. When job candidates were only moderately qualified, however, a strong preference was given to the white candidate. And when the researchers compared their results to a similar study in 1989, they found nearly identical results for moderately qualified candidates, meaning that these quasi-unconscious deciding factors had not changed over the course of a decade, even though antidiscrimination laws had increased in number and polls about racial attitudes improved drastically.3 (I will, however, point out the fact that in 1999 little or no discrimination was found when the qualifications were clearly strong or clearly weak is a major step forward, and one we ought not dismiss too quickly.)
But ideology and its subtle psychological effects are more insidious than white college students selecting moderately qualified white candidates over moderately qualified black candidates in a psychological study. In the real world, one of the most disturbing statistics is the rate of police officers shooting black suspects more frequently than white suspects. And to prove the further pervasiveness and power of ideology, the race of the police officer does not alter the decision to shoot or not to shoot a black suspect. According to a study by R. Richard Banks, et al, “Researchers found no difference in shooting behavior as a function of the participant’s race.”4 This means that even black police officers are more likely to fire on a black suspect exhibiting identical behavior to a white suspect, despite a general lack of overt and consciously expressed prejudice against their own race.
So, since antidiscrimination laws have clearly failed to solve many problems ranging from employment opportunities to matters of literal life and death, what ought to be done to supplement these well-intentioned and, in some cases, successful laws? Is there further legislation needed? Do we need better implementation of currently existing laws? Do we need new strategies altogether?
Why We Need Philosophy Now More Than Ever
Ayn Rand got more things wrong than I have space here to enumerate. One thing she was undeniably right about, however, is that the underlying philosophy that guides and conditions our decision-making processes is perhaps the most important thing to focus on when trying to solve societal problems. This underlying philosophy, which she called a “sense of life,” permeates every aspect of human existence, sometimes in overt and sometimes in covert ways.5 But which philosophical paradigms can help us here? Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and their philosophical and political projects come immediately to mind.
Beauvoir, one of the great novelists and cultural philosophers of the 20th century, is best known for her ground-breaking feminist-philosophical work The Second Sex. Among the many incisive points Beauvoir makes, the most salient one for us here is the concept from which she derives the book’s title. Beauvoir names plenty of overt sexist laws and traditions, but what she finds most pervasive is a passive assumption of the primacy of maleness, relegating femaleness to a second-class category.6 And this assumption exists, Beauvoir teaches us, even among progressive thinkers who profess to love equality and freedom for all. This point, which I am funhouse-mirroring in this analysis, was fittingly inspired (in part) by existentialist black writer Richard Wright.
Beauvoir gave Wright credit for helping her to see her situation as a female by his discussion of his status as a black American. The subtle ideological mechanisms that keep one marginalized group in a state of perennial disadvantage can inform our understanding of how other groups are similarly hemmed in by an unseen and often unintentional discrimination. I therefore argue that we need to ferret out as many of these ideological mechanisms as we can, because once their status moves from quasi-unconscious to fully seen and acknowledged, it becomes much harder to continue the passive behavior they foment among even the best-intentioned.
Beauvoir’s life-long partner and intellectual collaborator, Jean-Paul Sartre, likewise has a useful concept for us here: bad faith. Bad faith is not precisely lying to oneself, but rather an act of quasi-unconscious self-deception.7 To offer a mundane example, imagine a college student who knows she should study for an exam scheduled for early tomorrow morning, but she also wants to go to a party tonight where all her friends will be. Instead of fully admitting the consequences of going to the party, she instead looks away from the consequences she knows will follow from her actions. This is not an elaborate process of conscious rationalization, but rather allowing a blind spot to cover what should be plainly seen. This is why it is only quasi-unconscious. When we exhibit bad faith, we see the actuality of the situation, but only briefly. Then we quasi-choose not to think about it anymore. I argue that the most pervasive form of racism today has a psychological structure similar to Sartrean bad faith. We notice for a fleeting instant our internalized racist prejudices, but then we will ourselves to un-see these prejudices, allowing us to pretend we are not participants in racist ideology and behavior.
To avoid bad faith requires a kind of situational concentration not usually practiced by even the most vigilant among us. We must all cultivate this attentive practice, paying attention to all of the quasi-unconscious aspects of our interior lives. To reference a different philosophical tradition, this is akin to what Buddhist philosophers call mindfulness. Here is how UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good project defines mindfulness: “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”
Bear with me for one more concept from psychology we need to keep in mind as we try to concoct a cure for the ideological illness of racism: confirmation bias. Briefly defined, confirmation bias is the tendency to favor data that confirms our already held positions or to notice those things most opportune for us or most connected to us. A mundane example: When I was admitted to graduate school at Ohio State University, I began seeing OSU sports shirts and bumper stickers everywhere. Of course, the number of these items did not increase magically because I had just been admitted to the school; rather, since OSU had become salient to my own life, I was attuned to noticing anything associated with the university. Another example: When a list of facts about a topic—racism, for example—is presented, people will tend to recall those facts that confirm their already held positions. The very process of memory formation is conditioned by confirmation bias, which plays a major role in testimony and court rulings. Decisions ranging from whom to hire to whom to shoot are likewise conditioned by confirmation bias.
You will have noticed that much of what comprises confirmation bias is quasi-unconscious, as are all of the notions I have mentioned. And here, as with the other problems we face, a consciousness-raising philosophical approach is the only viable solution. We must force ourselves to enumerate all the facts we have at hand and to look especially closely at those that make us feel most uncomfortable or that directly oppose our own views. In the spirit of intellectual honesty, we have to mindfully lay out all of the data at our disposal and give each fact its day in court, so to speak.
Although antidiscrimination laws are insufficient to the herculean task of preventing discriminatory practices, I maintain that they are ultimately a positive force in our business, legal, and political arenas. I also maintain that these laws and those who fought to put them in place, along with those whose vigilance ensures their regular enforcement, should be lauded and applauded as vigorously as possible. We should continue this vigilance and even expand it. Legislation alone, however, cannot achieve our goals.
We must take aim at the subtler aspects of ideology and psychology if we are going to root out the most insidious forms of institutionalized and individual racism. In effect, we must alter the underlying ideological assumptions that condition our decisions where race is involved. And the only way to do that is to avoid bad faith on the subject, keep these issues constantly in sight, and inject them into the general cultural discourse as much as possible. And here it is essential that people understand notions like ideology, bad faith, mindfulness, and confirmation bias. It is only by knowing these psychological tendencies that we might combat them.
There are also immediate actions we can take to alter the way we and others think on these issues. For instance, The Catalyst Project offers courses to promote anti-racist thought and activism. Employers could hire such groups to train their employees how to avoid and even combat racism in the workplace. Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training is another organization of this sort. And perhaps the best-known, with a somewhat wider scope, is the Social Justice Training Institute. Others exist as well, easily locatable via a few minutes on Google.
There is an unseen jury at the periphery of our minds, and it hands down more verdicts than we may be capable of knowing. It is nonetheless incumbent upon us to try to bring it to the fore of our minds and to reduce the ubiquitous and insidious damage it does to so many in our society.
- Banks et al, “Race, Crime, and Antidiscrimination,” Beyond Common Sense, (eds. Borgida and Fiske).
- Žižek, Slavoj, For They Know Not What They Do.
- Crosby and Dovidio, “Discrimination and Legal Strategies,” Beyond Common Sense, (eds. Borgida and Fiske).
- Banks et al, “Race, Crime, and Antidiscrimination,” Beyond Common Sense, (eds. Borgida and Fiske).
- Rand, Ayn, Philosophy: Who Needs It.
- de Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness.