Standing Against Racism

Acknowledging the problem of racism is important, but it's just the beginning.

Posted Jun 28, 2020

 Polsole/Shutterstock
Source: Polsole/Shutterstock

Recently, Monmouth University published results from a poll on issues pertaining to systemic racism, and it appears that most Americans (76%) are acknowledging that “racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem.”  Considering that just five years ago, only 51% of Americans said they felt this way, this appears to be a positive sign that more people are waking up to the deep-seated racism that has always existed in this country. At the same time, this encouraging figure may not be quite what it seems for two reasons.

First, it’s common for White people to recognize and acknowledge racism less than Black people do, and this poll reflects that when we look a little more closely. Whereas 90% of Black Americans said that race-based discrimination is a considerable issue in the United States, about 20% fewer White Americans (71%) said the same. 

But even if we focus on the 71% of White people who acknowledge racism as a big problem, this doesn’t mean that their concept of a “big problem” captures just how big a problem racism truly is.  For instance, a White person could say that racism in the United States is a big problem while underestimating the severity of the problem because they’re comparing the here and now with the past. 

Indeed, research reveals that when White people think about advancements in racial equality, they tend to compare racism today with what racism looked like historically, and they believe more improvements have occurred compared to people who are Black, Brown, or Asian. And yes, if we compare the present with the past, we could technically say, at one level, that there have been advancements in racial equality. 

For instance, an interracial couple can legally marry throughout the United States, and that was not the case before 1967. But this is not the only way to look at changes in racial equality. We can also look to the future and compare today with what a better, just, and equal tomorrow could be. 

From this other, valid perspective, we haven’t made that much progress and we arguably have a long way to go. Indeed, when White people think about how the present compares with a more just and fair world, they see less advancement in racial equality, bringing their view more in line with the outlook of Black, Brown, and Asian people.  

Second, even if 76% of Americans all agree about how extreme and dire the problem of systemic racism is, this doesn’t address the underlying, latent biases, also referred to as implicit prejudice, that can impact people’s behavior. Scholars have defined implicit prejudice as “associations that come to mind unintentionally, whose influence on thought and action may not be consciously recognized and can be difficult to control.” 

Implicit prejudice is different from explicit prejudice, which is defined as “consciously endorsed negative attitudes based on group membership.” In other words, when someone holds explicit racial prejudice, they knowingly support disparaging views toward another racial group. Thankfully, this brand of prejudice has decreased over time, but implicit prejudice is pervasive

So a person can consciously recognize the problem of racial prejudice and discrimination and care deeply about being an ally, yet implicitly carry unfavorable associations about a racial group that affect how they behave toward members of that group. Where do these negative associations come from? They can emanate from a range of sources, such as racist messages people encounter in their family, unfavorable social depictions of a particular racial group, and systemic racism. 

As one group of scholars noted, “the historical legacy of discrimination [in the United States] has created structural inequalities that may continue to cue stereotypical associations long after official legal barriers have been removed.” In line with this point, these researchers found evidence of stronger implicit racial prejudice today in counties that relied more on slavery back in 1860. 

And just as discrimination can influence implicit biases, psychological research highlights a variety of ways in which people’s implicit prejudice influences discrimination. For example, one study found that the more a White person holds implicit prejudice, the less inclined they are to want to understand White privilege and advance racial equality. In another study, implicit prejudice among White people was linked to conveying less kindness and warmth through non-verbal communication toward Black people. And another study revealed that implicit prejudice in the 2008 election was linked with people choosing not to vote at all or to vote for a third-party candidate rather than for Barack Obama.

This isn’t to say that implicit attitudes are inherently unalterable. They can change, but it tends to take time, particularly on a broader, social level. In 2019, researchers found evidence that implicit racial biases have shifted over the last 10 years toward a more unbiased level by 17%, although implicit biases about skin tone (i.e., favoring lighter skin over darker skin) have been even slower to shift. Based on this, they predicted that it will take until 2073 for implicit racial attitudes to become unbiased (i.e., neutral), and implicit attitudes about skin tone won’t reach an unbiased point until 2154. As the researchers note, these predictions aren’t exact because future events could alter the course and timing of implicit biases

Still, what we can say is that although 76% of the country recognizes that racial discrimination is a significant problem, we need to recognize that our collective journey to meaningfully address and correct the blight of racism, including implicit racism, is only just beginning. Our commitment to truly standing against racism can’t be a spark in time that dwindles, but a steadfast, ongoing way of living that is lifelong.

Thank you for reading.

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