Scholars Bemoan 'Unconscious Bias' in the U.S.

George E. Curry | 5/1/2012, 10:33 p.m.

Leading social justice scholars said that "unconscious bias" is a major obstacle for communities across the United States because negative racial stereotypes can unknowingly prompt discriminatory actions and attitudes impacting the lives of people of color.

At last week's "Healing for Democracy" conference hosted by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), a panel - moderated by Maria Hinajosa, anchor and managing editor of NPR's Latino USA - discussed the role that unconscious bias plays in access to employment opportunities,

school discipline action, immigration, health care access, criminal justice and social opportunities for African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-American and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans.

Hinojosa said it is "irrefutable" what is happening in America today. "We are clearly becoming a more multicultural, multiracial, mixed country. That is the future." But she noted that the changing demographics are causing tension and fear among the majority.

"There's an element of unconsciousness there, but there's also an element of consciousness which is saying - at this moment I'm in the world of being a non-Hispanic Anglo...I don't want to become a minority," she said.

David Williams, professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, documented that when Latinos and African Americans were treated by physicians for a broken bone in their leg, they received pain medication significantly less often than white patients

with the same injury.

"How on earth do we make sense of this?" Williams asked. "How is it possible that for the best trained medical workforce in the world to produce... care that appears to be so discriminatory? The answer: unconscious discrimination. Research shows that when one holds a negative stereotype about a group and meets someone from that group, without their conscious awareness, it is an unconscious process and it is automatic. They will treat that person differently and honestly not know that they did it."

Williams noted that most Americans would resist a label saying they are discriminating, but he added, "Welcome to the human race. It is a normal process about how all of us process information. The problem for our society is that the level of negative stereotypes is very


Understanding the power of unconscious bias has emerged as a new mission for leaders and advocates working to bring racial healing and racial equity to communities across the U.S. Gail Christopher, vice president for program strategy at the Kellogg Foundation, explained that centuries of a racial hierarchy in America, has left its mark on our society, especially pertaining to how people of color are perceived by whites.

"Our society assigns value to groups of people," she said. "It is a process that is embedded in the consciousness of Americans and impacted by centuries of bias."

During the conference, held April 24-27, panelists shared insights demonstrating how people make unconscious decisions. Phillip Goff, assistant psychology professor at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), showed examples of how law enforcement officials can be motivated by unconscious bias not only to race, but also to what they perceive as threats to their masculinity.

Moreover, Rachel Godsil, director of research for the American Values Institute, maintained that many Americans believe that racism no longer exists and want to be colorblind and not even discuss race. "That is an illusion and not what people of color are looking for,"

Godsil said.

John Powell, director of the Haas Center for Diversity and Inclusion and Robert D. Haas Chancellor's Chair in Equity and Inclusion at the University of California Berkeley, closed the session sharing several examples of how our mind looks at pictures, images and the world

around us, and the impact on our unconscious.

He said, "The fact that we have these deep, unconscious biases - and it's conflicted around race ... we can be primed to be racially fair, we can be primed to be racially anxious - and it doesn't make us a racist. It makes us human. And if we're going to address it, we have

to acknowledge that."