In 1998, two psychology professors, Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji, unveiled a research discovery that revolutionized our notions of racism and discrimination, and how they work to perpetuate inequality. They discovered that overt bigots are not the only people who are prejudiced. In fact, most whites and Asians are biased against blacks – even if they don't know it. As the headline on the news release proclaimed, "Roots of unconscious prejudice affect 90 to 95 per cent of people, psychologists demonstrate." It went on to warn, "The test has the potential to reveal things about people that they may prefer not to know."
The evidence for this disturbing discovery is provided by a tool called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. The IAT has now been taken millions of times. It is designed to measure people's quick-response reactions to images and words. The results show that most people are quicker to associate images of white people with positive words, and images of black people with negative words. (For the record, my bias score was "moderate."). Even racial minorities tend to score badly on the test.
The concept of unconscious bias – which holds that hidden prejudice can be deeply embedded even in people who honestly oppose racism – has had a profound impact. It is now a cornerstone of social science and is accepted wisdom among the thinking classes. Hillary Clinton brought it up in the first U.S. presidential debate when she said, "Implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police." The test itself has been popularized by thinkers such as Malcolm Gladwell, a biracial author who was dismayed by how badly he did on the test, and by journalists such as The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof, who wrote: "The challenge is not a small number of twisted white supremacists but something infinitely more subtle and complex: People who believe in equality but who act in ways that perpetuate bias and inequality."
Today, the IAT is widely used in education and diversity training. It carries the imprimatur of Harvard University, where Prof. Banaji now works. Some major institutions (including at least one big Toronto hospital) require everyone involved in senior hiring decisions to take the test.
But how good is it? What, if anything, does it really measure? And is unconscious racism really as big a problem as we think?
In fact, the test is under heavy fire from critics who say it doesn't really measure anything. There's no evidence that your agility at pushing buttons on a quick-response test has any connection to your behaviour in real life. Another problem is that people who repeatedly take the test often get significantly different scores. Even the originators of the test now concede that although it may predict behaviour in the aggregate, it's useless at predicting individual behaviour.
Jesse Singal, a science journalist with New York magazine, has written an exhaustive piece about all these problems, which have been exposed in numerous critiques over the years. Unfortunately the controversy has had zero impact on the widespread infatuation with the test, which has been hotly defended by the people who invented it.
It's not hard to see why the theory of unconscious bias holds such allure. To start with, it provides a plausible-sounding answer to the question of why inequality and discrimination stubbornly persist, despite a sea-change in racial attitudes.
Since I was a kid, racial discrimination has become illegal, and racial prejudice, in both word and deed, has become taboo. Equality and inclusiveness are pounded in to every schoolchild's head. Anybody expressing the sentiments that were common in the 1950s would be rightly shunned by the rest of us.
Yet a common perception is that racism is worse than ever. How can we explain this? We can explain it by theorizing that racism never really disappeared – it just went underground, deep into our subconscious, where it lurks like a cancer, eating away at society. Who's guilty? We all are. And if you deny it, you're only proving that you're part of the problem.
I'm not going to argue that racism does not exist (it surely does), or that unconscious bias isn't real (it surely is). There's lots of evidence that certain forms of discrimination – such as responding more positively to the résumé of people with white-sounding names – remain all too common.
Yet to claim that racist attitudes are as bad as ever – even if they're not overt – is to deny the genuine moral progress that we've made. It certainly doesn't help to declare that all white people are de facto racist (a very common claim these days). Blaming racism as the biggest cause of inequality also lets us off the hook about the extremely complex roots of some of our most intractable social problems. We ought to know by now that just because an idea is popular doesn't mean it's right.