Hidden Racism: Causes and Cures

By Shlomo Maital


   How do you measure racist attitudes? Certainly, not by asking people if they dislike blacks, Jews, Arabs, Muslims or gays. People mostly know there is social disapproval for such attitudes and answer according to the norm, rather than their own intrinsic belief.

   One approach is known as the IAT – implicit association test. How does it work? On an open website, people are asked to sort faces (black and white) according to descriptions pertaining to “good” and “bad”. The decision is taken quickly, without conscious thinking. It was developed by a social psychologist named Anthony Greenwald about 20 years ago.

   The implicit-association test (IAT) is a measure within social psychology designed to detect the strength of a person’s automatic association between mental representations of objects (concepts) in memory. …. the Race IAT shows that more than 70% of individuals have an implicit preference for Whites over Blacks. On the other hand, only half of Black individuals prefer Blacks over Whites.   Similarly, the Age IAT generally shows that most individuals have an implicit preference for young over old, regardless of the age of the person taking the IAT.

   The IAT is part of Harvard University Project Implicit, which investigates thoughts and feelings that are largely outside of active awareness or control.  The key point here is powerful: Racism and other forms of hatred and discrimination are based primarily not on conscious thought, as per white supremacists, but unconscious attitudes driven by the social milieu and context. Perhaps this is why racism remains endemic in most societies, long after laws have become more equal for all.

     If this is so – can such racism be overcome? Can an individual overcome it, if it is in the air we breathe?   The answer is, yes, given time. Decisions taken rapidly, are driven by the limbic brain. Decisions taken thoughtfully are driven by a cognitive conscious process. Research shows, if police (as in Dever, Colorado) can take even a few seconds to think, consider, and judge, actions driven by subconscious racism can be corrected and made more equal.

     I myself am an example. I consider myself liberal, and try hard every day to respect every single person I encounter, whatever their race, religion, creed or age. Yet, recently, in a workshop I led for high school teachers, I had a participant who wore a hijab, a Muslim head covering worn by women.   “Salima” (pseudonym), I assumed instantly, would not contribute much to the Workshop. This was my subconscious speaking. That wrong racist first impression was corrected rapidly. It emerged that Salima was a Technion graduate in chemical engineering, and was the most brilliant of my Workshop participants. She contributed immensely.

     Most enlightened people strongly deny they have racist beliefs. Yet, we live in society, and society has racist beliefs. So it is hard for individuals to escape them, especially when they are ‘underground’, subterranean. The IAT tells us to be aware of the underground forces and to use our cognition to control and alter them.