How Race Turns up the Volume on Incivility: A Scientifically Informed Post-Mortem to a Controversy

What's been missing from our national discourse on "is it race or isn't it?" is the distinction psychologists and neuroscientists have made for over two decades between conscious and unconscious prejudice.
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Suppose, over the last 25 years, a half million Englishmen a year had entered the US. Most came on temporary work visas, whereas others came as visitors, but in both cases, they preferred it here and stayed. They were hard workers, but they didn't have papers, so they either took jobs American workers didn't want or just blended into the job market however they could. Over the years, many of them married American citizens and had children who were born on American soil. Like everybody else, they paid sales taxes (unless there's some secret handshake non-citizens know to present to cashiers--perhaps a version of the terrorist fist bump), and the two-thirds or so who'd managed to find a way to work "on the books" were also paying payroll taxes (including Social Security), for which they would ultimately receive nothing in return.

So would we have had an acrimonious debate on immigration reform, with shouts of "you lie" at the President of the United States in the halls of Congress by a former soldier who understands that this is the Commander-in-Chief to whom he his showing such disrespect, and vitriolic discussion about the evils of "illegal aliens" (like virulent strains of ET) or "illegals" (not even humans anymore)? Would we have mass deportations centered on places where people congregate to drink Bass Ale? Or would we likely have said, "Listen, chaps, you can't keep coming into our country like unwanted kidney pie, but we understand our whole immigration system is broken, so we're going to fix it, because it doesn't serve anybody's interests, least of all the interests and the values of the American people"?

My guess is that it would have been the latter--unless those British citizens happened to be of Pakistani descent.

The point here is simply this: Americans have legitimate grievances about illegal immigration (although they largely don't realize we can't just tell people to "stand in line and wait their turn" because there is no line and there are no turns, and that we break up families for ten or twenty years while people eligible for citizenship wait for bureaucrats in a grossly dysfunctional system to get around to processing the most basic filings). But what turns up the volume on Americans' feelings about immigration is that the immigrants are not white, English-speakers from London but brown-skinned Mexicans who may not speak our language well and don't share our Anglo-American culture.

So is that racism?

It all depends on what you mean by racism. If you mean that the average American consciously believes we should discriminate against Mexicans because their skin is brown, no, any more than the average American consciously believes a black man is incapable of being President. But does it mean that the average American harbors unconscious biases that render Mexican immigrants less "like us" than English immigrants--and that those biases make it easier for many to wonder whether a black President shares their values, loves his country, or can put his country before "his people"--even though the people who reared him were his white mother and grandparents?

What's been missing from our national discourse on "is it race or isn't it?" is the distinction psychologists and neuroscientists have made for over two decades between conscious and unconscious (often called "explicit vs. implicit") prejudice.

Even in the Deep South, the pollster Celinda Lake and I found that 85% of voters--including the vast majority of Republicans and conservatives--were more prepared to vote for a candidate who passionately rejected discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, or even sexual orientation than one who disagreed or said nothing about it. In 21st century America, the average American holds conscious values that render discrimination unacceptable.

But at the same time, African-American men convicted of crimes receive stiffer sentences the darker their skin and the more "Afrocentric" their facial features. White people presented with subliminal images of black men show activity in neural circuits indicative of fear even though they have no conscious knowledge that they've even seen anything at all--let alone a black man. And in research we conducted on ads designed to ratchet down the level of racial tension just prior to the 2008 Presidential election, ads featuring darker-skinned black families that were emotionally touching received more positive conscious reviews from swing voters in battleground states than ads with lighter-skinned black families--but voters' unconscious responses showed just what brain imaging studies have shown: the darker the skin, the more negative the unconscious response.

So is Jimmy Carter right that the extraordinary animus toward Barack Obama is motivated by racism? It depends on who you are talking about, and whether you mean the conscious racism characteristic of the few or the unconscious prejudices to which many of us are prone and would fight in ourselves if someone talked with us about them in a way that didn't make us feel like bad people.

Sure, the birthers are overt racists. If you can't accept that a man was born in the US, what you're saying is that no matter what he does, the black guy just can't pass the "he's one of us" test. (It actually doesn't matter where Barack Obama was born, because his mother was an American citizen, so he could have born abroad, as was John McCain, or on Mars, if his mother had been an astronaut.) Similar cries of "I want my country back!" betray the same overt racism of the past that Jimmy Carter knows when he sees it.

Now consider Republican Congressional leader John Boehner's recent comment about his fellow citizens that "They are scared to death that the country that they grew up in is not going to be the country that their kids and grandkids grew up in." Where that comment falls in what is a probably a continuum from overt to unconscious prejudice is unclear. Americans did not wake up the morning after Medicare passed and find themselves in a Stalinist gulag, despite Ronald Reagan's dire warning that passage of Medicare would destroy our freedom and turn us into a communist nation, and nor will that happen if Obama passes some form of health care plan that protects people under 65. What Boehner was at least unconsciously betraying was his worry that the day is coming soon--demographers now place it around 2040--when whites are in the minority in the U.S. (Ironically, those who are most prejudiced, whether consciously or unconsciously, should be at the forefront of efforts to eradicate poverty and extend the American Dream to poor African-American and Latino young people, because you don't want an alienated, poor, disenfranchised majority who feel they have no stake in their own country.)

And where Republican Congressman Roy Blunt was heading with his "monkey throwing the golf ball joke" at the conservatives' "Values Summit," other than to a KKK meeting down the street, is anybody's guess. To be charitable, it's quite possible that he was not consciously thinking that Barack Obama resembles a monkey. His comment could just as easily reflect his unconscious association between monkeys and black people--an association not unfamiliar to any child of the South of his generation or slightly younger. (I remember the pamphlets for a candidate in Georgia named J.B. Stoner in the mid 1970s one of my bigoted classmates was handing out when I was in high school illustrating the evolution from apes to black people to white people. Apparently social conservatives do believe in evolution after all if you give them the right arguments for it.) Whether his prejudice was conscious or unconscious, however, his audience sure seemed to "get it." They were laughing uproariously long before I had any idea what the punch line could possibly be, so obviously they shared his associations.

But most Americans are not birthers, even the majority of us who are subject to all kinds of unconscious and quasi-conscious biases we've picked up over the years, whether about race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or age. And that speaks to how to talk with the American people about race and racism--and how not to.

All the available data--and recent political history--point to two strategies that virtually always fail.

The first is to tell people who consciously believe in equality that are "really" racists. That evokes nothing but defensiveness. It's like telling a woman who is furious at her husband for not helping out enough with the kids that she is "really" angry because he's not bringing home enough income. That may well be contributing to the intensity of her feeling--even if she doesn't know it--but it doesn't negate her conscious grievances.

The second failed strategy--and the one consistently pursued by the Obama administration--is to pretend that no one notices that the President is black and that race has no impact on the fact that his legitimacy as President is doubted by half of Southerners, that people are bringing images of him to rallies that compare him to a monkey or a witch doctor, and that others are toting guns to his town halls. Allowing these kinds of outrages to continue without even a comment--and even rewarding Joe Wilson for yelling "you lie" during his speech by tightening spiteful anti-immigrant provisions in his health care plan a day or two later--does nothing but embolden those who would bully the man who holds the bully pulpit.

The scientific data suggest two strategies that are, however, effective in addressing unconscious prejudices that can turn up the volume on other concerns. The first is to remind people of their conscious values, which tend to be our better angels on race. The average American strongly agrees with the sentiment that, "In America, we don't discriminate against anybody because of their color, ethnicity, or anything else"--whether they see that as a statement of actuality or aspiration. And they mean it--and will act on it, as long as their conscious values are active and guiding their behavior.

The second is to speak directly to the conflict between those values and the attitudes we hold at some level that we wish we didn't--like the way most of us would respond to the immigration issue if it were about pasty Englishmen instead of brown-skinned Mexicans. It's about talking to people like grown-ups. That's the message the White House and Democrats should have taken away from the speech then-candidate Obama delivered last March in Philadelphia that saved his candidacy, rather than pretending that Jimmy Carter doesn't know what racism looks like.

There's nothing shameful about admitting that you're among the majority of Americans--of every color--who has sometimes judged another person on the color his skin instead of the content of his character--and then realized it wasn't fair. The best antidote to unconscious bias is self-reflection. And the best way to foster that self-reflection is through telling the truth in a way that doesn't make people defensive or point fingers--except at those who wear their prejudice proudly and deserve our scorn.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

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