On How Unconscious, Habitual, Behavior Maintains Systems of Oppression and Privilege

One of the most important things to know about racial oppression is how it is sustained in everyday practices.  Structures of advantage and disadvantage of all types, including those based on racialized identities, are maintained in our everyday, largely unconscious, actions.  Social psychologists have developed the concept of implicit bias that explains how this occurs.  Here is Rinku Sen, President and Executive Director of the Applied Research Center, discusses how implicit bias frames the Zimmerman verdict:

The verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial caused in me the kind of existential crisis that my optimistic nature is usually able to fend off. In these weeks I have come to understand just how much light exists between the basic assumptions of the racial justice movement and those of most white Americans. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in the week after the verdict revealed a huge gap between black and white attitudes. Just 30 percent of white respondents said they were dissatisfied with the verdict, compared to 86 percent of blacks. The key strategic question for a racial justice movement is whether to focus on growing that 30 percent, or simply to out organize the rest. To figure out an answer, we need to delve into the complicated relationship between explicit racism, unconscious bias, policymaking and culture.

Our legal frameworks are based on punishing explicit racism. Yet the not-explicit kind, what is known among social psychologists as “implicit bias,” also undergirds the punishing policies that make young black men so vulnerable to deadly forms of discrimination. That reality creates a challenge, because it’s much easier to condemn obvious racism than the kind that expresses itself in, say, Juror B37’s statement that Zimmerman could credibly assume Trayvon Martin was “trying to do something bad in the neighborhood.” Implicit bias is the reason why.

In the best-selling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman describes the brain as having two parts, which he calls Systems 1 and 2. System 1 is lightning fast, intuitive and overconfident. It makes many, many judgements, often based on false assumptions. System 1 selectively pulls facts and images to justify those judgements, totally unaware that it is doing so. System 2, however, is slow, methodical, and much less confident, and it only kicks under real pressure.

System 1 is willing to give George Zimmerman’s snap judgements about Trayvon the benefit of the doubt. To make your System 2 kick in and ask, for example, “Do I really need to clutch my bag/call the police/pull out my gun because a black man is walking toward me?” requires a decision, a desire to push System 1 aside. The good news of the Pew poll is it suggests that at least 30 percent of the nation’s white people have moved beyond their System 1s and engaged their System 2s. Several hundred of them are represented in the Tumblr We Are Not Trayvon.

What happens in System 1 with regard to race is called implicit bias, which Maya Wiley, president of the Center for Social Inclusion, did a great job of explaining on “Up with Steve Kornacki.” Implicit bias is the way that social psychologists refer to the phenomenon by which we are unaware of our prejudices. Our judgments about people don’t qualify as prejudices because our brains are happy enough to have a coherent story about “those people.” They’re happy to linger in System 1. Social psychologists at Harvard University, University of Virginia and University of Washington created the implicit bias test online to enable people to see their biases at work in a series of rapid-fire judgments driven by images of white and black people.

Read her full essay at Rinku Sen: The Racist Mind – COLORLINES.