“When we fixate on the racist individual, we’re focused on the least interesting way that race works,” said Phillip Goff, a social psychologist at U.C.L.A. who focuses his research on “racism without racists.” “Most of the way race functions is without the need for racial animus.”
For decades, experiments have shown that even many whites who earnestly believe in equal rights will recommend hiring a white job candidate more often than a person with identical credentials who is black. In the experiments, the applicant’s folder sometimes presents the person as white, sometimes as black, but everything else is the same. The white person thinks that he or she is selecting on the basis of nonracial factors like experience.
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Still, a huge array of research suggests that 50 percent or more of whites have unconscious biases that sometimes lead to racial discrimination. (Blacks have their own unconscious biases, surprisingly often against blacks as well.)
One set of experiments conducted since the 1970s involves subjects who believe that they are witnessing an emergency (like an epileptic seizure). When there is no other witness, a white bystander will call for help whether the victim is white or black, and there is very little discrimination.
But when there are other bystanders, so the individual responsibility to summon help may feel less obvious, whites will still summon help 75 percent of the time if the victim is white but only 38 percent of the time if the victim is black.
One lesson from this research is that racial biases are deeply embedded within us, more so than many whites believe. But another lesson, a historical one, is that we can overcome unconscious bias. That’s what happened with the decline in prejudice against Catholics after the candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Overt racism being driven underground is both a good thing and a bad thing. I think it makes folks believe that all racism is gone, and that unconscious racism is just what people who are overreacting see that isn't really there. It certainly makes racism harder to combat when it isn't as obvious as "Whites Only" signs. And people think they only have to say "he/she didn't mean anything by it" to excuse all manner of racist behavior. But the fact that you don't realize you harbor negative attitudes toward races you feel are inferior to you doesn't make it hurt any less to hear the comments!