Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Do You Know If You're a Racist?

Consider the Implicit Association Test:

The stimuli are a mix of faces and words. In one condition, the task is to press one key (e.g., "e") if you see a dark-skinned face OR a positively valenced word (e.g., "happy") and another key (e.g., "i") if you see a light-skinned face OR a negatively valenced word (e.g., "nasty"). In another condition, the task is to press one key for a light-skinned face or a postively valenced word and another for a dark-skinned face or a negatively valenced word.

Most light-skinned people, it seems, perform more slowly and make more errors in the first type of condition than in the second. They seem, implicitly, to find it more difficult to associate dark-skinned faces with positive words and light-skinned faces with negative words than the other way around. (The performance of dark-skinned people is more variable.)

So here's the question: Suppose you perform "poorly" on the Implicit Association Test, despite sincerely -- apparently sincerely, for all you can tell -- avowing that dark-skinned people are no worse, no more prone to be nasty, bad, unhappy, etc., than light-skinned people. Are you a racist?

Well, perhaps it depends on one's overall patterns of behavior. But what behavior? What you sincerely -- sincerely for all you can tell -- avow about the races? What your automatic, implicit, gut-level reactions tend to be when confronted with people of different races? What your more deliberate actions are toward people of different races, when you're on top of your game, as it were -- once you've had time to reflect and self-regulate?

Aaron Zimmerman has been telling me that what we really believe is revealed better by our speech and self-conscious choices than by our gut reactions and implicit associations -- that only in the former cases do we do what is essential to belief, that is, reasoning -- and only in such matters are we held to rational and epistemic norms. That's an interesting thought, but at the same time I think we are to a considerable extent responsible for our implicit associations and gut-level reactions, especially if they end up guiding our behavior unbeknownst to us. The person who just implicitly expects dark-skinned people, say, to be less intelligent than light-skinned people does not fully believe in the intellectual equality of the races, no matter what she may say aloud about that issue or what she might do on occasions in which she self-consciously corrals her implicit racism.

Does such an implicit racist simply believe that light-skinned people are more intelligent? Well, that doesn't seem quite right either. This seems to me a case of what I've called "in-between believing" -- a case in which it's not quite right say that a person fully believes some proposition and not quite right to say she fails to believe it. Such in-between cases of belief are, I think, extremely common, and it takes a certain amount of self-regulation, self-shaping, environmental control, and post-hoc confabulation to present a relatively consistent face to the world -- and to oneself.

So do you know if you're a racist? Do you know what you believe about the intellectual equality of the races? I doubt it!

(Oh, by the way, you can go ahead and take the Implicit Association Test right now, if you like, here.)


Anonymous said...

Say someone believes two prima facie noncontradictory propositions, one being consciously and the other unconsciously believed. Pretend she also believes some conditional which entails that the initial two propositions are contradictory. If all three propositions come to be consciously believed, do you think it's better to claim that the person has inconsistent beliefs or to claim that she did not really believe one of the two initial propositions? Obviously, this will likely depend on the situation and the beliefs in question, but it seems to apply to the racism case here. E.g., one could consciously believe that skin-color has no direct causal relationship with one's intellect, and also believe that if this is true, then all things being equal, people will perform equally well most of the time when it comes to things intellectual. But it may turn out that expectations regarding the consequent show that one actually believes its negation. Would you call this a case of inconsistency or mistaken identification of beliefs?

33/6 JoelGaddis 14 said...

Everyone knows what they believe, its whether or not they have the courage and dignity to admit this to the world, or to hide it and put on a front to be "politically correct". as for me, im a member and knighthawk of Imperial Klans of America Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and i wear it on my sleeve proudly. and i can also show biblically why i believe what i believe. and my "subconscious" actions go right along with my "conscious" actions. If someones subconscious actions oppose their conscious actions and what they say, they are simply lying to the world, and often themselves, convincing themselves they dont believe it when they do because society has so bashed that point of view in todays day and age (regardless that our country was founded on certain principles), because they get the mindset that thinking this way makes them a bad person, and will deny their impulses and deeply engraved moral values for fear of being labeled a "bad person".

Anonymous said...

Cool article as for me. It would be great to read something more about that matter.
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Michael Lilly said...

Hey Professor

So, I took the IAT for race as you suggested and came away with this result: "Your responses suggested no automatic preference between Black people and White people.", which was a little surprising; I would have expected my result to fall into a "normal" range of at least slight to moderate bias. Now, apparently, part of the test measures how quickly you respond to the stimuli, as in "complete it as quickly as you can", so it is possible that my results are skewed because of my propensity of second-guessing where my fingers are on the keyboard and looking up for the instructions on each page. What surprises me is that I did not fall into the trap of overthinking my responses more often -it was only when I thought longer than a second or two that the system returned a "wrong answer" response such that I had to correct it. It also appears that the algorithm takes into account the number of errors you make on the test when judging your bias.

At the same time, I do question the automatic correlation of "angry" with bad/evil, as anger is considered one of the irascible passions in Aristotelian-Thomistic Psychology and Moral Philosophy; a passion moreover which is not in and of itself considered intrinsically bad/evil/vicious or virtuous, but can be a vice or a virtue.

I also wonder if an audible portion to the IAT -say, having to identify a voice as belonging to Black/African American or White/European- would be helpful in determining bias, especially when conversations take place over telephones or airwaves? Or would that create too many complications?

I have decided to read through the archives of your blog in its entirety, to get a feel for how philosophy blogs are managed,so you will probably see more comments by me on your older posts. In addition, I want to take this opportunity to say Thank you for your research and your sharing here, even if I come from a Thomistic, not an Analytic background.

Anonymous said...

Hello. My father was a placid man who rarely swore never reacted with physical force unless it was 'necessary'. If he was 'over come by the righteous wrath'' his jaw would twitch then tense then grit. His chin would swell til the slight cleft looked like it held two crab apples. His right eye would close up as his face paled the turn red (he was very pale skinned). His hair would raise up on neck arms and legs & hands would turn to fists with the fingers thick as sausages. If he had to run it was on toes and he was extremely fast.
One day we were together, he saw an old man being beaten by 3 adult men. It all happened in less than a minute. He was off and though the men were larger than him he fought all three to the ground. Then picked up the old man and carried him at a trot to the hospital.
When I asked what happened he said 'I saw red' . Nice story? At 20 I saw red. The first time. It happens & runs in families.