The idea that there is an enormous amount of "implicit bias" in our society is a powerful one.
The notion that we are all intrinsically prejudiced has been embraced by both former President Obama and Hillary Clinton. It has created a consulting industry based on eradicating it. But are we all innately prejudiced against people who are in some way unlike ourselves?
Heather Mac Donald writes in today's Wall Street Journal that the science behind the idea of implicit bias is crumbling. Implicit-bias theory hit academia in 1998, according to Mac Donald, with an instrument developed by social psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji that purported to measure an individual's implicit bias.
It was called the implicit association test (IAT) and hailed this way in a press release: “The pervasiveness of prejudice, affecting 90 to 95 percent of people, was demonstrated today . . . by psychologists who developed a new tool that measures the unconscious roots of prejudice.” Prejudice about weight, gender and people with disabilities (and just about anything else) could purportedly be measured by the test.
The test puts test takers at a computer and they press keys when black and white faces are paired with what are considered good and bad words. If you want to know more about the test, Mac Donald explains the process in the article. But here is what happened: we discovered we are all prejudiced. This predicted discriminatory behavior, according to the article.
And don't try to wiggle out by claiming you aren't prejudiced! Here is what the IAT developers had to say about you in their 2013 bestseller Blindspot:
“Given the relatively small proportion of people who are overtly prejudiced and how clearly it is established that automatic race preference predicts discrimination, it is reasonable to conclude not only that implicit bias is a cause of Black disadvantage but also that it plausibly plays a greater role than does explicit bias.”
If the IAT is right, Mac Donald writes, then every personnel decision can be challenged on the basis of implicit bias. The concept of implicit bias generated countless lawsuits and only last summer 200 CEOs signed a compact to eliminate implicit bias.
But now the science that says we are all prejudiced whether we know it or not is collapsing and none other than the founders admit that the tests don't predict real world behavior and the outcomes of the test may be influenced by factors other than hidden prejudice. And here's a bias: maybe many people wanted to believe in implicit bias because it explained troubling things and made the solutions simpler than the real solutions might be.
The need to plumb the unconscious to explain racial gaps arises for one reason: It is taboo to acknowledge that socioeconomic disparities might be caused by intergroup differences in cultural values, family structure, interests or abilities. The large racial gap in academic skills renders preposterous any expectation that, absent bias, blacks and whites would be proportionally represented in the workplace. And vast differences in criminal offending are sufficient to explain racial disparities in incarceration rates.
In light of such realities, the minute distinctions of the IAT are a sideshow. America has an appalling history of racism and brutal subjugation, and the public should always be vigilant against any recurrence of that history. But the most influential sectors of the economy today employ preferences in favor of blacks. The main obstacles to racial equality now lie not in bias but in culture and behavior.
It's easier to believe we're all prejudiced than it is to address the difficult cultural issues (single-parent households, for example) than are holding many Americans back.