Sub and Super Personal Racism

By Matt Zeitlin

We have a problem talking about racism, or to be a bit less inflammatory, the effect of race on the life outcomes of people. Even though, for the most part, society has made a firm judgment that explicitly prejudicial and bigoted thoughts or expressions about ethnic minorities are not OK and, accordingly, that public policy make basically no allowance for specifically racially targeted or discriminatory laws, we still have a race problem. But it’s a weird one that’s hard to deal with because on one hand, we have supra-personal racism — institutional racism that effects ethnic minorities today due to a legacy of discriminatory and bigoted public policy whose effects are still quite strong — and subconscious racism.

For the latter, here are two interesting bits of news. One is a study on when police officers shoot other police officers in cases of mistaken identity which shows that “racial bias, unconscious or otherwise, played a clear role in scores of firearms encounters over the years, most significantly in cases involving off-duty officers who are killed by their colleagues.” A bit more concretely, there have been “26 police officers [who] were killed in the United States over the past 30 years by colleagues who mistook them for criminals” and 10 out of the last 14 were ethnic minorities. The last time a white off duty officer was killed by an on-duty officer was in 1982. The report concludes that “Inherent or unconscious racial bias plays a role in ‘shoot/don’t-shoot,’ decisions made by officers of all races and ethnicities.”

The other study is one showing that when participants acting as mock jurors were shown a pictures of  a white man and then read the facts of the crime they were less likely to think that he was guilty compared to a black man associated with the same facts.

It’s hardly shocking that in a society that’s pervaded with images of black crime and where, yes, African-Americans do commit a disproportionate share of crimes that people who may have no conscious racial prejudices or any bigotry nonetheless act and think in a racially biased manner.

This type of problem, of course, is very hard to deal with. It’s very hard to tell someone that, sure, they might not think anything bad about black people but that they may still have prejudiced attitudes about them that they are not completely aware of. Considering how successful we’ve been in saying that racism is bad, there really isn’t any way to go about this without people feeling like they’re being insulted.

This might sound somewhat farcical, and maybe someone has developed something more substantive along these lines, but maybe there’s a new phrase we can use to describe these subconscious attitudes. Racism’? (For those of you who think that’s just a typo, it’s supposed to be “racism prime”)