Unconscious Racism

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 6
Words: 1658
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: PhD


Unconscious racism can be described as an implicit bias that arises from an accumulation of unconscious thoughts which unknowingly leads people to discriminate against each other along racial lines (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008). These forms of implicit biases can have the same devastating effects as those of explicit biases. However, there has been a major argument whether such a thing as implicit biases exists since many have argued that there is no scientific support for this form of racism. In the United States where this debate has been raging, proponents of unconscious racism have been searching for justice in legal systems to make use of a legal standard that mainly focuses on the effects rather than intentions while delivering rulings in cases that directly involve racial discrimination. The system is already in place and is called the disparate impact standard. It states that all practices that adversely affect minority groups are discriminatory and therefore illegal even if they facially appear neutral. It is an attempt for victims of such discriminatory practices to seek compensation. However, with much talk about the existence of unconscious racism, what scientific evidence is there to support these claims?

Evidence for Scientific Support

First and foremost, it is important to note that implicit actions are a daily routine in our lives. Implicit actions can be equated to the aspect of breathing in human beings. Breathing is an activity that takes place countless times in our lives without our senses consciously making us aware of it. Our human senses are bombarded with enormous amounts of information which would strain our mental capacity to process each bit of information individually. Therefore, our minds utilize neural shortcuts termed as schemas to sort out stimuli. It is these schemas that facilitate unconscious actions such as lifting of a cup to drink water without first of all consciously identifying the object we are holding. This fact emphasizes the important role played by implicit actions in our day to day lives. However, a more negative sense of implicit association can result especially when it is centred on an individual rather than an object (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008). Take for example, we operate in a society that permeates racial discrimination and therefore as we mature, we begin to feed our minds with these cultural stereotypes which eventually begin to play a critical role in shaping the way we think and react.

Cultural stereotypes can significantly interfere with the mental processing of the brain due to their pervasive nature. A scientific research conducted by the University of Southern California furnishes us with more scientific evidence of this fact. During the research, white participants were presented with photographs of both white and black persons whom they were completely unfamiliar with. During the photograph presentations, their brain activities were monitored through functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI). The results of this experiment showed that the amygdale (the part of the brain that responds to fear) showed a significant higher amount of activity when responding to photographs of black persons compared to white ones. The results of this experiment confirmed the cultural stereotyping dubbed the ‘violent black man’ who had been reinforced by constant airing of movies, television screens and local news. It also confirms how we internalize certain norms and beliefs in society such as racial discrimination and unconsciously portray the same in acts of favouritism (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008).

Implicit attitudes cannot be perceived directly and are therefore measured indirectly. Explicit attitudes can be easily measured through self reporting. Some researchers argue that one individual can possess a set of explicit attitudes which enhance racial tolerance and another, a cluster of unconscious attitudes which are racially discriminative. This clearly explains why racism appears to be declining on an explicit sense but it is still prevalent when assessed implicitly (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008). The advancement in technology provides a platform with which one can be able to study cognitively and assess the implicit memory in order to gain understanding of the unconscious. This can also in help to explain human behaviour. The greatest challenge however, has been to develop a basis which can be used to assert whether the responses derived from an implicit inventory reflect the actual results generated by unconscious attitudes. Cognitive studies on memory have shown that people can be conscious of things happening around them as result of stimuli without having a conscious knowledge of the things that bring the mentioned effects. There are certain behaviours or situations in the society that are considered maladaptive and people usually react indifferently towards them. These include obesity and certain sexually unacceptable behaviours like homosexuality. As a result, a better way to examine the unconscious is to devise implicit measures that can get hold of responses that individuals cannot control. Therefore, this can withhold their abilities and render their actual evaluations obscure. There are human behaviours which are maladaptive and people are unable to suppress their impulses. Individuals struggling with such behaviours most likely have a conscious awareness of the root cause of the problem. However, being aware of this does not offer control over the problematic behaviour (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008). Therefore, lack of control provides a crucial benchmark for differentiating conscious and unconscious racial attitudes.

Since individuals cannot be able to report on the attitudes performed unconsciously, implicit measures remain the only way of accessing the unconscious attitudes of an individual. The basic reasoning here is that all unique variances arising from implicit measures may be reflecting attitudes which cannot be accessed through conscious reflection. Until to date, there are only few scientific criterion-prediction studies on control for self-reported attitudes which have been done. This puts to question the viability of the said approaches. In addition, these few studies have actually relied on conceptions and measures of explicit attitudes which were rejected and shot down by contemporary attitude theorists who termed them as being unviable. This argument therefore casts a cloud over the validity of the approaches (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008).

The use of such methods can provide a platform for decoding implicit measures which could help paint a better and more vivid theoretical picture. Neuro-imaging of different parts of the brain will make it possible to highlight a stimulus which has been digested by a person in a way that cannot be perceived as conscious. A good example of this is the experiment highlighted above where the results of the experiment showed that the amygdale (the part of the brain that responds to fear) showed a significantly higher amount of activity when responding to photographs or a black person compared to that of a white. Although this approach looks most promising, it is still at its infancy and therefore, considerable amount of work needs to be done before final conclusions of its validity and reliability can be asserted (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008).

Limitations on the of Implicit Association Test (IAT)

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a computer-based measure which is used to highlight an individual’s implicit associations. This method has received a lot of question marks especially from researchers who dispute over the proper way in which the data received from an IAT test can be interpreted. As a result of this, the validity of the implicit measures is put to question. Greenwald et al who was one of the champions of the criterion prediction pointed that, “IAT measures significantly exceeded self-report measures in predictive validity” after conducting a large meta-analysis of IAT. However, a careful analysis of the findings gives a blurred picture. Perugini adds weight to this when he found out that IAT scores which were high revealed that a black defendant had a lot of guilty judgements after conducting a hypothetical case study (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008). However, this linear relationship was only true when the individual pulled all the attention to himself when it was not focused on him without necessarily acting out of prejudice. Ziegert & Hanges on the other hand realised that IAT had a negative evaluations of job applicants that were black. This happened only when the participants in the research were explicitly and purposely directed to discriminate against black applicants (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008).

Results observed from a race behavioural predictability study and analysed using IAT showed that 90% of the individuals sampled had some form of racial biasness while 70% had a favourable behaviour towards a black individual compared to a white. It is important that a more standard approach is sought towards the acceptance of IAT.Research has shown that there is still a lot to be done with regard to acquisition of better tools of measurement of implicit attitudes. More studies should be done towards inventing standards that are objective and empirical in regard to IAT. Failure to have more standard approaches of measurement of implicitness will only worsen things. IAT faces a lot of systematic error variance as with all psychometric inventory and therefore, raising many concerns over its credibility on a validity scale. The criterion –prediction studies have shown that there exist certain methodological inadequacies which insist on the aspects of being cautious towards certain propositions that many people possess implicit biases which are structural. The measurement tool of explicit behaviours is rated as substandard according to universal standards casting doubt as to whether implicit behaviours are an assessment of criteria that supersede standards that are explicit. Implicit measures usually offer assessments that are discriminative after experiences that are conscious in nature. Another challenge is the fact that IAT relies on response latencies therefore creating another the basis for weakening the validity challenges that have arisen against IAT (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008).

Since the claims for unconscious racism are strong, it is therefore necessary to establish strong scientific evidence for this claim in order to validate these standpoints. Evidence from previous research emphasises the need for research to exercise a lot of caution before branding an individual or group of people as having or exercising unconscious racism.


Blanton, H., & Jaccard, J. (2008). Unconscious Racism: A Concept in Pursuit of a Measure. Annual Review of Sociology. Texas, USA: Department of Psychology, Texas A&M University.