Can anything effective be done to combat implicit racial bias?


    john a. powell (a black racial justice advocate who uses the lower case for the first letters of his first and last names) speaks to this, among other, issues in his book Racing to Justice (pp. 160-61):

    …A recent series of experiment on perspective-taking and bias demonstrate the value of even minimal efforts to take such steps.  Researchers measured the responses of mostly white, Asian, and Latino subjects, predominantly female, who were asked to briefly take the perspective of a black male to whom they were introduced by means of a photograph or a film clip.  Some subjects were asked to write a short essay about a day

    In the young man’s life (69).  In one film clip, racial discrimination against the black male was made explicit; in others, it was not.

    Following one such session, these perspective-takers were asked if they would help a (fictitious) lab assistant who ostensibly needed to practice his interviewing skills.  When asked to set up for an interview with a lab assistant whose name was chosen to suggest that he would be African American, the subjects who had engaged in perspective-taking placed the chairs considerably closer together than did those in the control group. 

    They also placed the chairs closer to this “assistant” than they did for another fictitious lab assistant with a “white-sounding” name(70)…

    The researchers also noted an “automatic interracial reaction” among perspective-taking subjects during an actual interview.  A black interviewer (during an interview on another topic) scored the subjects on “approach-oriented behaviors,” such as smiling, leaning in closer, and engaging in eye contact (71).  The group that had previously performed the perspective-taking exercise was rated significantly more positively than the control group.  White and black coders who later reviewed videotapes of the same interviews also scored the perspective-takers more positively.  The researchers express the hope that this work will lead to “intergroup relations programs” to help address and overcome unconscious forms of racial bias that “continue to thwart the realization of genuine racial equality.”(72)  The works also seems to suggests how rich and broadly shared the real-world rewards can be from even short journeys across conscious or unconscious racial boundaries.


    69  Todd, A.R., G.V. Bodenhausen, J.A. Richeson, and A.D. Galinsky.  “Perspective Taking Combats Automatic Expressions of Racial Bias.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3 (March 2011), p. 7.  See also B. Berger, “Walking in Another’s Shoes” [Betsy Berger.  “Walking in Another’s Shoes.” Website of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, 6 April 2011; available at]

    70 Todd et al. , pp. 8-9.

    71 Todd el al., pp. 7-11.

    72 Todd et al., p. 13.

    It would be interesting, and relevant, to learn whether these or other researchers have learned anything about the duration of these kinds of impacts or conditions under which they have been sustained.  

    Howard Schultz indicated that Starbucks spoke to Bryan Stevenson and Anna Deveare Smith among others in the course of deciding what it was going to do during its May 29 implicit bias sessions with its employees. 

    A NY Times piece made the obvious point that tackling racial bias in a four-hour session is a tall (or is it a Venti?) order:

    ​​At my workplace there have been various explicit "diversity" staff development sessions (aiming to address race, gender, and other biases) over my time here.  They have been met with a combination of reactions, but mainly frustration, it seems.  They have diminished in frequency in recent years.  Some feel they are one-off events which have no lasting impact and/or duck issues they consider more important than daily FTF interactions, and so in these senses do not go nearly far enough.  Others question whether they aim to address issues which even need to be addressed, may have had negative reactions to previous efforts, and seem to have difficulty even imagining anything coming out of them which might be worthwhile.  

    I would think that it could not hurt, when an employer undertakes these sorts of efforts, for them to consciously seek out and probe research bearing both on the soundness of their theory of action and the effectiveness of their approach--and share that with employees up front.  Doing so might increase employee confidence that management has done some homework and has some basis for thinking what it is doing could potentially lead to some positive impacts. It also might help, to combat perceptions that the session is a one and done that will not be built upon, to address up front the issue of just what will be done going forward, once the session is done.



    Side note.  I've read other articles and books of his and really like john powell.  This particular book I found uneven.  Chapter seven, called "The Multiple Self", will remind even some curious, sympathetic and patient readers what it is about some academic writing that drives them bananas.  Doc Cleveland, where are you? 

    Chapter 8, "Lessons from Suffering", on the other hand, on the subject of how social justice informs spirituality, I found rich with insight and provocation.  



    Colorblindness is a dodge. People recognize ethnic and racial differences automatically. We do not have foolproof tools to deal with our learned biases.


    I recall listening with amusement some years ago to a righteous white male 20-something insist with a straight face that he literally did not notice the skin color of people he talks to FTF.  With Trump, he might be said to have mistaken wanting to believe something, at the moment he said it, for having a basis in reality for believing it.

    King's "I have a dream" speech aspiration to live in a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character has been misinterpreted by some as tantamount to support for the desirability and possibility of literal obliviousness to awareness of differences in skin pigmentation. 

    And sometimes also as support for willful obliviousness or disregard for whatever are the consequences of race as a social construct in a given context.

    Which is not to say that the implications of such realities are at all self-evident or obvious.


    The common response to “I don’t see color” is “Then you don’t see me”. Ignoring skin color is not a compliment.


    We live separate ethnic lives. The arrest of two black men in Starbucks was recorded by a black woman. The video was spread on the internet by a white woman. The two had never met until that day. They became friends. One thing that they learned is that even on social media, we tend to live segregated lives.


    Powell is an ethereal based intellectual, and a smart guy who uses "ontological" way too much, but who prophetically said this in March, 2010:

    President Obama does not reject helping the black community but insists that the best way and the most appropriate way is to focus on the overall economy. But what if a focus on the overall economy does not help the black community, or the Latino community, or the rural community...

    Of course, perhaps for the very reasons he mentions the Democrats got destroyed some months later in midterms. After that, the Republicans would go full obstruction and race baiting, and if Obama ever planned to give more aid to main street it was too late.

    However, now that, as Powell notes in his recent articles, the GOP has gone full racist, and we have lying, fascist charlatans in the White House and a quisling Congress.... backed by huge media empires and anti-democratic's not bridge building time but unsheath bayonets time,  fight them like our democracy and its future depends on it.

    In the work mentioned above powell advocates something he calls "targeted universalism".

    By this he means public policies which have, in this case, a non race-specific objective but which include features addressing specific barriers to accomplishing the objective which are race-specific (and specific in any other necessary respects, such as in addressing barriers based on gender or those particular to incarcerated populations, as examples, to achieve the universal objective.

    Jared Bernstein's full employment policy recommendations in The Reconnection Agenda are an example of such an approach even though Bernstein does not IIRC use powell's term in describing his approach.

    When and how do you think targeted universalism will be adopted?

    I took powell to be offering thinking mainly to people in public policy, political campaign, and citizen activist communities who may be given to thinking about such things.  As policy wonkspeak, I gather (I hope!) that term is not meant as a suggestion for some sort of public banner to fly on some advocacy or political campaign.  I can't imagine it doing anything other than putting members of the voting public to sleep.

    As to when and how might such an approach might be adopted, a "top-down" scenario might occur if, say, Jared Bernstein, whose approach to full employment policy reflects a targeted universal approach even though he may not use that terminology, were to be a top economic policy advisor to a future president or other influential policymaker and have any of his ideas that utilize that approach be influential.  Under a "bottom-up" scenario, a coalition of advocacy organizations might, again probably without using this label, execute a public policy advocacy campaign which reflects this type of approach.  And build power over time to impact public policy decisions. 

    In others words, some of the ways in which this kind of concept might come to have influence and impact don't strike me as much different from the ways in which any other kinds of policy or policy-relevant thinking and proposals can come to have influence. 

    Another potential scenario could occur in the event of a widely perceived moment of crisis.  A Milton Friedman quote comes to mind here:

    Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable. 

    Friedman's is an argument for dedicating some energy to developing policy ideas and arguments for them when the political moment is not yet ripe, so that those supporting them are ready when, not if, the political opportunity eventually arises.  

    One might conclude that the sort of scenario Friedman mentions in the quote was part of what happened during the Great Depression, where Roosevelt adopted his "bold, persistent experimentation" approach to relieve massive suffering and a clear existential threat to the system with fascism and communism very much on the ground and in the air.    

    Of course the constellation of political power at a time of crisis still has to be one which does not prevent particular policy ideas from being tried.   

    I think Friedman was right that developing policy ideas and arguments for them cannot be an alternative, but needs to be a supplement, to organizing and building power at the grassroots level and other critical power-building components.  There are progressive "think tanks" which do this, many in DC and NYC, and many more right-wing outfits all over the country as well, which do so.  

    The "targeted universalism" line of thinking has relevance to our current political situation, I believe.  Notably, Bernstein's full employment proposals, set forth in The Reconnection Agenda, reflect a "targeted universal" approach to economic policy with potential cross-racial appeal, including for some who voted for Trump believing Trump more likely than Clinton to act boldly to improve their economic circumstances.   

    On the role of president, the affect of Obama and Trump, I thought some intriguing points were made here

    Obama Soothed. Trump Stirs. How 2 Presidents Have Tackled Racial Flare-Ups.

    By John Eligon and Richard Fausset @, June 1

    including this

    CNN poll taken near the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency found that 54 percent of Americans thought that relations between black and white Americans had gotten worse during his eight years in office. A Pew survey from last December found that 60 percent of Americans believed that Mr. Trump’s election had hurt race relations.

    In speaking on highly charged racial incidents, Mr. Trump often equivocates, which observers say leaves the rest of the country fighting in circles about race. People often debate whether what the president did or did not say was a sign that he was racist. The question then turns to whether that makes his supporters racist, and they in turn push back, accusing their critics of fanning racial tensions that do not exist.

    and especially this

    Mr. Trump manages to deftly turn racial issues into left-right political fights that are race neutral, said Ernest Lyles, a black private equity partner who lives in New York. In the case of Ms. Barr’s comments, for instance, Mr. Lyles said the president turned what was simply an issue of someone making a racist comment into a battle between a liberal television network doing wrong to a Republican like him.

    And Mr. Lyles, 39, said he found that unfortunate because he believed that Mr. Trump could actually do more to heal the country’s racial divide than Mr. Obama, because the people who listen to Mr. Trump are less savvy on racial issues.

    “Unfortunately, for better or worse, America is trained to be more open, and more conditioned to be led by, a white male than someone who isn’t,” Mr. Lyles said.

    Despite the concerns that Mr. Trump has helped fuel the country’s sometimes toxic racial climate, recent events demonstrate that there are still consequences for racial discrimination, and racist acts.

    Also in Maureen Dowd's column today, which linked to the above and got me there, this part made me think of your post, in that it struck me on how Obama, though realistic about this, also still believed simple inter-personal reaction could work even in spite of intense tribal caricature of "the other":

    Rhodes says that weeks after the election, he warned Obama that a narrative was developing that they didn’t do enough about the Russians and fake news.

    “And do you think,” Obama replied, “that the type of people reading that stuff were going to listen to me?”

    Obama was well aware during the campaign that his chosen heir sometimes seemed to be phoning it in. Campaigning together in Charlotte, he was nonplused to find out that Hillary had quickly slipped out of a barbecue joint where they had stopped to get food and greet people, while the president was left on his own, shaking every hand.

    Afterward he told his aides: “Most of the folks in these places have been watching Fox News and think I’m the Antichrist. But if you show up, shake their hand, and look them in the eye, it’s harder for them to turn you into a caricature. You might even pick up a few votes.”


    But if you show up, shake their hand, and look them in the eye, it’s harder for them to turn you into a caricature. 

    The banality of decency....?

    Quirk of human behavior..? A true or untrue look into their psyche?

    Sergio Luzzatto coined the phrase noting glowing trial  testimonials of banal, authentic, decent actions by war criminals, I've mentioned this before. A single incident/behavior proves nothing about the authenticity of character.

    The banality of decency....?

    Well funny you should raise that point as I just now happened to read this on exactly that, that nobody human is 100% evil nor 100% racist for that matter. After the beginning excerpt I post, he goes on to describe what happened between him and this patient, and then basically argues that we are going in the wrong direction by more and more failing to be curious, curious about individual lives and minds of "the other":

    Curiosity and What Equality Really Means

    By  @

    The following was delivered as the commencement address at U.C.L.A. Medical School on Friday, June 1st.

    I want to start with a story. One night, on my surgery rotation, during my third year of medical school, I followed my chief resident into the trauma bay in the emergency department. We’d been summoned to see a prisoner who’d swallowed half a razor blade and slashed his left wrist with the corner of the crimp on a toothpaste tube. He was about thirty, built like a boxer, with a tattooed neck, hands shackled to the gurney, and gauze around his left wrist showing bright crimson seeping through.

    The first thing out of his mouth was a creepy comment about the chief resident, an Asian-American woman. I won’t say what he said. Just know he managed in only a few words to be racist, sexist, and utterly menacing to her. She turned on her heels, handed me the clipboard, and said, “He’s all yours.”

    I looked at the two policemen with him to see what they were going to do. I don’t know what I expected. That they’d yell at him? Beat him? But they only looked at me impassively, maybe slightly amused. He was all mine.

    So what now?

    Graduates, wherever you go from here, and whatever you do, you will be tested. And the test will be about your ability to hold onto your principles. The foundational principle of medicine, going back centuries, is that all lives are of equal worth.

    This is a radical idea, one ultimately inscribed in our nation’s founding documents: we are all created equal and should be respected as such [....]


    ..radical idea, one ultimately inscribed in our nation’s founding documents: we are all created equal and should be respected as such

    Those documents have the noble words and signatures of slave owners, one might ask, what principles were they "holding on to"?

    Granted, they were challenging that free commoner white people should be equal to royal white people. That in itself was radical for the time, I believe the term used is "revolutionary." Slaves were not considered "people". One revolution at a time. That their definition of people needed work does not wipe out the legitimacy of The Declaration which does not address it and we still use it as a founding principle of a work in progress. Would you prefer we throw the idea out and not preach it anymore because some of the writers by current standards look to be hypocrites making odd rationalizations?

    p.s. Comes to mind that it took Russians another 140 years or so to buy in to the concept and sometimes it still seems like they don't. The French found the concept quite appealing right quickly but with them the concept was often more like "all French citizens equal, forget everybody else" and then backslid a lot with some major colonial experiments where the colonized were not equal. Etc. The luxury of vast land allowed the U.S. to say "everybody come on over" and that too was a Thos. Jefferson idea, outwitting the French on the Louisiana purchase. Note on that: both national entities did not conceive of that land as belonging to the indigenous, with the same rationalizations: white people are the only real people. This comes from the texts they were reviving from ancient Greece and Rome, where there were also slaves. One revolution at a time.

    They spoke for landed gentry. Blacks and women need not apply.

    Mho, that's the wrong term to use, the landed gentry were the crown loyalists with an investment in the old system. There was a pseudo-landed gentry in the southern colonies, but make no mistake, these were all people who wouldn't have been able to accomplish that landedness by the old royal rules. And it was true that some of those colonies had a really hard time signing on to the project, as they didn't want to turn their backs on hopes for become great titled men of property granted by the royal line.

    (The late 19th century and early 20th C chase by wealthy nouveau riche Americans to buy up Europe and marry into English titles was the tail end of that Tory sympathizing desire.)

    No, they didn't mean landed gentry, they meant: all European white people and didn't consider the other races as full humans. It's just the way they thought. They knew little about the rest of the world, they were just then discovering their own heritage in Greece and Rome.

    There's a lot of slavery in the Bible, and it doesn't treat females and all races equally. Which the Enlightenment guys all read over and over growing up, followed by Greek and Roman literature as adults. I know from past commenting that NCD rejects the Biblical text as well, so he's consistent in not making any excuses for historic figures.  How come you don't reject that text, the Bible, too?  Blacks and women need not apply as full beings in the Bible either. Egypt is as close as that text gets to Africa and the Egyptians are enslavers of Moses' people. I dare say if the 17th/18th century slave trade had never been created, it wouldn't have been until the 20th century that most people with black skin ever heard of the Bible. Why is that flawed text acceptable and some of the main Enlightenment ideas not?

    Most states initially restricted voting to landed gentry

    The Bible contains messages to not submit to slavery. There are messages to escape slavery. There were multiple slave revolts led by by black preachers based on their interpretation of the Biblical text. 

    Nat Turner Bible is now in National Museum of African American History and Culture.

    Edit to add:

    The Bible and the Church play a large role in the black struggle for acceptance.

    Slave revolts were Biblically inspired. The church fought Jim Crow (See MLK), the Church is fighting for poor people (See William Barber).

    We could add "the banality of 'righteous' principles" to the list...?"

    Can be as easy to declare as to claim ownership of, especially in politics, difficult to conclusively define, frequently incompletely applied, often impermanent in popular support, consensus or even in sustained application.

    In spite of the high language and declarations of Jefferson and other Founders, many escaped slaves headed to Canada.

    I think you confuse 18th century motives with mid-19th century industrializing world ones. Go back and read more on what "educated" people thought like prior to 1750 and you might as well be dealing with aliens. (They did do real witch hunts.) The awakening of the human mind and the beginnings of a new set morals in the 18th century is a wondrous thing, despite all its many flaws and sins.

    I'd like to put this back on the author's shoulders. Here's where he comes from, he who is admiring the principles of the Declaration of Independence:

    Gawande was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Indian immigrants to the United States, both doctors.[3] His family soon moved to Athens, Ohio, where he and his sister grew up, and he graduated from Athens High School in 1983.[4]

    His parents came from, you know, the last big English royal colony, where everyone was not equal, and where previous to that, everyone was not equal according to a centuries old caste system.

    18th, 19th, and 20th century American motives seem to generally gravitate around money.

    Canada and Australia didn't have revolutions. They turned out ok and, additionally, didn't have follow on  civil wars. The Revolutionary War may have been less about freedom and more about political power and financial gain.

    I admit the Declaration of Independence is remarkable, and those who signed it risked their lives doing so.

    Just a fly-by comment to note that Dowd's point isn't about Obama - it's a critique of Hillary.  As the majority of the article is.

    yes, I know, but I also thought the quotes she cherry picked for her own point were interesting ones in themselves for other reasons. She's often like that for me: she's got her antenna up for certain memes about various pols because she's been thinking about them all along. Since the memes are intuitive judgments about political characters by a long-time political character watcher, there's often something striking about the points she picks whether I agree or not with her narrative. (Plus there's that one can't get around the fact that Obama and Hillary first ran a vicious campaign against each other, so anything probative of what they really think of each other is simply fun human interest to me.)

    The way people react to other people by default is a critical element in the inheritance of racism. Having good experiences at an early age helps a lot. My kid has a lot less crap in his head than I did at his age just by growing up in a very diverse environment while I grew up in Southern States Apartheid.

    I get how reacting badly to people who do not resemble you can be a thing by itself. But many of the worst aspects of racism are not about the despised group. I have spent my entire life having people asking me to be white together with them. Declining the invitation has turned out to be a job in itself.

    If I am in a tribe, it is the go fuck yourself tribe. We have to separate what others join together. This colors my view of other groups more sharply than any other distinguishing feature. And I have learned from many experiences that many individuals of different ethnicities and various forms of childhood brainwashing are dues paying members of the go fuck yourself tribe.

    We aren't going away.


    "Southern States Apartheid".  What do you mean by that?

    I grew up in Texas in the Sixties.
    My mother grew up in Mississippi.
    My "extended family" lives in Louisiana and Alabama.
    The era of Jim Crow may have officially been brought to an end during that time but many had yet to receive the memo.
    Some are still holding out.
    I have these nephews I am not particularly fond of.....
    The feeling is mutual.

    I guess, growing up in the early 60's in very rural NC, I have a gut reaction to phrases like the one of yours I questioned.  Then - like today - the assumption that everyone thought the same, felt the same, hated others and never wanted to help anyone who wasn't "like them" was not only prevalent, it was constantly proven wrong but ignored.

    If you truly want to separate what others join together, consider that.

    I, too, grew up with it being constantly proven wrong. Thank Goodness.
    It is hard separating what something is like from some kind of final verdict pronounced upon it.
    Both things were there. Both things are still there.
    I am probably not the one who will figure it all out. I can just report on what I see.
    All mixed up together.

    Indeed, all mixed up together.  Good, bad and in-between is life, and how it falls upon us is also all mixed up. 

    Me Too! But that means I have to be ready at one time or another to say go fuck yourself to moat so that we won't become a club of two. Where every man/woman is an island and where pep rallies have been abolished (boo team! kill all the coaches!)  Always remember that you are absolutely unique, just like everyone else ~ Margaret Mead. And of course: I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member ~ Groucho Marx.

    Yes. There is a spirit of grumbling dislike for others that might be termed misanthropic in the mix.
    But we all got dumped into this ghetto of identity in order to identify our non-identity and then were served with a warrant at the same time.

    Even Descartes had to leave his bath at some point.

    PS. Not "dislike". More "unlike".
    But still pretty grumpy.


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