Loud acts of racism, like the atrocious killing of George Floyd by a US police officer; the disproportionate number of black men incarcerated in American prisons or the high percentage of young black or minority ethnic (BAME) men subjected to ‘stop and search’ by police in Britain are blatant and ugly. But an individuals ‘unconscious bias’ and the institutionalized racism festering deep within organizations is subtler, perhaps harder to recognize.
Racism is prejudice against BAME people/groups, it has deep historical roots within ex-colonial cultures (particularly in countries with large migrant populations, like Britain, France and the US), it is vile and abhorrent and it must be driven out of society. It is one of many forms of prejudice that exist all over the world. Prejudice against women, or LGBT individuals and groups, people with disabilities, tribal people and other minorities, prejudice against religious groups, certain nationalities and people of various ages. No matter how liberal minded and ‘progressive’ we believe ourselves to be, are any of us truly free from all forms of prejudice?
Learning to hate
Prejudice in all its foul forms, including racism, is not innate – nobody is born a racist – it is learnt. It results from psychological and sociological conditioning, which is absorbed unconsciously from birth and for the most part is acted on habitually, without thinking or awareness. Decisions, choices and actions that proceed from this position are in some way or other limited, colored, and distorted by dogma, motivated by desire and fear.
Such actions take place all the time; most are petty and relatively limited in their impact. But when prejudice is involved and the action is constantly repeated or exercised from a position of power – an employer, government official, a parent, someone in uniform or education then the effects can have long-lasting detrimental effects. Worse still, when racism has seeped into the fabric of the perpetrator and turned to blind hate, allowing for abuse (like kneeling on a defenseless man’s neck while arresting him for a petty incident) to occur the results can then be much more serious: recurring mental health illnesses, physical injuries, and sometimes death, of an individual, or in the case of genocide (the organized expression of hate) the systemic annihilation of a whole community.
Prejudice then is a form of conditioning; it is discrimination or bias unconsciously expressed in varying degrees, fuelling hurtful destructive patterns of behavior and social division. This does not in any way legitimize or excuse acts of racism and prejudice, but if such actions are the consequence of conditioning we have a key to eradicating this poison from society.
Young children do not on the whole exhibit signs of prejudice. They see other children simply as children, they don’t see black, white, brown, Asian etc., children. That is, until they are conditioned into seeing ‘difference’, into dividing people based on race, gender, religion, nationality etc., and encouraged to make judgments based on that prejudice. The agents of conditioning are (most commonly) ignorant parents, peers who have already taken the poison, government policy (on immigration, for example) and the media.
In 1968 an exercise in racial conditioning was famously demonstrated by the schoolteacher and campaigner Jane Elliot (credited with inventing the concept of diversity training): On 5th April, the morning after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr, she segregated the 28 children (eight/nine year olds) in her classroom based on eye color, with one group adopting superior status to the other. The following day the roles were reversed. It was a brilliant exercise that aimed to show what it would feel like to be discriminated against and also to discriminate.
Once the seed of prejudice and division is planted, false notions of superiority and inferiority are fed and the belief that some people are ‘like us’ and some people ‘are not’ is adopted. The idea of ‘the other’ separate from me, potentially a threat to me, takes root, and this, if reinforced by competition and fear (as is commonly the case) leads to distrust, further division and hate. Allowing for the creation of a violent minority, and, in extreme cases the birth of a flag-waving, swastika-bearing racist or bigot. In the majority prejudice leads to what is commonly called ‘unconscious or implicit bias’.
How unconscious is ‘Unconscious Bias’
In October 1998 social psychologists from the University of Washington and Yale conducted the ‘Implicit Association Test (IAT)’. An online research tool designed to “measure implicit or unconscious evaluations and beliefs that spring from strong, automatic associations of which people may be unaware.” The study found that 90-95% of people held such unconscious prejudices. The researchers, including Mahzarin Banaji, professor of psychology at Yale, stated that unconscious prejudice “results from the culture they [people] live in and the culture’s attitudes towards stigmatized groups …a culture leaves an imprint on the mental structure, and most people have more or less the same mental imprint.” This is sociological conditioning.
Various studies since have revealed that unconscious bias affects a range of everyday decisions impacting on people from minority groups. Job prospects, education opportunities and health care, as well as prejudicial treatment by criminal justice systems. While it may be unclear just how ‘unconscious’ an individual’s bias is, what isn’t in dispute is that it exists, impacting on almost all of us, creating division and injustice. But, as Professor Banaji said “the same test that reveals these roots of prejudice has the potential to let people learn more about and perhaps overcome these disturbing inclinations.”
Action not words
As Jane Elliot said, ‘there is only one race, the human race’: humanity is one, brothers and sisters of one humanity. This has been proclaimed many times, most famously perhaps by Mahatma Gandhi. Yet, like peace, brotherhood and justice, equality is nowhere to be found. It remains a noble ideal, but ideals, which are not made manifest become tools of deceit, feeding complacency and apathy, allowing destructive attitudes and behavior to remain intact, and to proliferate.
In the years since the introduction of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in March 1966 attitudes have changed and much progress has been made. But there is a long way to go if we are to create a world that is completely free from all forms of discrimination. To rid society of racism and prejudice a number of things need to take place simultaneously.
Education, inclusion and awareness (de-conditioning) are key, together with the introduction of urgent practical steps within all areas where institutionalized racism exists. The essential element to individual liberation from prejudice is awareness; the unconscious impulse of discrimination needs to be brought into the light of awareness where, when seen, it can be rejected. Institutionalized racism collects out of the individual prejudice of people working within a particular organization, whether a police force, government department, school, university, corporation or small business. Eradicating prejudice from all such organizations and encouraging diversity and greater representation of minority groups must become a priority; more support needs to be given to children from BAME families (often among the poorest in society) to ensure equal education opportunities and, in order to limit prejudice by employers, schools, universities etc., the mandatory introduction of ‘blind CVs’ (without personal details concerning the applicant’s gender, age or ethnicity) should be brought about immediately.
The global response to the appalling killing of George Floyd and the widespread calls for fundamental change must not be ignored or the focus lost by distracting arguments about statues and artifacts. Certainly, following community debate, some statues should be removed – not torn down – and placed in museums, and items stolen by colonialists and now held in western museums returned.
But the primary issue is not what happened in the shameful past, it is changing existing attitudes and behavior. The momentum for change must not be lost as the mainstream media turn their attention elsewhere and politicians ruminate and set up yet more committees. Action is needed now, not endless speeches by duplicitous ambitious politicians. The rise of racism and all types of hate crime parallels the increase in political populism and tribal nationalism; these ideologies of division have stoked racial tensions and fed hate among the hateful. They are of the past and must be collectively rejected. The path to equality, social harmony and peace will come about through unity not division, cooperation not competition, tolerance not bigotry. It is these qualities that need to be adopted and cultivated, not as ideals, but as living principles animating and pervading all aspects of life.