Having been in the civil rights field for several decades, we have read and been offered numerous explanations for the inequality that exists in America. From it being the product of overt racist beliefs on the part of bigots, to socio-economic explanations to historic discussions of the remnants of slavery--some analyses last, others prove ephemeral and faddy.
In recent years, a novel theory has taken hold that suggests that people harbor biases and prejudices of which even they are unaware ("implicit bias") and that those biases manifest themselves in the real world as discrimination and inequality.
The rise in popularity and acceptance of the Implicit Association Test (“IAT”) has offered what seemed like “evidence” that despite protestations of innocence, most of us harbor bias and that, as one advocate (Eva Patterson of the Equal Justice Society) has written—it is “social science research” that needs to be used “to prove that discrimination exists even when it is not tied to an overt act.” Patterson argues that the IAT is proof positive of just how pervasive and dangerous bigotry is---it has a hold on us of which we are unaware and it pervades how we act in the world. Patterson, and others, urge that the realtively new "science" needs to be drummed into the heads of judges and legislators to help them understand the world.
The IAT has become an exceptionally useful arrow in the quiver of those who argue that not much in America has changed, that we are a racist and discriminatory society that simply has a veneer of acceptance and tolerance. There are too many “civil rights” organizations who are wedded to the notion that the apparent increasing tolerance in America is a charade and that the disparities among racial and ethnic groups in terms of unemployment, income, health outcomes, etc. remain because of racism, mostly of the covert, subliminal kind. It’s a theme that gets hammered away at within academia, at conferences and in articles galore. America remains profoundly racist, it just doesn’t know it; so the message goes.
We have long been uneasy about questioning the data that the IATs offer, we are neither academics nor statisticians, but something seemed amiss. Virtually every poll that has come out over the past decade dealing with attitudes on race (many from the highly respected Pew Center) have evidenced greater tolerance and acceptance of differences based on race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation among virtually all cohorts of Americans. The data isn’t even close. We have written often about these studies over the past decade.
Additionally, and not incidentally, Americans elected an African American president of the United States and did so in no uncertain terms. His being black was not an obstacle to a majority of Americans (not just a plurality in 2012) electing him our commander-in-chief.
And yet the IATs were this nagging data set that seemed to indicate that the optimism of all the polls and the other indicia of progress might be illusory—that we were unconsciously bigots and none of us really knew when or where or how that hate it will manifest itself in what we do.
Saturday’s Wall Street Journal had a fascinating article by Professor Daniel J. Levitin reviewing a book about IATs---Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. The article is worth a read.
What it elegantly does is point out the errant assumptions that underlie the notion that a test can reveal our subconscious and know how we think about others,
Ms. Banaji and Mr. Greenwald, like other IAT proponents, claim that the test detects biases better than simply asking people. The IAT has received a great deal of attention since it first came out 15 years ago. Here, it was said, was a test that relied not on subjective judgments but on objective measures, a simple test that could tell us once and for all who is racist or sexist or ageist, even when observable behavior revealed nothing of the sort. The IAT, the authors write, "enabled us to reveal to ourselves the contents of hidden-bias blindspots."
Levitin points out some of the IATs mistaken assumptions. The “test assumes that your attitude towards whites is complementary to your attitude towards blacks---in statistical terms, that they are negatively correlated. If you hold high opinions of whites, in other words, you cannot simultaneously hold high opinions of blacks….(in fact) the two attitudes are distinct and statistically separate.”
The test also assumes, as Levitin points out, that a test taker’s word associations are a window into to what he or she really thinks. Levitin clarifies why assuming that a word quickly associated with whites or blacks doesn’t mean much beyond that two words may go together in someone’s mind,
Another confounding factor is that the brain is designed to detect patterns of co-occurrence and responds to learned associations based on a lifetime of hearing word pairings. If I hear the word "bread," the first word that comes to mind might be "butter," even if I never eat butter, never buy it and for that matter don't even eat bread. But associations aren't the same as biases. My quickness in conjuring one word when hearing another says nothing about an "implicit bias." It says even less about how I would treat another individual. Common sense would tell you this.
As Levitin sets forth an even more profound concern, “its results don’t predict real world behavior very well.”
A reasonable criterion for the IAT would be the ways in which people act in real-world situations. As it turns out, a team of respected social scientists (including Hart Blanton, James Jaccard, Greg Mitchell and Phil Tetlock) have analyzed data on how individuals who had previously taken the IAT acted and reacted toward white and black people during a real conversation. Did they laugh? How much eye contact did they make? How much did they fidget? All told, a cluster of 16 behaviors were tracked. Those who received the highest scores for "anti-black bias" on the IAT showed no bias toward blacks at all. Other researchers have shown that high "anti-black" scores on the IAT actually predict that a person is more likely to respond compassionately toward blacks.
It appears, then, that the IAT is claiming to find racism, ageism, sexism and all sorts of interpersonal biases in people who probably don't possess them. When author Malcolm Gladwell took the IAT, it showed that he, the son of a black woman, is racist against blacks. Mr. Gladwell was suitably shocked and distressed. But if a test gives results that are so far-fetched, it's time to start questioning the validity of the test.
Next time someone cites the Implicit Association Test to you as evidence of how truly “racist” America is, send him the link to the Levitin article and common sense might win out.