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Rachel Godsil and Alexis McGill Johnson August 13, 2013


Americans remember the now iconic I Have a Dream Speech as the crystallization of the Civil Rights Movements vision of racial equality. The upcoming 50th Anniversary of the speech creates a remarkable opportunity to define a 21st Century vision of racial equality. This moment will be interpreted by many as a referendum on the related but distinct questions of how much progress weve made and whether race continues to matter. Our racial progress is undeniable and the vast majority of Americans hold egalitarian aspirations. Yet our practices do not live up to our conscious aspirations. The challenge is to address this reality without further polarizing the country - particularly because the cultural conversation will occur in the fraught aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict and Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. Despite continued segregation and intense racial polarization, the Supreme Court in particular is tilting toward an adoption of the color-blind vision and away from the idea that government has a role to play in ensuring racial equality. The concept of color-blindness, of course, is a caricature of the image of a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character and a transformation of that caricature into an ideology. The color-blind meme has also been a very successful strategy for the Right. It appeals to White peoples sense of fairness and egalitarian values, is aspirational in nature, appeals to American individualism, and allows the Right to call anyone who discusses race a racist. Most egregiously, we see this strategy at work in the labeling of President Obama the race-baiter in chief due to his efforts to speak to the realities of race in contemporary society. The current strategy for responding to color-blindness is to highlight disparities, but for reasons discussed below, that strategy is likely to fail, and, indeed, has not been successful thus far. Though the color-blind ideology has permeated our culture, it has not entered our subconscious. Neuroscience and social psychology show empirically that 21st century Americans are far from color-blind. Instead, we all have deeply embedded stereotypical associations (implicit biases) that affect our behavior and decisions. Studies further show that people of all races experience racial anxiety when interacting with people of other races. Equally important, however, is the research showing that: Our negative stereotypes flow from images that permeate the culture. Accordingly, we can transform perceptions by challenging those negative images and introducing more fully humanized visions of people of color that will transform our negative associations.

If we know about our biases and anxieties, we can follow our conscious egalitarian values. Racial bias and anxiety are not intractable but racial equality requires us to understand how race matters. Social science research provides the empirical support to deconstruct the tenets that underlie the ideology of colorblindness and the claims that we are post-racial. But this research allows us to communicate this message while affirming peoples egalitarian aspirations and positive intentions. We need to draw a distinction between the common understanding of racism as explicit and intentional, the province of White supremacists like Bull Connor, and race as an implicit and unconscious driver of our opinions and actions. And we need to be more coordinated and disciplined around messages that speak to the following: People literally and physiologically cannot be colorblind; color-blindness does not work as a practice. While the idea that we all can judge and be judged based purely on the content of our character may seem to be a wonderful aspiration to work towards, it is not actually possible. The ideology of individual responsibility ignores the multitude of racialized practices that cause much present day inequality. We need not and should not deny individual agency or personal responsibility but we should also not rely on it as a sole explanation for racial disparity. We need to make clear that government vis a vis policy has a role to play in allowing individuals the opportunity to reach their potential. Our cultural history (indeed the Civil Rights Movement soon to be celebrated) also supports a model of collective responsibility that can be significantly more empowering than consumerist individualism. Racialized actions rarely stem from the actions of racists, but rather often result from in-group preferences, implicit biases, and racial anxieties. A 21st Century vision for racial justice is a collective vision. One that isnt just about individual actions and an individuals explicit views, but instead focuses on the individual and collective actions that reduce micro-aggressions against people of color as well as context-specific interventions that mitigate the effects of bias. Collectively, we have an opportunity to use the powerful insights from the mind sciences to redefine a vision of racial justice. Ideally, the 21st century will allow us to realize another of Dr. Kings images that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. Together, we need to engage culture to transform perception, and hold accountable media depictions that reinforce negative associations. We need to engage our own community, and realize that we have more power than we think to hold policy makers accountable and demand better policy, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Courts gutting of the Voting Rights Act. We also need to argue that while visions of racial justice may differ, we know that color-blindness is not racial

justice, and neither is a world in which every news story and utterance by a politician is racialized. This memo outlines messaging strategies that flow from the above understanding of the current landscape around issues of race, as well as an understanding of how implicit bias works and how implicit bias insights can help point the way to a new more constructive racial conversation. The ultimate goal of messaging must not be to silence our opponents but rather to change the conversation by affirming our collective humanity and bring people of color more strongly into the American narrative. To accomplish this requires messages that disarm predictable defense mechanisms and help us reduce both racial bias and racial anxiety.


Research reveals that discussions about race and inter-racial interactions can trigger heightened anxiety in both people of color and White people. This anxiety manifests in our blood pressure, our heart rate reactions, and can diminish our cognitive capacities. White people for whom discussions of race are often guilt inducing often shut down entirely and cease listening. We lose the ability to have a constructive conversation if people are in a defensive posture. Racial anxiety can be effectively reduced when: A speaker with moral authority affirms the listeners aspirational intentions; Addresses the source of the anxiety which is the dissonance the listener experiences between egalitarian ideals and sometimes biased practices or the fear that actions will be perceived as biased (or worse called out as racist); Explains that our biases are not a result of moral failings, but our brains response to the negative stereotypes that permeate our culture; and Describes how we can overcome our implicit biases and actions that correspond to them by consciously overriding those biases and living according to our conscious values. How bias works: Every moment of our lives, we encounter an enormous amount of stimuli while contending with our memories and emotions. Our ability to navigate the world is possible only because most of our mental processing occurs without our conscious awareness. Our brains have already created categories (or schemas to use the scientific term) for most of the sights and sounds we encounter. The schemas include categories for different kinds of people, called stereotypes. These stereotypes serve useful purposes when they allow us automatically to distinguish between a child and an adult, but they are risky when they involve categories such as race. When a particular category becomes associated with negative stereotypes in the culture, our brain automatically associates these stereotypes with anyone

who fits the category. Once these stereotypes are lodged into our minds, they are easily triggered, a process scientists call implicit bias. Bias and Anxiety in our daily lives: all races feel the impact of implicit bias on their lives and this creates heightened anxieties. People of color experience an ever-present fear that negative stereotypes will impact their lives, their health, their employment opportunities and their safety. White people, meanwhile, very much want to be considered fair minded and worry that their words or actions will be misunderstood when they interact with people of different racial or ethnic groups. Messages that inadvertently heighten anxiety are likely to lead to greater polarization and less receptivity to the message.

Those of us who care deeply about racial equality and justice experience a sense of moral urgency when we learn about disparities in educational outcomes, imprisonment, health care access, employment, and other important life domains. However, for those not already focused on racial justice, beginning a discussion with a list of disparities has the opposite effect. Racial disparities trigger anxiety which has the effect of triggering defense mechanisms that harden opposition rather than garnering support. Discussions that begin with disparities also tend to reify stereotypes, create a sense that people of color are other, and undermine support for particular policies.
Research support: In an internal American Values Institute Study with the Analyst Institute, we found that support for a jobs policy for areas of high unemployment decreased from over 60% to 42% when subjects read a short piece that began with: Although many people have been hard-hit, the job-finding picture for black Americans is particularly bleak. Already more than a third of black children are living in poverty. Without a dramatic new intervention by the federal government, the poverty rate for African-American children could eventually approach a heart-stopping 50 percent, according to analysts at the Economic Policy Institute. Indeed, 16% of white people stopped reading after the first sentence.

Leading with and emphasizing racial disparities is also likely to be dispiriting for the racial group at issue: While we may assume that hearing about racial disparities will trigger action among those affected, research suggests that hearing about disparities can lead people to feel a sense of helplessness or despair rather than agency and empowerment.
Research support: A study of Black voting turn-out in the 2008 North Carolina primary found that black voters are more likely to adopt of norms of not voting when it seemed like the norm among other blacks in previous elections was to not vote. We suspect that this result is likely due to the ways in which these messages altered blacks perception of the value of voting. Because of the nontrivial costs associated voting and because of blacks strong sense for collective identity a message which suggests that people like me dont vote is likely to cause blacks to question the utility gained from voting in this election (and perhaps later elections). Additionally, we can demonstrate the continued relevance of race in our lives without relying on outcome disparities. The persistence of tension and anxiety around racialized issues (Trayvon Martin, public education, Stop and Frisk, Paula Deen etc.) is easily demonstrable and an experience most listeners will have in their own lives.


People respond strongly to emotional appeals that trigger a sense of mutual responsibility and a faith in the listeners morality.
Research support: In particular, in discussing how far weve come as a nation on the issue of race, emphasize attitudinal change rather than solely focus on improved outcomes to establish common ground. Studies widely show that White people consciously hold egalitarian values. For example, according to Samuel R. Sommers & Phoebe C. Ellsworths work on White juror bias, many Whites embrace an egalitarian value system and a desire to appear non-prejudiced. Furthermore, positive emotions have been show (in, eg, Johnson and Fredricksons We All Look The Same To Me) to eliminate the own-race bas in face recognition.


Our instinct is to call out racial stereotypes and misguided understanding of history depicted in those statements to silence our opponents. Silencing our opponents leaves stereotypes unchallenged and still powerful. Flipping the script: The majority of Black men are employed (58% 2013 data Bureau of Labor Statistics) and among college educated Black men, the employment rates are far higher (in 2011, the unemployment rates were 6.9%). It is true that the rates are better for White men (in 2011, the unemployment rates for college educated white men was 3%), but by emphasizing that the employment rates rather than the unemployment rates, we are undermining the persistent negative stereotypes. We can continue to emphasize the need to increase job opportunities for all, including particularly Black men, but we can do so without reifying stereotypes. Many more Black men are in college than in prison (1.4 million Black men in college - 840,000 in local, state, federal prisons, Prof. Ivory Toldson, NPR 2013). This is not to say we dont want to challenge over-incarceration, but we have to do so without again, perpetuating the negative stereotype of criminality. Respond to blatant stereotypes with positive narratives: Opposition stereotyping: The reason theres so much violence and chaos in the black precincts is the disintegration of the African-American family. Without much structure, young black men often reject education and gravitate toward the street culture, drugs, hustling, and gangs. (Bill OReilly, July 31, 2013) Counter-narrative: e.g. Last week, I spent Wednesday evening as a judge in a mock trial at the federal district courthouse. The prosecutors and defense attorneys were 14 year-old Black boys and girls from Newark, NJ finishing a full-time 5-week program at a local law school. The

program had 50 kids. The wait list was another 300. The young black boys from Newark are yearning for more opportunities Point to inspiring examples of groups coming together to solve our nations problems. Example: Phillip Atiba Goffs work with the Consortium for Policing Leadership in Equity, a group of law enforcement professionals and social scientists that collaborate to promote police transparency and accountability ( Work like CPLE points to the successes that are possible when we all come together to try to solve the ongoing problem of racial equity in America. Tell stories that provide counter-stereotypical examples to help challenge biases. Example: Jaden doesnt always let his classmates know it, but he loves math. When he was little, he counted everything. But in grade school, his teachers sometimes made mistakes in math. When Jaden started middle school, math seemed too easy and he started getting bored, until one of his teachers signed him for an afterschool program, Mathnasium, walking distance from his house in the Bronx. Mathnasium and similar afterschool math programs are places for kids like Jaden to be challenged in math and to develop to their potential. This short narrative challenges the stereotype of Black boys as uninterested in academic topics but it also alludes to perennial problems like teachers who are not expert in STEM areas and the quality of schools in poor neighborhoods. It refers to a policy prescription enrichment and after school programs and is likely to elicit more support than simply talking about the importance of STEM and afterschool programs.
Research support: Researchers have found that people are more likely to remember information and to respond emotionally when information is presented as a story or narrative. We are conditioned from birth to learn from stories. The narrative mode treats experiences as unique historical events containing plots (intentions, actions, and outcomes) that allow us to understand and interpret human activity and behavior (McAdams, 2001). Our experiences hearing and telling stories create the capacity for us to engage in perspective taking, empathy, critical thinking, and nuanced ways of understanding the world (Ochs, Taylor, Rudolph & Smith, 1992). Accordingly, when dealing with issues like race in which peoples life experiences differ, stories are particularly critical for creating the possibilities of empathy.

We all recognize that images and narratives driven through popular culture play a significant role in creating and perpetuating negative perceptions, so it should be no surprise that research shows cultural engagement is also an important mechanism to de-bias. If we are to move beyond our racial anxiety and create support for more addressing racial inequity, we must add a deeper analysis of how our emotions and fears about race shape our behaviors and preferences. Emotion is shaped through culture. To do so requires engaging our cultural influencers and image creators to rethink overreliance on quick, convenient, often stereotypical ways of telling stories involving race.

Promote more accurate and complex stories: As Opportunity Agenda, the Maynard Institute, and Color of Change have argued throughout their work, accuracy is a core principle of journalism. Real, honest, complex stories are the means of widening the circle and humanizing our young black men and boys. Yet we are often deluged with distorted stories instead. And as research by the American Values Institute has established, these stories create the lens through which individuals are viewed and treated. Black men and boys are often seen as potentially dangerous or presumed to be an athlete or entertainer rather than a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or father. The frightening reality is that the systemic suppression of these stories across news, fiction and infotainment lead to the opposite effect restricting whom we feel empathy for, and giving us seeming justification to treat some people differently, including violently. And thats as true for the influence over judges, doctors and teachers as it is for law enforcement, jurors and the neighborhood watchman.
Research support: Contrary to the stories we see in the media, if we actually evaluate National Center for Education Statistics, the Census Bureau's American Community Survey and the Department of Justice's statistics more than 400,000 Black men are in college than in jail. Violent crime is rarely inter-racial so White people are far less likely to be the victim of a violent crime by a Black man than a White man. In 2010, according to the U.S. Census, 118,124 Black men were teachers. We need many more stories about Black college students and teachers. But Professor Travis Dixon from U.C.L.A. and others have conducted numerous studies showing that local and network news shows as well as crime dramas instead deluge us with images of violent crimes.

Empower Americans to Hold Media Accountable: While we can work to engage our media leaders towards transforming perceptions around race in general and black men and boys in particular, we can also engage Americans to reject media that is blatantly manufactured to encourage stereotypes or increase racial anxiety. Again, Americans are by and large fair-minded and egalitarian. We should be empowering them to identify and push back on negative and unfair representations with their viewing habits and advertising dollars. Conclusion We are fast approaching one of those all-too-rare moments when our country focuses on race, not because of a tragedy, or a race-linked utterance by a celebrity, but in memory of a leader, revered because he called forth the best in the American people. Those who know Civil Rights history are aware that in his own time, Dr. King was deeply prescient, focusing on issues of poverty, opposing the War in Vietnam, and recognizing that as important as the gains of the Civil Rights Movement were, destroying the edifice of Jim Crow was necessary but not sufficient for true equality between the races. We have an opportunity to again call upon the American people to be their best selves, appealing to the best of our culture, the underlying desire of people to be free from their own biases and as a result to be free from the attendant anxieties.

President Obama and national leaders and surrogates who will be speaking in media and throughout events leading up to the March Anniversary are uniquely positioned to issue this call.
ABOUT THE AMERICAN VALUES INSTITUTE: The American Values Institute (AVI) is a consortium of researchers, educators, and social justice advocates focused on understanding the role of bias in our society. We approach our mission by grounding ourselves in the study of the unconscious stereotypes, preferences, and judgments that underpin our social and political behavior what researchers term implicit or unconscious bias. Our project leverages interdisciplinary methods to understand the role implicit bias plays in distorting policy and politics. We aim to devise and develop effective mechanisms that will de-bias the electorate thereby allowing us to make important decisions and behave without being influenced by racial, ethnic, or gender related anxiety. For more information: or Or contact: Alexis McGill Johnson at: