By  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  Movement’s  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  we’ve  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   people’s   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   people’s   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   isn’t   just   about   individual  actions  and  an  individual’s  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.   King’s  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  Court’s  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  listener’s  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  brain’s  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   black’s  perception  of  the  value  of  voting.  Because  of  the  nontrivial  costs  associated  voting  and  because  of  black’s   strong   sense   for   collective   identity   a   message   which   suggests   that   “people   like   me   don’t   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  listener’s  morality.  
Research   support:   In   particular,   in   discussing   how   far   we’ve   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.  Ellsworth’s  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  Fredrickson’s  “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   don’t   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   there’s   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   O’Reilly,  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  nation’s  problems.   Example:   Phillip   Atiba   Goff’s   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  doesn’t  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  people’s  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  that’s  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:  




Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful