January 20, 2008
After a recent column describing Barack Obama as "a presidential
candidate who happens to be black - not a black presidential
candidate," I received countless responses from readers, a handful
of them odd. That odd handful declared they take no notice of
superficial traits such as skin color, and they took me to task for
making any reference to Obama's race.
"I thought of (Obama) as a person. I did not see black or white or
Hispanic or that he was a man - I saw a person! If people really,
truly want racial equality, then the first step has to be to STOP
looking at skin color, " wrote one reader.
"When I look at a person, the last thing I think about is skin color
or heritage," wrote another.
Sorry, but I'm not buying it. While I am sympathetic to any desire
to get past dated and useless habits of mind - especially the
contentious politics of the color line - that's just nonsense. None
of us, black, white or brown, is colorblind.
Those readers may think they don't notice skin color, but it's just
not so, says University of Washington psychology professor Anthony
Greenwald, an expert on implicit biases and common stereotypes.
"Even if they can't see anything out of their eyes, they're not
That's not a condemnation, not a presumption of malicious bigotry.
It's just an acknowledgment of the peculiar burdens of humanity,
especially in these United States. Assumptions about race and
ethnicity are so deeply embedded in our culture that we can hardly
help noticing skin color.
Each of us is stuck with prejudices, and I'm using the denotative
meaning here - "an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand
or without knowledge, thought or reason," according to Webster's.
But we don't have to be governed by them.
Cutting-edge work by Greenwald and his colleagues, who include
Harvard University's Mahzarin Banaji and the University of
Virginia's Brian Nosek, suggests that people can learn to put aside
their biases to make rational, fact-based judgments about people who
may be black or Mexican or Mormon. "To the extent that we can
influence what we learn and believe, we can influence less conscious
states of mind," Banaji says.
But the first step - as in any self-help project - is to own up to
the problem. Many people don't realize they're prejudiced because,
well, they really don't realize they're prejudiced. That
self-knowledge is not necessarily difficult to acquire, but it's
quite often difficult to accept.
Racial bigotry is a social taboo in this country, so much so that
only an extremist fringe - assorted neo-Nazis and skinheads - admit
their rank prejudices. That may explain why some volunteers who have
taken Greenwald's Implicit Association Test, which uses word
association to detect unconscious biases, are furious when the test
shows they hold hidden negative views of black Americans.
Take the current Democratic primary, with its history-making
narrative. Greenwald and colleagues modified the Implicit
Association Test (https://implicit. harvard.edu/implicit) to search
for unconscious biases among Democratic voters. When asked who they
planned to cast ballots for, a sample of voters reported strong
support for Obama, who held a 42 percent-to-34 percent lead over
Hillary Clinton among the sample, with John Edwards coming in at 12.
But when the same people took the Implicit Association Test,
measuring their unconscious preferences, Clinton was "the runaway
winner," favored by 48 percent of them, and Obama was dead last,
with 25 percent. Edwards was favored by 27 percent, according to the
And here's one finding that upends conventional wisdom: According to
the test, black voters, too, held implicit biases that worked
against Obama. But how could it be otherwise? Black Americans are
products of the same culture as white Americans, with its myriad
stereotypes of black incompetence. And black Americans have
internalized many of the same stereotypes.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when his
children would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the
content of their character." But that day has not yet arrived. We
might hasten its dawning if we'd admit that what we see is not
necessarily what we believe.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor of the Atlanta Constitution.
Readers may write her at P.O. Box 4689, Atlanta, Ga. 30303.