The headlines from the SAE house at the University of Oklahoma and from the Department of Justice ’s report on policing in Ferguson, MO., remind us that open racism continues to plague America and we must never stop fighting it. Just watching the movie “Selma” is not enough.

It is heartening, of course, to see whites join African-Americans in the protests at OU and to hear expressions of outrage from a wide swathe of Americans. Nonetheless, we must all guard against our own implicit racism and the pernicious effects it has on society.

I am currently reading Howard Ross’s book Everyday Bias, which collects and discusses in a very accessible way a considerable body of research on bias that has accumulated in recent years. The title of Ross’s first chapter says it all: “If You Are Human, You Are Biased.” We have evolved to detect differences, especially between ourselves and others, between “us” and “them.” As awful as the open racial bias on display in Oklahoma and Missouri are, Ross and the research he discusses make the point that:

…most examples of bias, especially those that [adversely] affect people in organizational life, are not conscious in origin at all. They are not decisions made because somebody is “out to get” somebody, but rather because all human beings have bias. Possessing bias is part and parcel of being human. And the more we think we are immune to it, the greater the likelihood that our own biases will be invisible or unconscious to us!

Our unconscious discriminatory inclinations are well documented by the Harvard Implicit Association Test Project, and the results of those studies have been found to be predictive of real-world behavior, unfortunately. (Kang)

Our discriminatory inclinations are also deeply rooted. A recent study by Xu and others discovered that empathetic neural responses in the anterior cingulate cortex of people’s brains “decreased significantly when participants viewed faces of other races.” A study by Cikara and colleagues found not only that empathetic responses for others’ suffering were dampened when the sufferers were members of an “out group,” but also that people may even feel pleasure (Schadenfreude) when viewing out group suffering.

That “my brain made me do it” may be an explanation for our unintentionally biased behavior, but it is not an excuse. We must monitor ourselves and our own actions, as well as those of well-intentioned people around us, in order to minimize the adverse impacts that implicit discrimination can have on other races, other genders, other sexual orientations, and “others” of all sorts. Pope and colleagues’ work shows that awareness of our discriminatory inclinations can help us avoid its worst effects.

All people tend to make moral judgments based upon emotional reactions and if we can convince people to view racial discrimination as “not just wrong but shameful and viscerally disgusting,” Kelly and colleagues suggest that we might have an impact on it. The strong adverse reaction of OU Chancellor David Boren and others to the videos of the racist chant by OU fraternity members may indicate that some progress is being made in this regard, at least regarding racial discrimination.

We also need to consider what sorts of public policies make sense in combating implicit discrimination. It is certainly true that affirmative action, in educational settings and in the workplace, is a blunt tool that carries many adverse side effects. It is also true, as the Supreme Court pointed out while eviscerating voter protection legislation in the Shelby County voting rights case a couple of years ago, that open discrimination in southern states today is not as serious as it was in Selma in 1965. But the existence of implicit racism and its obvious effects manifested throughout our society make it imperative that we at least consider what we might do in the policy arena to mitigate the bad effects of our oh-so-human biases.



David M. Amodio, Self-Regulation in Intergroup Relations: A Social Neuroscience Framework, in Social Neuroscience: Toward Understanding the Underpinnings of the Social Mind 101 (Alexander Todorov et al., eds. 2011).

Dolly Chugh et al., Professors Are Prejudiced, Too, New York Times, May 11, 2014, p. SR14.

Mina Cikara et al, Us and Them: Intergroup Failures of Empathy, 20 Current Directions in Psychological Research 149 (2011).

Jerry Kang, Rethinking Intent and Impact: Some Behavioral Realism About Equal Protection, 66 Alabama Law Review 627 (2014)

Daniel Kelly et al., Race and Racial Cognition, in The Moral Psychology Handbook 433 (John M. Doris, ed. 2010).

Nicholas Kristoff, Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?, New York Times, Aug. 27, 2014.

Mark Matousek, Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life (2011), p. 156.

Devin G. Pope et al. “Awareness Reduces Racial Bias,” CESifo Working Paper Series No. 4675 (2014).

Howard J. Ross, Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgment in Our Daily Lives (2014).

Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).

Xiaojing Xu et al., Do You Feel My Pain? Racial Group Membership Modulates Empathetic Neural Responses, 29 Journal of Neuroscience 29 8525 (July 1, 2009).