Is Mark Cuban right about the pervasiveness of prejudice?


Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has ignited a firestorm with candid comments on his own biases. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Another week, another NBA owner spouting off about race.

This time it was Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who, in discussing L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s recent racist remarks, managed to set off a firestorm of his own.

“I know I’m bigoted in a lot of different ways,” Cuban told an audience Wednesday at Inc. magazine’s GrowCo conference in Nashville. “If I see a black kid, in a hoodie, and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there’s a guy who has tattoos all over his face, white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere, I’m walking back to the other side.”

Too soon, Cuban, on that blithe reference to a hoodie, a sweatshirt suffused with symbolism since unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was shot to death in 2012 while wearing one.

On Twitter, ESPN’s Bomani Jones took Cuban to task for equating a person wearing the tattoos of prison culture with someone wearing a sweatshirt, sparking a debate with the franchise owner, who wrote, “The point was that before we can help others deal [with] racism we have to be honest about ourselves.”

Cuban later tweeted an apology for the hoodie reference Thursday afternoon, writing: “In hindsight I should have used different examples. I didn’t consider the Trayvon Martin family, and I apologize to them for that.” He added that he stood by the substance of his comments.

And it’s that substance — his contention later that “we’re all prejudiced in one way or the other” — that has been more divisive. Cuban said he’s biased, but that everyone else is, too. “None of us have pure thoughts; we all live in glass houses,” he told the conference crowd.

Is Cuban right? Did the famously straight-talking tech billionaire, who apparently insisted that the Wednesday session be a “no holds-barred conversation,” hit on a universal truth? Is everyone a little bit racist?

Anthony G. Greenwald, professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle and co-author of “Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People,” has spent 20 years studying bias, in part by collecting data through a test that asks participants to make off-the-cuff associations between race and certain words. The test, he and co-author Mahzarin R. Banaji say, reveals all sorts of stuff bubbling beneath the surface, namely prejudice we might not even recognize.

We asked Greenwald, who is white, whether Cuban is right about the pervasiveness of bias. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

Is Mark Cuban alone among people who admit, “Yes, I have prejudices?”

No, and in fact, there’s a famous quote from Jesse Jackson about crossing to the other side of the street when he saw black guys approaching. He’s not alone, and the point of our book is that it takes a lot, actually, for one to recognize that one has biases. . . . People who regard themselves as fair and unbiased nevertheless can engage in judgments and actions that are biased in ways that they don’t even recognize. What’s unusual about Mark Cuban in this case is that he recognizes it.

Why do people have such a hard time admitting to themselves, even, that they have prejudices?

Because they’re actually not aware of them. The test that we use — the Implicit Association Test — is a way of discovering, as I discovered in myself, as Mahzarin Banaji discovered in herself, that we have biases that we’re just not aware of.

How many people have taken the test?

Millions. We find that about 75 percent of white Americans, and almost that exact same percentage of Asian Americans, have what we call an “automatic white preference” in a test that compares white and black [races]. A higher proportion have an automatic young preference. . . . And many people have gender stereotypes and associate women less with careers than men, and women less with science. That stereotype is actually more present in women than men. The thing is, these are biases people don’t want to have, and aren’t aware of having, yet they can influence judgments.

Is there a connection between living in a diverse community and whether a person is biased?

The factor in personal background that makes a difference is having particularly close relationships with members of other racial groups. My parents were not biased; they didn’t communicate any bias to me, yet I acquired these biases and stereotypes that are just floating around. In fact, the news media and entertainment media are full of them.

Cuban is getting a lot of backlash for being biased. Do you think that is an appropriate response to his admission?

I think there’s a difference between Mark Cuban and Donald Sterling. Donald Sterling is overtly biased and denies it. Mark Cuban is probably not overtly biased, but accepts the idea that he can nevertheless be victim to biases he doesn’t approve of.

There’s obviously a generational difference between Cuban and Sterling. Do you think. . .

No. These things aren’t changing that much. Explicit racism of the time, which seems to be evident in Donald Sterling’s remarks, is largely on its way out in our society. It’s not gone, but it’s on its way out. Still, these implicit biases are very, very pervasive, and I’m expecting they will be for a while. Even many black Americans have an automatic white preference, because they’ve been raised in a society that’s white-majority and white-dominant.

If you were Mark Cuban, how would you address your own prejudice? What sort of steps could you take?

If I were the CEO of a big company, I would make sure that all the evaluations of the employees working under me were done using objective measures, and people were not free to apply judgments. It’s when you have discretion that these biases can enter.

Lavanya Ramanathan is a professional eater/drinker/thinker for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. University of Texas. Northwestern University. Rap fan.
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