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Out From Under The Thumb Of White Bias

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page B01

I took the race bias test that Shankar Vedantam wrote about in the Washington Post Magazine on Sunday. It's called the Race Implicit Association Test, and it measures "the thumbprint of culture on our minds," says Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji.

So now it can be told:

_____Sunday Magazine_____
See No Bias
Many Americans believe they are not prejudiced. Now a new test provides powerful evidence that a majority of us really are. (By Shankar Vedantam, Page W12)

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"Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for Black relative to White," the summary of my test results said.

For some readers, no doubt, this is confirmation -- if any was needed -- that I am a "reverse racist." But the last thing I wanted was to end up in that group of African Americans who showed a pro-white, or anti-black, bias. I'm talking about 48 percent of black test takers who have internalized the same biases as a majority of white people: Black is bad; white is good.

The shackles of slavery may have been taken off the black body more than 140 years ago, but many a black mind remains in chains.

Of course, the test results don't reveal much that is new. A lot of black people have long looked down on their race. At the same time, the results do provide something of an update on racial progress. Note the findings of another race bias test, conducted recently by economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago.

As Vedantam reported, 5,000 résumés were sent to 1,250 employers who had help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston. Some applicants were given stereotypically white-sounding names such as Greg; others were given black-sounding names such as Tyrone.

"Interviews beforehand with human resources managers at many companies in Boston and Chicago had led the economists to believe that black applicants would be more likely to get interview calls," Vedantam wrote. "Employers said they were hungry for qualified minorities and were aggressively seeking diversity. Every employer got four résumés: an average white applicant, an average black applicant, a highly skilled white applicant and a highly skilled black applicant."

Vedantam noted that only one outcome was measured: "Which résumés triggered callbacks?" Résumés with white-sounding names triggered 50 percent more callbacks than those with black-sounding names. Researchers also found that highly qualified black applicants drew no more calls than did average black applicants and that lower-skilled white applicants got more callbacks than highly skilled blacks.

Last year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor predicted that affirmative action for minorities would no longer be needed in 25 years. Judging from the MIT study, the only affirmative action currently being practiced is for whites.

The Implicit Association Test exposes bias that is deep-seated.

"By linking together words and images, the race bias test measures what associations come most easily to mind," Vedantam wrote. "People who take the Web version are asked to classify a series of faces into two categories, black American and white American. Then they are asked to mentally associate the white and black faces with words such as 'joy' and 'failure.' Under time pressure, many Americans find it easier to group words such as 'failure' with black faces, and words such as 'joy' with white faces." (To take the test, go to https://implicit.harvard.edu.)

Speed is a factor in the outcome. My "strong automatic preference for Black relative to White" was explained this way: "The interpretation shown above is described as 'automatic preference for Black' if you responded faster when Black faces and Good words were classified with the same key as opposed to White faces and Good words."

According to Vedantam, "Banaji believes that conscious efforts are needed to fight what she calls ordinary prejudice, the primitive brain filtering the world through its biased lenses without the conscious part of the brain being aware of it."

A conscious effort is what it has taken for me not to absorb the worst of white society's stereotypes about blacks. Not a whole heck of a lot has changed since that 1991 General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center, which found that most whites think blacks are lazy, violence-prone, less intelligent and less patriotic.

Even sadder, nearly 30 percent of black people felt the same way about themselves. If seeing black people in a more positive light is bias, then, yes, I am biased -- and proud of it.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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