After Shirley Sherrod, we all need to slow down and listen
President Obama has called and chatted with Shirley Sherrod. Tom Vilsack and Ben Jealous have issued heartfelt apologies. There is talk of a "Chardonnay summit" in the Rose Garden. The subtext to all this? Let's wrap up this incident quickly so we can all go on our vacations guilt-free, secure in the knowledge that our "post-racial society" remains intact.
Once again, in the midst of the cacophony, calls abound for a national "dialogue" on race. Yet our nation cannot muster the patience or stamina to sustain such a discussion beyond a single news cycle. In some ways, Sherrod's tale is a metaphor for this country's aborted efforts to address race. In its entirety, her deeply moving story was about transformation and reconciliation between blacks and whites. It contained the seeds of progress and healing. She spoke of blacks and whites working together to save farms and to end poverty and suffering. But Sherrod, and those listening to her story, could get to her hopeful conclusion only by first wading through painful admissions of racial bias and struggle.
Unfortunately, our news and political cycles make it impossible for any of us to stay in a room long enough to reach that transformative moment. At the barest suggestion of race, we line up at opposite corners and start hurling accusations. Attorney General Eric Holder was widely criticized last year for suggesting that we are a "nation of cowards" when it comes to such discussions. The reaction to his comments is a reminder that we cannot continue to ignore this challenge. Yet Americans refuse to acknowledge that, in today's society, racial attitudes are often complicated, multi-layered and conflicted.
Racial inequality is perpetuated less by individuals than by structural racism and implicit bias. Evidence of structural inequality is everywhere: in the grossly disproportionate numbers of young black men and women in prison; in the color of students shunted into remedial and special education tracks; in the stubborn segregation of our neighborhoods and schools; in the lack of recreational and academic opportunities for children of color in poor communities; in the inferior medical treatment that people of color receive; and in the still appallingly small numbers of men and women of color in law firms, corporations and government. It is evident, too, in the history of blatant discrimination against black farmers practiced by the Agricultural Department.
But that does not make doctors, nurses, police officers, judges, teachers, lawyers, city planners, admission officers or others prejudiced. Most are well-intentioned professionals who believe themselves to be free of racial bias. From their perspective, it is not easy to connect individual actions and decisions to broader structural conditions and environments built up over decades and even centuries.
Implicit bias is a reality we must confront far more openly. A growing mass of compelling research reveals the unconscious racial stereotypes many of us harbor that affect our decisions. Such attitudes do not make us prejudiced; they make us human. Those who take the Implicit Association Test often express shock when results show that their unconscious biases conflict with their explicit egalitarian values and ideals. Nonetheless, white and black test-takers match black faces more quickly than white ones with words representing violent concepts and are more likely to mistake a harmless object for a gun when it is carried by a black person. One study found that the more stereotypically black the features of a criminal defendant, the harsher the sentence he or she is likely to receive. Implicit bias has been shown to factor into hiring decisions and into the quality of health care that individuals receive. Mazharin Banaji and Jerry Kang, leading scholars on implicit bias, have noted: "As disturbing as this evidence is, there is too much of it to be ignored."
The good news is that structures can be dismantled and replaced and unconscious biases can be transformed, as happened to Shirley Sherrod and the family she helped, the Spooners. First, though, they must be acknowledged. We and others researching race and justice are committed to untangling the web of structures, conditions and policies that lead to unequal opportunities. Our nation has to stop denying the complexity of our racial attitudes, history and progress. Let's tone down the rhetoric on all sides, slow down and commit to listening with less judgment and more compassion. If Americans did so, we might find that we share more common ground than we could have imagined.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. is executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and the author most recently of "The Presumptions of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class, and Crime in America." Johanna Wald is director of strategic planning at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.