Understanding Our New Racial Reality Starts with the Unconscious

By john a. powell | May 19, 2015 | 0 comments

Egalitarian goals can be undermined by deeply rooted implicit biases, says john a. powell. To address racial discrimination, we need to look inward.

A selfie with National Guard soldiers in Baltimore on May 1, 2015. A selfie with National Guard soldiers in Baltimore on May 1, 2015. Staff Sgt. Mitch Miller, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Maryland National Guard

This article is the fourth in a series exploring the effects that unconscious racial biases have on the criminal justice system in the United States.

To understand what has been happening in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere in the United States, it helps to understand the differences between the old order of racial discrimination and bias and the new one.

The old order was grounded in explicit discrimination and hostility toward individuals who fell outside the acceptable boundaries of “whiteness.” This order was closely tied to racism, which was explicitly institutionalized through prohibitions of race-mixing in various forms—from marriage and schools to buses and diners. It emanated from our policies at every level of government and deliberately molded our culture.

Most individuals—and virtually all sectors of American society—have come to consciously reject that old order. They embrace a public position of racial equality. Being a morally upright American has come to mean you refuse to consciously engage in behavior motivated by race or to act with consciously racist motivation. Many of the intentionally racist laws of the past have been struck down, and in many domains, racial discrimination is illegal.

Yet, racial inequality is a documented fact. The reality of police killing of unarmed blacks, on-going economic inequality between whites and non-whites, vitriolic and personal attacks on President Obama, or even the extreme reaction to a Cheerio commercial featuring a biracial family—all these make it clear that we are not “over” race.

So if few Americans harbor explicitly racist views, then what explains the persistence of racial inequality? For one of the answers to that question, we need to look to the unconscious mind, which plays a critical role in creating the discrepancy between our aspirations and our reality. The unconscious mind is partially the source of today’s new order of racial discrimination and bias.

It’s an order that shapes the behavior of people of all races. Baltimore may seem to be a clear example of the irrelevance of race, because some of the police involved in the death of Freddie Grey were blacks. The logic goes that blacks cannot have racial bias against other blacks, right? But unconscious—or “implicit”—bias is a social reality that affects everyone, even members of the targeted group.

The unconscious mind receives, stores, and sends information, akin to an automatic data manager for our life experiences. According to Bruce Lipton, a developmental biologist and author of The Biology of Belief:

[T]he subconscious mind, one of the most powerful information processes known, specifically observes both the surrounding world and the body’s internal awareness, reads the cues, and immediately engages previously acquired (learned) behaviors—all without the help, supervision, or even awareness of the conscious mind.

The unconscious, more than the conscious mind, controls our daily decisions and actions, including how we relate to other people, especially those who look different from us. Research has uncovered overwhelming evidence that conscious egalitarian goals are often undermined by deeply rooted implicit biases. (For more on this research, see the first essay in this series.) But as the example of Freddie Gray suggests, the unconscious mind of a black person can assimilate pervasive anti-black messages even when the conscious mind resists. This can turn members of the same group against each other.

That’s why trying to address racism purely at a conscious level alone won’t move us forward. The work the conscious does is simply dwarfed by the work and efficiency of the unconscious mind. Therefore the conscious mind, by itself, cannot unravel what has already been internalized by the unconscious.

While understanding and addressing implicit bias is important, it should be clear the goal is not to eliminate bias, but rather the negative effects of bias. We need to create and foster new experiences that can override our biased beliefs in order to build an unconscious that functions from and seeks to reinforce mores of equality and fairness. We cannot move towards our goals of fairness and equality until we find ways to nurture the alignment of our unconscious with our conscious values.

Toward that end, Patricia Devine and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have developed a step-by-step approach to recognize bias and aid in the reduction of unconscious racial bias:

  • Stereotype replacement: Recognizing that a response is based on stereotypes, labeling the response as stereotypic, and reflecting on why the response occurred creates a process to consider how the biased response could be avoided in the future and replaces it with an unbiased response.
  • Counter-stereotypic imaging: Imagining counter-stereotypic others in detail makes positive exemplars salient and accessible when challenging a stereotype’s validity. Harvard psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji uses positive images on her screen saver to counter unconscious stereotypes—images of people from far-flung places, or in unfamiliar roles—in an effort to rewire her associations.
  • Individuation: Obtaining specific information about group members prevents stereotypic inferences, such as looking at data about how Asian-Americans or Latinos actually live. 
  • Perspective taking: Imagining oneself to be a member of a stereotyped group increases psychological closeness to the stereotyped group, which ameliorates automatic group-based evaluations.
  • Increasing opportunities for contact: Increased contact between groups can reduce implicit bias through a wide variety of mechanisms, including altering their images of the group or by directly improving evaluations of the group.

We must also recognize that the discrepancy between conscious egalitarian values and unconscious biases is not applicable to everyone. Some people do not hold consciously egalitarian values, and in fact embrace beliefs about the superiority of their own group and the inferiority of others. There are still people who are explicitly racist.

And as the U.S. has become more diverse, we’ve seen more and more racial anxiety around inter-racial interactions. When anxiety precedes interactions between different racial groups, the experience is far more likely to be negative—imbued with hostility and distrust. Racial anxiety is related to bias, and like bias, it is a barrier to fair treatment and equitable outcomes.

Even those who reject racial dominance may embrace the idea of “colorblindness,” which is based on the notion that race is not real and does not matter. Colorblindness is the opposite of the kind of mindfulness that can decrease implicit bias. Its refusal to see race makes it impossible to see racial inequality, which in turn supports the status quo and makes it easier to blame marginalized groups for their conditions. The irony, however, is that we can never truly become a racially egalitarian society by remaining race-blind or by refusing to acknowledge that many aspects of our society continue to be arranged by race.

Six Officers Charged in Death of Freddie GrayThe six Baltimore Police officers who were charged in the death of Freddie Gray.

We must also recognize that addressing the problem of racial bias at only the individual level, while necessary, is insufficient. Addressing bias within structures and institutions is critical. We must support policies that challenge our culture of inequality and aim to dismantle and transform structural racialization. In order to reduce bias at the structural level it is important to monitor and improve the environment where action is being taken by collecting data and monitoring outcomes. As a society, we must set goals for moving towards greater equity and monitor our progress in achieving those goals.

The unconscious mind is the source of today’s new order of racial bias—but that is not the same as old order racism. To have biases does not make one a racist. But it also does not relieve anyone of responsibility for addressing racial inequality. The new order does not depend on discriminatory intent or racist actors. To keep going, it needs only a lack of self-awareness. Understanding of this new order can aid us in addressing the killing in Baltimore without needing to first prove that the police are racist—and it helps all of us to avoid the mistake of thinking if we are not racist then there is no racial bias.

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About The Author

john a. powell, Ph.D., is the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, where he is a Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies.


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