Unconscious bias: The importance of being Ernesto or how a Hispanic name influences your legislator

By Isabel M. Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

As many who follow social sciences, I have been impressed with the studies of unconscious bias. I am rarely optimist about anything that may depend on the intelligence of humans to actually put to work the knowledge acquired through research and time to improve the human condition. Yes, I do know we cannot wait to take advantage of the latest gizmo or money making device. We are, however, much slower to make use of the accumulated social science knowledge to bring dignity, equality, justice…and bread to the wretched of the earth.

NPR reported about the latest iteration of unconscious bias research. The piece is What’s In A Name? It Could Matter If You’re Writing To Your Lawmaker, and goes into how a legislator’s unconscious biases may influence not only the way she responds to a constituent with a Spanish name, but also how he votes on voter ID laws. See an excerpt…but do read/listen to the piece.

“Republicans who support voter identification are different than those Republicans who did not support voter identification,” Grose says. “Among those Republicans who did support voter ID laws, the Latino constituent was very unlikely to receive a response from their elected official. The difference was almost 40 percentage points, which is just one of the largest gaps I have ever seen.”

I shall admit that I am mildly optimistic about the potential of all the research about unconscious bias. It does two important things, one of them, certainly, sort of an indictment on our limited self, but the point is to go forward:

  1. It provides a rational explanation for the biases that we still have, which do explain a very significant portion of the pervasive racial, gender, ethnic and other disparities in all terrains of society. Understanding these biases and their effect is essential to change things going forward, because we continue to have the “You are racist/I’m not racist” fight, with very limited success. Many people are actually not bigots, even though they are as permeated by the white supremacist mindset that is the undercurrent of our society as everyone else. Therefore, they will act on their unconscious biases, and their actions – innocuous or well-intended as they might be – will have deleterious effects on the discriminated communities. Being conscious of their unconscious biases will make these people – and, honestly, all of us – a lot more willing to examine twice their actions, in order to make them coherent with what they consciously believe; with their conscious non-biased self. Obviously, if you are patently and shamelessly bigoted, you are just an idiot and a… and there ain’t no amount or research that could fix that. 
  2. It also explains ourselves to ourselves. Yes, we live in societies subsumed in bigotry. We have been raised by and with it. We have our own biases against various groups. There is nothing saddest than doing one of the Harvard implicit association tests and realizing that you still harbor biases you thought you had already overcome. It is fine. You are not a bad person. (Trust me: I tell that to myself often.) The biases are unconscious because they are stronger than we are. They are “validated” by everything we see in our daily lives. The trick is that, through our daily biased actions we have managed to maintain the structure of society that underpins our biases: our economic choices, the people we hire and fire, the stores we patronize, the loans we approve, the rates we offer, the assumptions we make, the people we see as beautiful… The way we venerate men who talk sports incessantly but look down on the women who care about clothing. In a sense, this research gives us an out for those shameful feelings we dare not confess because our conscious self finds them repulsive. It also gives us a mandate: we need to act as people who know that our actions may be influenced by our biases and, consequently, act in ways that would counteract them. In time, granted, in a very long time, our daily lives will begin to validate the world our decent, conscious selves want to see. 

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