Video: Testing for racial bias

By Sara James Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/15/2007 6:56:06 PM ET 2007-04-15T22:56:06

This report aired Dateline Sunday, April 15, 7 p.m.

While Don Imus has apologized for his racial slurs, he insists he’s not a racist. But is it possible that virtually all of us have a hidden racial bias, hidden even from ourselves?  Several years ago Dateline brought together two groups of volunteers, African-American and white, who agreed to take a test, scientifically designed to answer just that question.

Here’s how it works: Words and faces appear rapidly one after another around the screen.  The test taker is supposed to link each one to the left or right box here in the center—linking positive words like “friend” to “good” and negative words like “awful” to “bad.” White faces with white.  Black faces with black. And it’s the mistakes that are so revealing.

Anthony Greenwald, University of Washington:  We find that frequently some people are disturbed by their results.

"Dateline" put this experiment to a difficult challenge, testing a cross section of men and women, including some who have impeccable credentials in race relation—people like Ronda, a civil rights attorney.

During the first half of the test, black is linked to bad, and white is linked to good.  For Ronda this half of the test is a breeze. She never makes a mistake.

But let’s see how she does when the information is reversed.  When the left box marked bad, has a bad face, and the right box labeled good, has a black face.

Suddenly the test becomes much more difficult for Ronda. About a third of the way through she makes a mistake, linking the white face to the right box, even thought that shows a black face.

Ronda’s score indicates a strong preference for white.  Is this because she unconsciously associates white with good?

Ronda, volunteer:  Well, I could tell when I was taking it, I had so much of an easier time doing the white with good, much to my dismay.

Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard University:  We all might be prejudiced in ways we’re not aware.

Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University and Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington created this test.

Sara James, Dateline correspondent:  What do you think this test reveals that perhaps we didn’t know before?

Banaji:  How fair are we being when we judge a person.

Betsy, an events planner, had similar results.

Once again, on the part of the test which associates black with good and white with bad, a white test taker flounders.

There would be many people who would say, ‘What’s wrong with showing a preference for your own race?’

Greenwald:  In some context it’s actually illegal to do so.  In employment context, in college admissions.

But what does all this prove?  Like the other participants, Jeff first took the test individually on a computer and his test too revealed a preference for white. 

But he refused the subsequent studio test saying, he doesn’t think the experiment reveals anything at all.

Jeff, volunteer:  I think the test for those—for a person like myself, who has some spacial difficulties and left/right difficulties, is questionable.

James:  Professor Banaji, Jeff is questioning your test.

Banaji:  Well, Jeff’s experience is not unusual.  Let’s say you are having spacial difficulties or let’s say you’ve never used a computer before. It could easily have been the case that if that was the problem, that we could see a strong preference for black over white.  But that didn’t happen.

In fact, this experiment has passed scientific scrutiny and the results of the professor’s experiments have been published in leading psychological journals. This test has now become even more widely accepted and is available in 19 other countries and 16 different languages.

Our results reflect the professor’s findings.

Banaji:  Something like 79 or 80 percent of white Americans who take the test, show a preference for white over black.

And as revealing as those results are, the biggest surprise is yet to come. Even for many black test takers the more challenging part of the test seems to be when black is associated with good and white with bad.

After two attempts, one of our participants still can’t make it to the end.

Even so, Joan still thought she’d show a preference for her own race.

James:  Would you be surprised then, Joan, if I said that your test showed a slight preference for white?

Joan:  Yes, I would be.

James:  Does it shock you?

Joan:  Yes...

James:  You’re flabbergasted!

Joan:  I’m flabbergasted.

And Joan isn’t alone.  Dennis is the leader of a civil rights organization.  According to his test in the studio, Dennis is neutral but his individual computer test showed a preference for white.  His response:

Dennis, volunteer:  All we had in images were whites through the type of media outlets that we were exposed to during my age generation and that was a constant reinforcement over and over again.

Of the African-Americans the professor has tested, 42 percent show a preference for white.  It’s  a large number—especially when you consider that only 17 percent of whites show a preference for blacks.

And what of the other African-Americans we tested?

Heather is an assistant district attorney. On the part of the test where the black face is paired with the word bad, Heather has noticeable difficulty and can’t finish.  She showed a strong preference for African-Americans and her pride was unabashed.

Heather, volunteer:  This made me feel more comfortable knowing that I’ve embraced my culture.

Randall, a high school music teacher, also showed a preference for his own race.

James:  Does it concern you at all that you have a strong preference for African-American?

Randall, volunteer:  Does that score mean that I do not like European-Americans? No.  Is my subconscious aware of the condition that African-Americans are in this country at this particular point?  My conscience is.

According to the research, 48 percent of African-Americans have a preference for their own race.

The professors note that there’s a difference in reaction between blacks and whites when they find out they have a preference for their own race.

You could say it’s pride or prejudice.  What blacks consider a badge of health self esteem, many whites regard as an embarrassing revelation.

The professors say this test also reveals something else, something more subtle but equally important.  That even unconscious racial biases may effect your behavior.  For instance, do white teachers unconsciously favor white students?  Jennifer teaches sixth grade.

James:  Jennifer, your score came out as a strong preference for white. Do you believe that those unconscious attitudes for whites effects your teaching?

Jennifer, volunteer/teacher:  I would hope not.  I don’t view people by what they look like. I view people on what they can do and what they feel and how they are.

These aren’t just words and faces on a screen.  Not just abstract images.  This test suggests that when it comes to the potent question of race, our subconscious is making decisions everyday. They’re decisions that in real time in real life have real consequences.

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