In an interview with BET, President Obama said a number of things about the state of race relations that put him somewhat out of step with an increasingly pessimistic left. He argued that American racism was steadily weakening, that progress happens in frustratingly slow “increments,” and that contemporary race relations cannot be equated to those half a century ago — observations that, while true, may not be welcomed by those who suffer from racism’s continued existence.
But the furious backlash did not come from Obama’s left. It instead came from the right, in response to his statement, which I would consider banal, but which many conservatives deem outrageous, that racism is “deeply rooted.” Breitbart News accuses the president of “playing the race card more overtly than ever before.” One can find even more deranged replies here and here. National Review contributing editor Quin Hillyer summarizes the prevailing conservative belief — namely, that racism has all but disappeared from American life:
This conclusion is wildly and demonstrably wrong, but it is worth trying to understand how conservatives have arrived at it. Overt legal discrimination in accommodations, housing, and employment has been banished. A strong social norm against any overt expression of bigotry has taken root — which means, among other things, that people now can and often do get fired by National Review for being extremely racist. We elected a black guy as president. It is certainly a social transformation.
But less overt forms of racial discrimination remain. A historical legacy of segregated housing patterns and a huge gap in inherited wealth means that, even if white America had banished racial discrimination, racial inequality would persist for decades. What’s more, it is manifestly not the case that racial discrimination has mostly disappeared.
This is not some vague liberal notion, or merely an inference made by liberals to explain the persistent racial income gap. It is the inescapable conclusion of a vast trove of evidence. Employers are less likely to call back an equally qualified candidate whose résumé has a black-sounding name. Police in simulations are more likely to shoot black suspects. White medical staff are less likely to perceive pain by African-Americans. Despite having similar rates of marijuana use, blacks are more than three times as likely to be arrested for it.
This is all true despite America’s success in creating a strong social norm against racism. How is that possible? Chris Mooney has a fascinating deep-dive into the brain science of racial prejudice. He shows in painful detail how even a white person who is concentrating on banishing subconscious racial prejudice can nonetheless fail:
Taking the IAT, one of the most popular tools among researchers trying to understand racism and prejudice, is both extremely simple and pretty traumatic. The test asks you to rapidly categorize images of faces as either “African American” or “European American” while you also categorize words (like “evil,” “happy,” “awful,” and “peace”) as either “good” or “bad.” Faces and words flash on the screen, and you tap a key, as fast as you can, to indicate which category is appropriate.
Sometimes you’re asked to sort African-American faces and “good” words to one side of the screen. Other times, black faces are to be sorted with “bad” words. As words and faces keep flashing by, you struggle not to make too many sorting mistakes. And then, suddenly, you have a horrible realization. When black faces and “bad” words are paired together, you feel yourself becoming faster in your categorizing — an indication that the two are more easily linked in your mind. “It’s like you’re on a bike going downhill,” [David] Amodio says, “and you feel yourself going faster. So you can say, ‘I know this is not how I want to come off,’ but there’s no other response option.”
Mooney’s analysis is not a counsel of despair. It does not show that racism is an immutable facet of the human brain, but rather a mental habit that is learned and can also be unlearned. (Indeed, to take one example, proper training of police officers can eliminate the racial gap in their propensity to shoot a suspect.) I share Obama’s optimism that, over time, less overt forms of racism can be slowly defeated with persistent political and cultural struggle.
The trouble is that merely acknowledging these forms of racism offends large segments of the right. Hillyer, who is quoted above, participated last year in an unpleasant exchange with yours truly, in which he concluded, “We’re not oblivious to racism; we just want to transcend it by leaving it out of discussions where it doesn’t belong.” Apparently the places it doesn’t belong include an interview about race with BET — which is to say, it doesn’t belong anywhere because Hillyer and many of his allies believe it does not exist.