Systemic racism and implicit bias: What are they? Part I

A Liberal Dose


 Last week we discussed how some conservatives (and some Republican-controlled state legislatures, including our own) have been following Donald Trump’s lead and freaking out about critical race theory, often without understanding what it is. We defined that theoretical approach (it comes from legal studies and is about the historical connection between race, slavery, and laws) and other cultural approaches to the study of race. This week, I’m going to give some examples to more fully demonstrate what I’m talking about.

Trump’s complaint, you will recall, was not just about an academic field of study but about the very ideas of privilege, implicit bias, or “negative” focus on historical racism and/or slavery, which his supporters say are “divisive concepts.” One Tennessee Republican legislator actually defended the three-fifths compromise on slavery as a good thing. A GOP leader, in Louisiana, said earlier this month that schools should teach all the “good” things about slavery such as the fact that there were some kind masters who were beloved by their slaves, implying they were happy in slavery, and said that anyone believing otherwise is “indoctrinated by leftist, Marxist education.” In other words, they are saying nothing bad ever happened, if it did it wasn’t that bad, and there are no modern-day effects of it. So let’s take a look at that.

In 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled – in Brown v. Board of Education – that school segregation was unconstitutional. This decision was the first of several that would end Jim Crow segregation in general, although it would take more than a decade. In their ruling, the Court cited the research of married couple Kenneth and Mamie Clark, both African-American psychologists. In particular, the Court pointed to the “doll tests” the Clarks had run in the 1940s.

In the experiments, several children – one at a time – were presented with four baby dolls. The dolls were identical, except that they ranged in skin tone from Caucasian to dark brown. The children were asked to pick which doll they wanted to play with – they all chose the Caucasian doll. They were asked which doll was the most “good” and which the most “bad,” which was smartest and which was dumbest – which was lazy and which was not. Invariably, they always chose the white doll as being good and smart and the darkest as being bad and dumb. These were black children.

The Clarks concluded that segregating black children and reinforcing the fact they were different from all the others made them feel that black was inferior and undesirable, while making the white children feel superior. Racism, the Clarks wrote, is inherent in American institutions and reinforced by laws. The Supreme Court agreed (and so did the Eisenhower administration, which lauded the Court’s decision). Although the Clarks stood out, many other sociologists, psychologists, and historians were cited in the Court’s unanimous opinion. Although the term did not exist at the time… the Court was swayed by critical race theory.

Academics and others have been saying ever since then that there is systemic racism in this country and that, as a result people, can have biases they are not even consciously aware of. Those children were probably not consciously aware of their bias against their own race; their parents did not sit them down and say “you’re black, therefore you’re terrible, so try your best to be white.” No, the children absorbed that belief from society around them. And not just from school segregation, either.

Here’s something that may shock you (and it may not). The Clarks’ experiments were re-run, with both white and black children, in 2010. With the exact same results. And again earlier this year. With the same results.

There it is. systemic racism; implicit bias. If you were raised in America, you were affected by this whether you wanted to be or not and whether you want to admit it or not.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.   


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