Finding your inner bigot.

How your unconscious mind shapes you.
Oct. 14 2010 2:01 PM

Rick Sanchez's Prejudices—and Mine

Finding your inner bigot.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Every year in the United States, fatigue, confusion, and carelessness conspire to offer us a teachable moment about prejudice.

Every year, we blow it.

Rick Sanchez's tirade against Jews who control the media was the latest offering. Previous installments include a) Henry Louis "Skip" Gates getting arrested inside his own home by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., police department; b) Michael "Kramer" Richards telling a black heckler at a nightclub that such impertinence in the past might have gotten the heckler strung up with a noose; and c) former Virginia Sen. George "Macaca" Allen's reference to a South Asian-American teenager as a kind of rhesus monkey.

The first—and worst—question we ask ourselves when these incidents occur is whether the perpetrator and victim belong to the same ethnic/gender/racial/religious group. If Sanchez were Jewish, Crowley were black, and Allen were South Asian, the incidents would have been brushed aside. That's because our first assumption about prejudice is that perpetrators and victims have to come from different groups. We assume that Jews cannot be anti-Semitic, that women cannot be sexist, and people of color cannot be racist.


The second—and second-worst—question we ask ourselves is whether the perpetrator meant to cause harm. We expect perpetrators to deny this, of course. So we look to their past to find evidence of hatred toward the victim's group. That's because our second assumption about prejudice is that it stems from animosity. Prejudice has to be conscious.

Police departments today insulate themselves against racial profiling lawsuits by hiring cops of color. Corporations make sure that gays and lesbians are in their boardrooms to protect themselves against accusations of homophobia. Equal-opportunity notices abound in workplaces. National surveys show these measures are highly effective in getting no Americans to report being prejudiced in any way. Systematic research, however, shows that thousands of black patients each year receive substandard treatment compared with whites. Millions of women receive less pay for doing the same work as men. And gay and lesbian teenagers throw themselves off tall bridges at a much higher rate than straight kids.

Our conception of prejudice is fearfully wrong. Psychologists Andrew Scott Baron and Mahzarin Banaji once conducted a study evaluating the conscious and unconscious attitudes of 6-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and adults. The 10-year-olds reported less prejudice than the small kids, and the adults reported no prejudices at all. But that was at a conscious level. At an unconscious level, the three groups had identical attitudes. Other research has shown that at an unconscious level, huge majorities of Americans (including sizable numbers of African-Americans) are biased against blacks. Huge numbers of women, as well as men, value men's professional contributions more than they value women's professional work. Large majorities of gays, Arabs, and people with disabilities have unconscious biases against people from those groups.

Sanchez, Allen, and Richards offer us teachable moments because they show exactly how the consciously egalitarian attitudes many of us espouse give way to unconscious biases lurking beneath. In nearly every incident, people say prejudiced things while under pressure or when they are distracted, inebriated, or exhausted. Unconscious attitudes, in other words, tend to surface when the conscious mind has its hands full dealing with something else. This is exactly how psychologists unearth unconscious biases in experiments: They disable the conscious mind.

If you ask people whether men and women should be paid the same for doing the same work, everyone says yes. But if you ask volunteers how much a storekeeper who runs a hardware store ought to earn and how much a storekeeper who sells antique china ought to earn, you will see that the work of the storekeeper whom volunteers unconsciously believe to be a man is valued more highly than the work of the storekeeper whom volunteers unconsciously assume is a woman. If you ask physicians whether all patients should be treated equally regardless of race, everyone says yes. But if you ask doctors how they will treat patients with chest pains who are named Michael Smith and Tyrone Smith, the doctors tend to be less aggressive in treating the patient with the black-sounding name. Such disparities in treatment are not predicted by the conscious attitudes that doctors profess, but by their unconscious attitudes—their hidden brains.



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

The Ludicrous Claims You’ll Hear at This Company’s “Egg Freezing Parties”

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
The Vault
Oct. 1 2014 10:49 AM James Meredith, Determined to Enroll at Ole Miss, Declares His Purpose in a 1961 Letter
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 10:44 AM Everyone’s Favorite Bob’s Burgers Character Gets a Remix You Can Dance to
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 11:37 AM Mindsweeper How to use the data generated by educational technology to improve schools.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.