Anti-Racism in a Bottle

[I should note that this post builds on Amanda Pustilnik’s post that’s right below….]

A recent study published in the journal Psychopharmacology reports that a beta-blocker, usually prescribed as a treatment for heart disease and anxiety, had the effect of reducing implicit racial biases in white volunteers who took the drug. In the study, one group of volunteers was given the beta-blocker while another group was given a placebo. The participants were then asked to complete a racial Implicit Association Test, which purports to measure subconscious racial bias by asking test takers to associate positive and negative words with images of black and white people. The participants who had been given the beta-blocker earned better scores on the test; it took them less time than the placebo group to associate a positive word with a picture of a black person. The researchers who conducted the study postulated that, based on the part of the brain and the nervous system on which beta-blockers act, the results suggest that racism is fundamentally based on fear. Inhibiting that part of the brain inhibits racism.

Simply put, a recent study claims that people were less racist after popping a couple of pills. Why did I – a person who eats, sleeps, and breathes anti-racism – greet the news with a body-rattling yawn? Why didn’t I jump on the computer to write a sternly worded letter to my congressman, demanding that the drug be added to the water supply? Why didn’t I immediately start planning my End of Racism party? I didn’t even post a link to the study on my Facebook page…. Why the lack of excitement?

I’m always indifferent when I hear talk of subconscious racism. And there’s plenty about which to be indifferent. The psychological literature is filled with studies claiming to explain racial bias as a product of cognitive shortcuts and heuristics. You see: we have so much information coming at us from all directions. It would be too overwhelming for our brains to process it all. So, the brain does us a little favor and creates scripts for us to follow in order to save us time and energy. It’s these scripts that make us (all of us, without regard to our racial identities and ascriptions) associate images of black people with words like “bad,” “dangerous,” and “ugly”; it’s these scripts that make us associate images of white people with words like “good,” “safe,” and “pretty.” For many years now, cognitive psychology has been reassuring us that we’re not racist; it’s our brains that are the problem.

Attributing racism to the subconscious mind is hugely attractive. There are bad results with no bad actors. There is racism with no racists. Because we are all equally blameworthy and equally blameless, we can work together to erase the effects of subconscious racism. The attractiveness of this view may explain why Charles Lawrence’s “The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection” – a brilliant article in which he uses the idea of subconscious racism to argue that heightened scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause ought to be triggered by evidence of disparate impact (and not solely discriminatory intent) – has been cited in close to 2,000 law review articles and has made its way into decisions in three state supreme courts, eight circuits, and the Supreme Court of the United States. (Justice Brennan cited it in his dissent in McCleskey v. Kemp.)

But, I’ve never thought that subconscious racism can explain very much. I don’t think that we bear witness to the racial disparities and inequalities that scar our society (and our globe) because of subconscious racism. I think that racism is a conscious mechanism. Temporary Aid for Needy Families and other social welfare programs that provide cash assistance to indigent persons have been vilified not because they are associated subconsciously with the always already black “welfare queen”; they have been vilified because they are associated consciously with the always already black “welfare queen.” States have chosen to crack down on “illegal” immigrants not because this ostensibly race-neutral category is associated subconsciously with Mexicans; states have chosen to crack down on “illegal” immigrants because this category of persons is associated consciously with Mexicans. Speaking of McCleskey: those who kill white people are more likely to get the death penalty not because of the subconscious racism of prosecutors and juries; those who kill white people are more likely to get the death penalty because, generally speaking, the lives of white people are more valued – and consciously so – than the lives of nonwhite people.

All of that to say: the racism that is most damaging – the kind that we should be most worried about – is conscious.

But, maybe we should put that beta-blocker in the water, just in case….

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6 Responses

  1. Lee S says:

    “States have chosen to crack down on “illegal” immigrants not because this ostensibly race-neutral category is associated subconsciously with Mexicans; states have chosen to crack down on “illegal” immigrants because this category of persons is associated consciously with Mexicans.”

    Personally, I expect my state to deport them because they are illegal. Illegal immigrants do a disservice to those who immigrated legally. If you think the law is unfair, change it, but do not make the assertion that enforcing the law is bigoted.

  2. John S says:

    “Temporary Aid for Needy Families and other social welfare programs that provide cash assistance to indigent persons have been vilified not because they are associated subconsciously with the always already black “welfare queen”; they have been vilified because they are associated consciously with the always already black “welfare queen.””

    Isn’t this only half of the picture? The subconscious heuristic comes in the other half, where the vilifier associates the myth of the welfare queen with black people.

  3. Ann Marie Marciarille says:

    Beta-blockers have long been prescribed off label to treat anxiety (particularly social anxiety). I have to wonder about the relationship between untreated anxiety (fear of difference, fear of falling) and racism. Just a thought.

  4. AYY says:

    Prof. Bridges,
    Why is “illegal” in quotes? The people to whom you refer really are here illegally”
    As to the last statements in the third to last paragraph, it would have been better if you had offered some evidence. The way it is now, those of a skeptical bent might wonder how you know what you claim to be the case is true?

  5. AYY says:

    Oops, just noticed a couple of typos. The ” after “illegally” and the ? after “true” shouldn’t be there.

  6. Shag from Brookline says:

    This post is a reminder to take another look at “The Watermelon Man” flick.