Black-on-Black Racism: The Hazards of Implicit Bias

How the politics of respectability twists society

Matt Neale/Flickr

In his year-end press conference, President Obama was asked about the state of black America. He responded by saying blacks are “better off than they were,” but juxtaposed that with the lingering issues evinced in the recent tragic police encounters with unarmed black men. Interestingly, he took particular care in calling out the “hidden biases that we all carry around,” a sentiment he echoed in another recent interview.

My own hidden biases punched me in the gut last week, as I stared in disbelief at a test result on my computer screen. Before I started the racial-bias assessment, a disclaimer explicitly warned me that those who are not prepared to receive uncomfortable news should not proceed. I was too intrigued to turn back, but it turns out I was unprepared for the outcome.

According to the Implicit Association Test, I have a "strong automatic preference for European Americans compared to African Americans." That's a sterile way of saying that I'm biased against black people. For most people, such a designation would probably be unsettling. After all, the United States is a nation that ostensibly aspires not to judge others "by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." But for me, it caused a mini-existential crisis.

Why? Because I'm black.

As I read the results, I thought about what it means to be black and biased against other black people. Does it mean harboring a subconscious contempt for my race? Or considering myself to be part of the blessed segment of an otherwise unfortunate lot? Is it even possible for a black person to be racist against black people? In a moment of self-dramatization, I felt as if Kanye had just announced on national television that I didn’t care about black people.

Then, the tropes saturated my thoughts. I wondered if my bias was the undergirding of the sort of intra-race prejudice colloquially expressed in phrases like “Uncle Tom,” “crab in a barrel,” and “acting white.” Since my results were the same as the 88 percent of white Americans who show a bias in favor of white people, it seems to me that this demonstrated “strong preference” is the very definition of acting white—a well-worn pejorative that pained me as an awkward adolescent and suddenly felt fresh again.

The Project Implicit test has been around for a few years, but a recent Mother Jones article titled, “The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men” gave it wider currency and helped explain the role of implicit bias in the recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island, where the aggressive policing of black people turned deadly. The IAT measures the ability to quickly and correctly sort selected words as positive and negative and to distinguish faces as belonging to a white or black person. Through a series of paired word and face sequences, the test detects in milliseconds the time it takes the respondent to associate black faces with positive and negative words relative to the time it takes to match white faces. When a respondent pairs black faces and negative words more quickly than other pairings, it reveals implicit bias.

As difficult as it was to learn about my black-on-black bias, such results are fairly common. This is sadly comforting. The data reveal that black respondents’ implicit biases are split just about evenly between pro-white and pro-black. Other research has also shown that black participants tend to have a strong pro-black explicit bias. A conflict emerges: When blacks are asked about their predilections, they express a solid preference for their group over whites, but, in general, performance on the IAT suggests they subconsciously hold a slight preference for whites over blacks.

This dynamic is obviously a direct result of racism. Too often, racism is seen as a social phenomenon that happens to black people. But it happens through black people as well. That is, the negative associations thrust upon black people and black culture can color how we black people view each other. Blacks and whites receive the same narratives and images that perpetuate stereotypes of black criminality and flippancy while synonymizing white culture with American values. It is to be expected that there will be an observable impact on black intragroup perceptions.

The construct of racism is efficiently designed to politically and socially subjugate a segment of the population. For the oppressed, a natural response is to advocate for conformity with the dominant culture as an appeal for equal treatment. If black people were only more respectable, one line of argument runs, they would be less subject to the ills of racism.

The contrast between black respondents’ explicit and implicit biases is a fingerprint of the politics of respectability, a term coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book In Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. In her conception, the politics of respectability involves the “reform of individual behavior as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform.” Higginbotham argued that black Baptist women “rejected white America’s depiction of black women as immoral, childlike, and unworthy of respect of protection” by teaching blacks to mind their manners, dress and speak appropriately, and remain free from sexual and other vices. Thus, the politics of respectability say that if black people behaved more like the proffered white ideal, the result would be equal treatment and the demise of racial discrimination. This tactic was a form of political protest based on an appeal to white humanity, but it has had troublesome side effects.

This thread has persisted in black scholarship and society for decades. From W.E.B. DuBois’ Talented Tenth in 1903 to Bill Cosby’s infamous Pound-Cake Speech a hundred years later, the politics of respectability has often taken on the quality of black theology. Members of the black community are told that wearing the mask, playing the game, and being twice as good are the keys to making it in America. It’s as if to say, “If we only knew how to act, racism would just fall away.” This is, of course, absurd. Good behavior and attire deemed proper do not abrogate racism. Discrimination does not come with a dress code.

The politics of respectability is really a coping mechanism. It affirms the inferiority and unattractiveness of black culture. And it contributes to the formation of implicit biases that lead black people to prefer white people over their own.

But it’s not the only option. Unable to live with my “strong automatic preference,” I took the test a few more times. Through repeated attempts, I trained myself to react evenly to the black, white, positive, and negative pairings. In a sense, through acknowledgement of the bias and a concerted effort to modify my behavior, I suppressed the implicit bias. By my fourth and final attempt, I exhibited no preference at all. If each of us is willing to recognize our implicit biases and police our actions accordingly, there may be hope for the racial aspect of the American experiment after all.