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.