Posted on April 16, 2007

Testing For A Hidden Racial Bias

Sara James, MSNBC, April 15, 2007

While Don Imus has apologized for his racial slurs, he insists he’s not a racist. But is it possible that virtually all of us have a hidden racial bias, hidden even from ourselves? Several years ago Dateline brought together two groups of volunteers, African-American and white, who agreed to take a test, scientifically designed to answer just that question.

Here’s how it works: Words and faces appear rapidly one after another around the screen. The test taker is supposed to link each one to the left or right box here in the centerlinking positive words like “friend” to “good” and negative words like “awful” to “bad.” White faces with white. Black faces with black. And it’s the mistakes that are so revealing.

Anthony Greenwald, University of Washington: We find that frequently some people are disturbed by their results.

“Dateline” put this experiment to a difficult challenge, testing a cross section of men and women, including some who have impeccable credentials in race relationpeople like Ronda, a civil rights attorney.

During the first half of the test, black is linked to bad, and white is linked to good. For Ronda this half of the test is a breeze. She never makes a mistake.

But let’s see how she does when the information is reversed. When the left box marked bad, has a [white] face, and the right box labeled good, has a black face.

Suddenly the test becomes much more difficult for Ronda. About a third of the way through she makes a mistake, linking the white face to the right box, even though that shows a black face.

Ronda’s score indicates a strong preference for white. Is this because she unconsciously associates white with good?

Ronda, volunteer: Well, I could tell when I was taking it, I had so much of an easier time doing the white with good, much to my dismay.

Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard University: We all might be prejudiced in ways we’re not aware.

Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University and Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington created this test.

Sara James, Dateline correspondent: What do you think this test reveals that perhaps we didn’t know before?

Banaji: How fair are we being when we judge a person.


There would be many people who would say, ‘What’s wrong with showing a preference for your own race?’

Greenwald: In some context it’s actually illegal to do so. In employment context, in college admissions.


In fact, this experiment has passed scientific scrutiny and the results of the professor’s experiments have been published in leading psychological journals. This test has now become even more widely accepted and is available in 19 other countries and 16 different languages.

Our results reflect the professor’s findings.

Banaji: Something like 79 or 80 percent of white Americans who take the test, show a preference for white over black.

And as revealing as those results are, the biggest surprise is yet to come. Even for many black test takers the more challenging part of the test seems to be when black is associated with good and white with bad.

After two attempts, one of our participants still can’t make it to the end.

Even so, Joan still thought she’d show a preference for her own race.

James: Would you be surprised then, Joan, if I said that your test showed a slight preference for white?

Joan: Yes, I would be.

James: Does it shock you?

Joan: Yes . . .


And Joan isn’t alone. Dennis is the leader of a civil rights organization. According to his test in the studio, Dennis is neutral but his individual computer test showed a preference for white. His response:


Heather is an assistant district attorney. On the part of the test where the black face is paired with the word bad, Heather has noticeable difficulty and can’t finish. She showed a strong preference for African-Americans and her pride was unabashed.


Randall, volunteer: Does that score mean that I do not like European-Americans? No. Is my subconscious aware of the condition that African-Americans are in this country at this particular point? My conscience is.

According to the research, 48 percent of African-Americans have a preference for their own race.

The professors note that there’s a difference in reaction between blacks and whites when they find out they have a preference for their own race.

You could say it’s pride or prejudice. What blacks consider a badge of health self esteem, many whites regard as an embarrassing revelation.