Across America, Whites Are Biased and They Don’t Even Know It

Chris Mooney, Washington Post, December 8, 2014

Most white Americans demonstrate bias against blacks, even if they’re not aware of or able to control it. It’s a surprisingly little-discussed factor in the anguishing debates over race and law enforcement that followed the shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers. Such implicit biases–which, if they were to influence split-second law enforcement decisions, could have life or death consequences–are measured by psychological tests, most prominently the computerized Implicit Association Test, which has been taken by over two million people online at the website Project Implicit.

Based on this data, it appears that whites in some states may exhibit higher levels of implicit bias than those in other states. The following map, courtesy of Project Implicit, shows the states with the highest level of implicit bias (high number, red) and lowest level of implicit bias (low number, blue). Gray represents states with a middle amount of implicit bias; Michigan is the median state. Overall, the map reflects the scores of 1.51 million individuals, ranging from a high of 99,660 test takers from California to a low of 1,722 test takers from Hawaii.


A cautionary note: The people who have taken the IAT at the Project Implicit website are not a random sample of Americans, either nationally or on a state-by-state basis. Rather, they’re people who, for some reason, chose to take an online test measuring their implicit biases–which may actually mean they are less biased than average. (After all, at least they wanted to know how biased they are.)

“Please keep in mind that this map describes volunteers for the online IAT,” says psychologist Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington,  who created the Implicit Association Test in 1995. “These volunteers are younger, more educated, more politically liberal, and more female than the U.S. population as a whole.”


The Implicit Association Test comes in many versions, but in a version that detects uncontrolled racial biases or preferences–as opposed to, say, gender bias or age bias–your task is to rapidly sort a series of faces as either “African American” or “European American,” even as you also sort a variety of words (like “agony,” “joy,” “happy,” “anger”) as either “good” or “bad.”

Bias in the test occurs when people are faster at categorizing negative words when they are paired with African American faces, or faster at sorting positive words when they’re paired with white faces–suggesting an uncontrolled mental association between negative things or concepts and African Americans.



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