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Scholars address wide impact of unconscious bias at America Healing Conference

NEW ORLEANS-Leading social justice scholars said today that “unconscious bias” is a major obstacle for communities across the United States because negative racial stereotypes can unknowingly prompt discriminatory actions and attitudes impacting the lives of people of color.

At the 2012 America Healing conference hosted by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), a panel – moderated by Maria Hinojosa, President of The Futuro Media Group and an NPR and PBS anchor – discussed the role that unconscious bias plays in access to employment opportunities, school discipline action, immigration, health care access, criminal justice and social opportunities for African Americans, Latinos, Asian American and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. 

Hinojosa said it is “irrefutable” what is happening in America today. “We are clearly becoming a more multicultural, multiracial, mixed country. That is the future.” But she noted that the changing demographics are causing tension and fear among the majority. “There’s an element of unconsciousness there,” she said, “but there’s also an element of consciousness which is saying – at this moment I’m in the world of being a non-Hispanic Anglo…I don’t want to become a minority.”

One panelist, Dr. David Williams, professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, cited studies documenting that when Latinos and African Americans were treated by physicians for a broken bone in their leg, they received pain medication significantly less often than white patients with the same injury.

“How on earth do we make sense of this?” Dr. Williams asked. “How is it possible that for the best trained medical workforce in the world to produce… care that appears to be so discriminatory? The answer: unconscious discrimination.  Research shows that when one holds a negative stereotype about a group and meets someone from that group, without their conscious awareness, it is an unconscious process and it is automatic. They will treat that person differently and honestly not know that they did it.”

Dr. Williams noted that most Americans would resist a label saying they are discriminating, but he added, “Welcome to the human race. It is a normal process about how all of us process information. The problem for our society is that the level of negative stereotypes is very high.”

Understanding the power of unconscious bias has emerged as a new mission for leaders and advocates working to bring racial healing and racial equity to communities across the U.S. 

Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president for program strategy at the Kellogg Foundation, explained that centuries of a racial hierarchy in America has left its mark on our society, especially pertaining to how people of color are perceived by whites. “Our society assigns value to groups of people,” she said. “It is a process that is embedded in the consciousness of Americans and impacted by centuries of bias.”

During the discussion today, panelists shared insights demonstrating how people make unconscious decisions. Dr. Phillip Goff, assistant psychology professor at UCLA, showed examples of how law enforcement officials can be motivated by unconscious bias not only to race, but also to what they perceive as threats to their masculinity.

Moreover, Rachel Godsil, director of research for the American Values Institute, maintained that many Americans believe that racism no longer exists and want to be colorblind and not even discuss race. “That is an illusion,” Godsil said, “and not what people of color are looking for.”

The last panelist, john powell, director of the Haas Center for Diversity and Inclusion and Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion at the University of California Berkeley, closed the session sharing several examples of how our mind looks at pictures, images and the world around us, and the impact on our unconscious. He said, “ the fact that we have these deep, unconscious biases – and it’s conflicted around race … we can be primed to be racially fair, we can be primed to be racially anxious – and it doesn’t make us a racist. It makes us human. And if we’re going to address it, we have to acknowledge that. 

This convening is part of the WKKF’s America Healing work that provides grants for organizations to promote racial healing and racial equity to improve the lives of vulnerable children in communities.

For more information about America Healing, visit www.AmericaHealing.org.

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