When Heather McGhee, president of the public policy group Demos, got a question from a caller during her appearance at C-SPAN, it was not about the progressive ideals her group is known for. The question, instead, was about a different issue — directed, seemingly, at McGhee’s race (she’s black):
I’m a white male, and I am prejudiced. And the reason it is is something I wasn’t taught, but it’s kind of something that I learned. When I open up the papers, I get very discouraged at what young black males are doing to each other and the crime rate. I understand that they live in an environment with a lot of drugs — you have to get money for drugs — and it is a deep issue that goes beyond that. But when, I have these different fears, and I don’t want my fears to come true. You know, so I try to avoid that, and I come off as being prejudiced, but I just have fears. I don’t like to be forced to like people. I like to be led to like people through example. What can I do to change? You know, to be a better American?
The caller presented a surprising, open admission of racism on national television — and, even more surprisingly, it came with a request to help address that racism.
McGhee thanked the caller for his honesty and question. Then she explained how all Americans of all races can help solve the subconscious racial biases that study after study have found almost all of us have:
So what can you do? Get to know black families, who are not all and not even any majority are involved in crime and gangs. Turn off the news at night, because we know … that, actually, nightly news and many media markets that have been studied actually over-represents African-American crime and under-represents crimes that happen by white people. Join a church if you are a religious person that is a black church or a church that is interracial. Start to read about the history of the African-American community in this country. Foster conversation in your family and in your neighborhood where you’re asking exactly those kinds of questions.
This fear of communities that we do not live near … We are still a very, very segregated country. Millions of white Americans live in places where they rarely see anyone of a different race. This fear and set of ideas that we only get from the worst possible news, it’s tearing us apart. And we know that in order to be — our name means the people of a nation, “Demos” — in order to be a Demos, that is united across lines of race and class and gender and age, we have to foster relationships. We have to get to know who one another actually is. And we’re always, I think, as Americans, surprised when we build relationships across race.
There is certainly a lot of research to back what McGhee is saying here. Studies show, for instance, that people tend to associate black people with criminality, even if they don’t hold explicitly racist beliefs.
As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious “dehumanization bias” against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones with a history of using force on black children in custody.
In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as “significantly less innocent” than their white counterparts.
“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” Phillip Goff, author of the study, said in a statement. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
There is no fool-proof way to fix these biases, but the experts I’ve spoken to have said that two important steps are acknowledging these biases and exposing yourself to the people you stereotype.
The second step is what’s known as the “contact theory”: Positive interactions with stereotyped groups can reduce explicit and implicit biases. A cop who interacts with black residents in his town might realize that many of his previous prejudices, implicit or not, weren’t warranted.
The idea is simple: One of the possible causes of implicit bias is exposure to persistent negative images of black people — studies have found, for example, that the nightly news can present a very skewed picture of race and crime. So exposure in the opposite direction can help mitigate those effects.
This is essentially what McGhee suggested. It’s something that many Americans may not be able to do in their day to day, since the US remains very racially segregated. It may be, however, the best way to try to overcome your own prejudice.