Category: Race

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Volume 59, Issue 6 (August 2012)

Volume 59, Issue 6 (August 2012)


Articles

From Private Violence to Mass Incarceration: Thinking Intersectionally About Women, Race, and Social Control Kimberlé W. Crenshaw 1418
Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers Dorothy E. Roberts 1474
Blind Discretion: Girls of Color & Delinquency in the Juvenile Justice System Jyoti Nanda 1502
The New Racially Restrictive Covenant: Race, Welfare, and the Policing of Black Women in Subsidized Housing Priscilla A. Ocen 1540
Justice for Girls: Are We Making Progress? Francine T. Sherman 1584
Engendering Rape Kim Shayo Buchanan 1630
Uncomfortable Places, Close Spaces: Female Correctional Workers’ Sexual Interactions With Men and Boys in Custody Brenda V. Smith 1690
“In an Avalanche Every Snowflake Pleads Not Guilty”: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Incarceration and Impediments to Women’s Fair Housing Rights George Lipsitz 1746


Comments

Unlocking the Gates of Desolation Row Sara Taylor 1810
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Is “racial balance” always discriminatory?

In a recent case out of the Sixth Circuit, the court addressed the concept of “racial balance,” finding that an effort to achieve racial balance in disciplinary measures constitutes direct evidence of discrimination. While this is by no means the first case to deal with “racial balance” and discrimination, I am wondering: are all “racial balance” cases created equal?

In Ondricko v. MGM Grand, the plaintiff, a white woman, claimed reverse race discrimination (and sex discrimination) after she was fired from her job as a floor supervisor in the casino. Ondricko was ostensibly fired for participating in a “bad shuffle” at a blackjack table that she supervised. This type of incident is apparently not uncommon, and the court had at least six other similar incidents to compare involving white and black men and women who had engaged in similar conduct and whose discipline varied from several-day suspensions to terminations.

The “smoking gun” in this case is the interesting part. Four months before Ondricko’s incident, a black woman was terminated for her involvement in a similar incident involving unshuffled cards put into play. Around the time that supervisors were discussing the appropriate discipline for plaintiff, two managers had a conversation in which one noted that the black woman’s lawyers had called and wanted to know how the casino was going to handle Ondricko’s case (presumably because they viewed her as a similarly situated comparator). The other manager responded by saying, “do you think I wanted to fire [Ondricko], I didn’t want to fire [her], how could I keep the white girl?” The Sixth Circuit determined, based on this statement, that a reasonable jury could conclude that race was a motivating factor in the decision to terminate. “[I]t is certainly reasonable to conclude . . . that MGM was motivated by a desire to be racially balanced in its terminations for misconduct related to shuffling.” In support of this proposition, the court cited another Sixth Circuit case involving a school board’s attempt to be racially balanced in the hiring of school employees. And that was essentially the end of the court’s analysis.

But Ondricko was not an affirmative action case nor was it a case about achieving racial balance in hiring. Instead, the case was about insuring racial balance in the employer’s discipline of its employees. The Sixth Circuit did not see a distinction between these two types of “racial balance” cases, but I think that is a flawed view. This case may not be the best example because the desire to mete out the same discipline across races was expressed in response to a call from a lawyer but what if that had not been the case? Although race is technically a motivating factor when an employer attempts to be “racially balanced” in its approach to disciplining employees, is that the type of case Title VII is intended to cover? Shouldn’t we, on some level, be encouraging employers to be mindful about race when meting out discipline and to insure that they are treating employees of all races the same? If they don’t, they risk disparate treatment claims for treating employees differently based on race. To call race a “motivating factor” in this type of case and not discuss the potentially legitimate reason for consideration of race seems to be a flawed or, at least, an incomplete analysis.

I think there is an analogy here to Ricci v. DeStefano, in which the Supreme Court recently concluded that an employer’s fear of disparate impact litigation is only a legitimate basis for intentional discrimination when the employer possesses a “strong basis in evidence” for believing that a valid disparate impact claim can be asserted. The Court in Ricci may have made my argument about Ondricko and racially balanced discipline more problematic, but I would be interested to hear others’ views on this issue.

 

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Identity, Language, and Discrimination

As I mentioned in my prior post, I am thinking a lot right now about the intersection between identity and linguistic meaning as it impacts employment discrimination.  In my last post, I wrote about the Seventh Circuit’s view of the word “bitch” and its failure to mention the relevance of the gender identity of the speaker of that word when considering its contextual meaning.  I recently posted a draft of my article on this topic, “The N-Word at Work: Contextualizing Language in the Workplace,” on SSRN.  The article primarily deals with the “n-word” but makes the broader point that linguistic meaning is a product of numerous contextual factors including the racial, gender, religious, etc. identity of the speaker and listeners.

“The N-Word at Work” argues that there is a widening gap between the use and meaning of words in modern American culture and courts’ treatment of those words. This is particularly true in the case of derogatory slurs and phrases but is equally true for discriminatory language in general.  For example, in American culture, it is a virtually universally accepted reality that a word, like the “n-word,” can have horrific or endearing meanings depending on the identity of the speaker and other contextual factors.  There is a striking difference between a white man using the word with his colleagues and a black man using it among his friends. But given Title VII’s prohibition of different treatment on the basis of race, the white man’s use of the term raises difficult questions about whether he can claim protection from discipline under Title VII’s reverse race discrimination jurisprudence.

Nonetheless, both the legal literature and judicial system have largely ignored this problem of language in discrimination cases.  Perhaps sensing an emerging problem in the lower courts, in its 2006 decision in Ash v. Tyson, the Supreme Court devoted a single, vague sentence to the meaning of language in discrimination cases.  Despite this, the problem persists among appellate and district courts alike.

My article calls attention to this issue by examining the uses and meanings of discriminatory language in modern culture and advocates a theory of meaning that relies on the context in which it is used, the identity of the user, and the social, historical, and cultural framework in which the language developed.  The article highlights the mistreatment of language by trial and appellate courts and tracks the troubling history of Ash, which was finally resolved in December 2011 after two trials, a trip to the Supreme Court and four reviews by the Eleventh Circuit.  Finally, the article suggests solutions to this seemingly intractable problem, including the need to (1) recall the purposes of anti-discrimination law and the permissible non-literal applications of that law, and (2) permit and encourage the use of extra-legal expert testimony akin to social framework evidence that could translate the cultural realities of language for courts.

Any comments on the topic in general and the solutions I offer would be helpful as I am currently revising the article and am working on my next project, which deals with the changing nature of identity and the “protected class” paradigm in discrimination law.

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Ifill on Having Even Half and What More Needs to Be Done

My colleague (and guest blogger) Sherrilyn Ifill has an insightful post on Anne-Marie Slaughter’s attention-grabbing Atlantic piece  and future book on the silly notion of “having it all.”  As Professor Ifill’s post makes clear, Slaughter’s lament captures a microscopic part of the problem–most working women, especially minorities, cannot remotely have any part of the illusory promise.  Professor Ifill calls upon professional women, the 1%, to help the plight of the other 99% of working women with kids, because they can and because they should.  Professor Ifill’s post on the relevance of legal scholarship rightly captured lots of attention, and this post should too.

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Vanderbilt Law Review En Banc Fisher v. University of Texas Roundtable

Vanderbilt Law Review En Banc is pleased to present the first round of our current Roundtable, which looks at Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Fisher will be argued in the October 2012 Supreme Court Term and the Court will consider whether the University of Texas’s use of race in its undergraduate admissions process is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Professors Vikram Amar, James Blumstein, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Girardeau Spann, and Gerald Torres consider the issues and offer their views on how the Court might—or should—approach this case in their “First Take” articles. In approximately eight weeks, these same scholars will offer responses to each other’s essays. We look forward to a spirited debate on these interesting and often contentious issues.

Roundtable: First Takes

Is Honesty the Best (Judicial) Policy in Affirmative Action Cases? Fisher v. University of Texas Gives the Court (Yet) Another Chance to Say Yes
Vikram David Amar · 65 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 77 (2012)

Grutter and Fisher: A Reassessment and a Preview
James F. Blumstein · 65 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 57 (2012)

The Diversity Paradox: Judicial Review in an Age of Demographic and Educational Change
Tomiko Brown-Nagin · 65 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 113 (2012)

Fisher v. Grutter
Girardeau A. Spann · 65 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 45 (2012)

Fisher v. University of Texas: Living in the Dwindling Shadow of LBJ’s America
Gerald Torres · 65 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 97 (2012)

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The Preacher and the Pragmatist: Remembering Derrick Bell

I’m now old enough to have lived through several moral panics over critical race theory. There was that culture-wars-era (remember those days?) one over whether critical race theorists were destroying the legacy of the Enlightenment by publishing first-person anecdotes; there was the one about whether critical race theorists were anti-Asian and anti-Semitic for criticizing extant standards of “merit” in the context of affirmative action in higher education; connected with that, there was that flap over whether Richard Delgado’s skin was the same color as Richard Posner’s (young people, I swear I am not making this up! Google it!); and, of course, there was that time Jeffrey Rosen blamed O.J. Simpson’s acquittal on, you guessed it, critical race theory.

These are reduced days, and the most recent moral panic over CRT cannot compare in either grandeur or silliness. Still, I experienced a moment of nostalgia when video recently surfaced on YouTube of a sweetly young Barack Obama, then a student at Harvard Law School, introducing Professor Derrick Bell at what appears to be a rally. The tagline attached to the video refers to “radical racist Derrick Bell,” and a related video shows Soledad O’Brien frantically riffing off some clearly inadequate notes as she tries to defend critical race theory as a mainstream academic literature (watching her, I had the urge to shout encouragingly, “EPA!”). The “gotcha” moment that follows shows Bell explaining to an interviewer his sympathy with W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of “the wages of whiteness”: the idea that anti-black sentiment has been so hard to eradicate in American society because it serves the function of keeping poor and disempowered white people content with their lot, willing to identify with elite whites based on the symbolic community of race rather than making common cause with poor folks of other backgrounds based on economic interest.

Seeing Bell explaining this argument in his characteristically soft, courtly voice, and thinking about the juxtaposition of Bell and Obama, made me think about the preacher and the pragmatist. Not Bell as preacher and Obama as pragmatist, but the preacher and the pragmatist within Bell himself.

What’s true in the characterization of Bell as a radical is, of course, his thoroughgoing rejection of America’s official liberal pieties about race, the most important of these being the faith that racism either has already disappeared or could very soon, probably in our grandchildren’s generation (if we could just get rid of affirmative action, or fully implement it, depending on whether you skew right or left).  Bell is probably most famous for two concepts: the idea of “interest convergence” and the conviction that “racism is permanent,” and both – especially the second – were and continue to be deeply emotionally upsetting to many. Interest convergence is the idea that black people (about and to whom Bell largely spoke) will only experience improvement in their material condition to the extent that white people as a group believe that it serves their own interests. The idea that racism is permanent links back to DuBois and undermines another liberal faith: the idea that racism is peripheral rather than central to American society. The Bell who believed racism is permanent also believed that the American social contract is founded on racial identity, that Americanness and whiteness are too bound up in one another to ever be teased apart.

This side of Bell counseled pragmatism rather than idealism, rejecting King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the most brutal terms. Under this view, the best strategy for black people is to appeal to white self-interest for moderate reforms; and we will never be post-racial as long as there is an America. Bell was accused of nihilism for taking this position. Yet there was another Bell too, a preacher in addition to a pragmatist.

Re-reading his book Confronting Authority, I get the sense that Bell was not an easy colleague, and not because of his personal style. Bell was always warm, gentle and mild-mannered, funny, and dedicated to dialogue even with those with whom he bitterly disagreed. He never came across as the stereotypical Angry Black Man. But he had the discomfiting habit of trying to live up to his principles and expecting everyone else to, too. His account of his personal strike against Harvard Law School – his decision to take leave unless and until a qualified black woman was hired to the full-time tenure-track faculty – is the best example. Like Peter Singer, the philosopher who tries to get affluent people to use their money and privilege on behalf of the worst-off instead of benefitting their friends and family, Bell was always taking an uncomfortable but principled stand and making you have to explain to yourself why you couldn’t do the same. This Bell was an idealist, not a realist. His answer to those who criticized his “permanence of racism” thesis was similarly disconcertingly idealistic: One fights against racism, even though we know it to be permanent, simply because it is the right thing to do, because we have a moral responsibility to do so. Preachers’ kids sometimes grow up to be odd people in this way: trying to live as God wants us to live rather than making the accommodations to social norms and physical and mental comfort that the rest of us do. I have no idea whether Professor Bell was a preacher’s kid, or whether he considered himself religious, but this aspect of his thought and life has that same unnerving quality.

In his book A Secular Age,  Charles Taylor argues that a signal social division of our time is between those who feel that the pleasures and pains of this world are all there is, and those who feel that there is something more. Derrick Bell placed himself on both sides of the divide. He was both a preacher and a pragmatist, deeply principled and deeply strategic. Both sides of him were uncompromising. People like that are seldom easy company, but they challenge us in a useful way: not only with their ideas, but with the shape of their lives.

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Viewpoint, Voting, and Structuring the Electorate

I am delighted to join the blogging community of Concurring Opinions for the month of April.  Thanks to Solangel Maldonado and Daniel Solove for their gracious invitation.

Denying voting rights to citizens with felony convictions has gotten a bad rap. The reason it’s not worse is because that rap is based on only half the story.  Anyone familiar with the complexion of our prison population knows that felon disfranchisement laws extend striking racial disparities to the electoral arena.  Less known, however, is that citizens with felony convictions are excluded from the electorate, in part, because of perceptions about how this demographic might vote or otherwise affect the marketplace of ideas.  In other words, citizens with felony convictions are denied the right to vote because of their suspected viewpoint.

Picking up on this point earlier this year, Michael Dorf highlighted a dispute between Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum about which of them held the most conservative position concerning the voting rights of citizens convicted of a felony.  Inventing a criminal persona named Snake, Dorf queried what issues might provoke such a person to vote: Lower protections for private property or public safety? Redistribution of public resources from law enforcement to education, health, or recreation?  Elimination of certain criminal laws?  I can fathom many other lawful motivations for voting.  However, as Dorf points out (and decidedly rejects), the underlying objection to allowing citizens with felony convictions to vote is based on an assumption that, if they could vote, they would express self-serving and illegitimate interests. In other words, the viewpoint that felons would express through voting has no place in the electoral process.

I have always assumed that my viewpoint was precisely what I and other voters are supposed to express at the ballot box.  Whether that viewpoint is shared, accepted, condoned or vehemently disdained and abhorred by others is irrelevant to the right to vote.  Not so for citizens with felony convictions.  This group of citizens is presumed to possess deviant views that justify their exclusion from the electorate and the denial of a fundamental right. Read More

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Diversity Day!

“Mom,” said my fourteen-year-old daughter. “What can I be for Diversity Day without being racist?”

As a good, progressive private school, my daughter’s school prides itself on its commitment to “diversity.” And like schools everywhere, it has a Spirit Week during which students and staff are instructed to do wacky things together in the service of building school spirit. Pajama Day! Crazy Hair Day! Superhero Day! This year, for some reason, the two mandates collided. Thus we got Diversity Day.

Someone, fortunately, had made a stab at thinking things through. We parents got an email from a school administrator warning us, “This is NOT a day to try to be someone else.” At least no one is going to show up in blackface, I thought with relief.

But what is Diversity Day supposed to be about? According to the email, “It is a day to celebrate a core aspect of the School’s mission by giving students the opportunity to celebrate their own cultural and/or family traditions. . . a day to express a certain amount of pride and respect for their families and backgrounds.”

Great, but there is complexity on top of complexity here. Begin with the fact that among the children of the Northern California professional-managerial class, there are hardly any who would claim a single “cultural and/or family tradition” for “their own.” These are kids with hyphenated last names and hyphenated backgrounds. The email to parents says, “They need to express themselves in a way that would make their grandparents proud of who they are.” Yes, but which grandparents? And who “are” these kids? Do they – or we – yet know? Yes, they have studied slavery and the Holocaust at school. My daughter and I have had lively discussions about President Andrew Jackson and his role in the Trail of Tears. But these children are fourteen and privileged and they live in the Bay Area; they are only now beginning to come into personal contact with the sharp edges of racism. I’m sure the parents of the eighth-grade black boys have already had several painful talks about being deferential and making no sudden movements when around strange white people or police officers. But I’m lucky; as mother of a girl, I only (!) have to worry about sex.

As in: “None of my friends think Asian boys are hot,” says my daughter. Some boy in her class has declared, “Black girls aren’t hot unless they look white.” To which my (black, curvy) daughter said sorrowfully, “I would have thought black girls would be attractive because they’re curvy.” We talk about the politics of personal ads; it seems grown-ups are also not quite post-racial in this area. And we try to unpack what “hotness” is supposed to mean, anyway.

Yet even these hard conversations are only tiny forays into the maelstrom of identity. High school and college, these days, are where the racial decisions really begin to bite for privileged kids. That accords, anyway, with the accounts of my “of color” students in their Critical Race Theory journals, who report being shocked when college classmates suddenly insisted on knowing “What are you?” or “Where are you from? No, really?” College is when those with complex identities and backgrounds are pressured by others to choose, to align, to make a stand.

Add to this confusion our national culture’s own vexed commitment to “diversity,” that peppy, All-American solution to the tragedy of racial subordination. Diversity is great because everyone has it already! Also, it’s good for everybody, since the corporate world, the military, and advertising can’t be wrong! But as Sheila Foster pointed out long ago, the downside of diversity is its emptiness; it can mean all things to all people and therefore nothing at all. And since everybody is different from everybody else, diversity is kinda automatic, no? “Should I just go as myself?” wonders my daughter. I respond, “If it’s their mission, then why isn’t every day Diversity Day?”

The truth, of course, is that race is the elephant in the diversity room. What we really care about when we talk about “diversity” is race and ethnicity, with perhaps a nod to gender, sexuality, and disability. But within the diversity framework, this commitment becomes fraught. When corrective justice was the paradigm, it made sense to put race and ethnicity at the center; flute players and yoga practitioners have not been targets for society-wide discrimination. If diversity for its own sake is the new goal, however, what do race and ethnicity become but skin color, eye shape, and quaint native costumes? Thus does Diversity Day pull us, ironically, toward the post-racial fantasy in which Martin Luther King, Jr. Day really is no different from St. Patrick’s Day in the United States: just another chance to be sold fun foods and drinks, and to feel good about how we are all the same beneath our superficial differences.

And I would be fine with that, were my daughter actually growing up in a world where no one would make her hotness depend on how “white” she looks.

Well, by the time she’s ready to go to college, of course, no doubt the Supreme Court will have ruled that diversity is not a compelling state interest after all and that higher education admissions in public schools must be race-blind. The question will be what these well-meaning private schools should do with their Diversity Days. New awkward rituals await, I’m sure.

But perhaps an awkward commitment to justice is better than no commitment at all.

P.S. I know: All these race problems are supposed to disappear in twenty-five years or less. Our innocent, colorblind children are going to lead us into the promised land. OK, I’ll wait.

P.P.S. Oh, and for those who want to know — She’s going to wear a pink triangle.

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Racey, Racey Neuro-Hype! Can a Pill Make You Less Racist?

Media outlets around the world reported yesterday that a pill can make people less racist.

“Heart disease drug ‘combats racism’” heralds the UK’s Telegraph.  “A Pill that Could Prevent Racism?” asks The Daily News.

Is this for real?

The answer is less racy – and less raced – but actually more interesting than the headlines suggest.

Researchers at the Oxford University Centre for Practical Ethics, led by Sylvia Terbeck, administered a common blood-pressure lowering drug, called propranolol, to half of a group of white subjects and a placebo to the other half.  (Read the study’s press release here and the research paper here)  The subjects then took a test that measures “implicit associations” – the rapid, automatic good/bad, scary/safe judgments we all make in a fraction of a second when we look at words and pictures.  The subjects who took the drug showed less of an automatic fear response to images of black people’s faces and were less likely to associate pictures of black people with negative words than the subjects who did not take the drug.  Based on the study’s design, it is likely that results would be the same in trials involving racism by and against other racial and ethnic groups.

This looks like the pill treated racism in the research subjects.  But this isn’t so.

Researchers have long known that propranolol has a range of effects that include lethargy, sedation, and reductions in several kinds of brain activity.  In high-flown medical parlance, this drug makes people really chilled out.  I know: I’ve been on propranolol myself (unsuccessfully) for migraine prevention.  When I was on the drug, my biggest fear was falling asleep at work – and even that didn’t stress me as much as it should have.

Because propranolol muffles fear generally, it reduces automatic negative responses to just about anything.  Propranolol has been used to treat everything from “uncontrolled rage” to performance anxiety and is being explored for treating PTSD.  Very recent research shows that it generally reduces activity in the brain region called the amygdala (more on that, below).

But the study remains interesting and important for a few reasons.  This is the first study to show that inhibiting activity in the amygdala, which is crucially involved in fear learning, directly reduces one measure of race bias.  This validates extensive research that has correlated race bias with heightened activity in that brain region.  (Although some contrary research also challenges the association.)  So this study helps support the idea of a causal relationship between automatic or pre-conscious race bias and conditioned fear learning.

The cure for racism born of conditioned fear learning is not to chemically dampen the brain’s response to fear generally – because fear is often useful – but to attack the causes of the conditioned associations that lead to bias in the first place.

The rest of this post will show how the fear response, claims about race, and the way the drug works all come together to point to the social nature of even “neurological” race bias – and to its economic and legal repercussions.

The fear response

When we see something that frightens or startles us, several regions of the brain become active – particularly the amygdala.  The amygdala has many functions, so a neuroimage showing activity in the amygdala does not necessarily mean that a person is experiencing fear.  But if a person has a frightening experience (loud noise!) or sees something she’s afraid of (snakes!), activity in the amygdala spikes.  This activity is pre-conscious and totally outside our control:  We startle first and then maybe stop to think about it.

The automaticity of fear serves us well in the face of real threats – but poorly in much of daily life.  Fear learning is overly easy: A single negative experience can create a lasting, automatic fear association.  Repeated, weak negative experiences can also form a strong fear association.  And, we can “catch” fear socially: If my friend tells me that she had a negative experience, I may form an automatic fear association as if I had been frightened or harmed myself.  Finally, fear lasts.  I can consciously tell myself not to be afraid of a particular thing but my automatic fear response is likely to persist.

Race bias and the fear response

In neuroimaging studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on white and black Americans, research subjects on average have a greater amygdalar response to images of black faces than to images of white faces.  Researchers have interpreted this as a pre-conscious fear response.  Indeed, the more that activity in a person’s amydala increases in response to the images of black faces, the more strongly he or she makes negative associations with images of black faces and with typically African-American names (see paper here).

These automatic fear responses matter because they literally shape our perceptions of reality.  For example, a subject might be asked to rate the facial expressions on a set of white and black faces.  The facial expressions range from happy to neutral to angry.  A subject who has a strong amygdalar response to images of black faces is much more likely to misinterpret neutral or even moderately happy expressions on a black facial image as being hostile or angry.  This shows how fear changes our perceptions, which in turn changes how we react to and treat other people.  It also shows how fear alters perception to create a self-reinforcing loop.

This kind of pre-conscious or automatic racism matters economically and legally:  A majority of white people who have taken these implicit association tests demonstrate some automatic bias against black faces both associationally and neurologically.  White people numerically and proportionally hold more positions as decision-makers about employment – like hiring and promotion – and about legal process and consequences – like whether to charge a suspect with a crime, the severity of the crime with which to charge him or her, and whether to offer a generous or harsh plea bargain.  A study of two hundred judges serving in jurisdictions across the United States has shown that judges, too, more readily make these automatic, negative associations about black people than they do about white people.  The implication is that automatic racial bias could play a role in pervasively tilting the scales against black people in every phase of economic life and in every phase of the legal process.

Yet, current anti-discrimination law only prohibits explicit racial bias.  An employer may not advertise a position as “whites only” nor fire nor refuse to promote a worker because the employer does not want to retain or advance a black person.  Systematic racial bias that creates unlawful “disparate impact” also rests on explicit racism: plaintiffs who claim that they are proportionally under-represented in, say, hiring and promotion by a particular employer must show that the disparate impact results from an intentional discriminatory purpose.

Automatic race bias, by contrast, takes a different form – a form not barred by law.  Automatic discrimination expresses itself when the white supervisor (or police officer, or prosecutor, or judge, or parole board member) just somehow feels that his or her black counterpart has the proverbial “bad attitude,” or doesn’t “fit” with the culture of the organization, or poses a greater risk to the public than an equivalent white offender and so should not be offered bail or a plea deal or be paroled after serving some part of his sentence.

Tying it all together

If current anti-discrimination law does not touch automatic bias, and automatic bias is pervasive, then does this point to a role for drugs?

On propranlol, an implicitly biased interviewer or boss might perceive a black candidate more fairly, unfiltered by automatic negative responses.  (She might, of course, still harbor conscious but unstated forms of bias; propranolol certainly would not touch race-biased beliefs about professionalism, competence, and the like.)  But it also would generally dampen the decision-maker’s automatic fear responses.  An overall reduction in automatic negative responses would not necessarily be a good thing:  while it might free decision-makers from some false negative judgments based on race, it also would likely impair them from picking up on real negative signals from other sources.

And the take-away …

That a fear-dampening drug reduces racial bias in subjects helps confirm that much racial bias is based in automatic negative responses, which result from conditioned fear learning.  Although this finding is hardly surprising, it is interesting and important.  Any person reading this study should ask him- or herself: How does automatic fear affect my decisions about other people?  How does it affect the judgments of important economic and legal decision-makers?  How can we make it less likely that the average white person sees the average black person through distorting fear goggles in the first place?

The problem with this study and the headlines hyping it is that they perpetuate the idea that racism is the individual racist’s problem (It’s in his brain! And we can fix it!).  A close reading of the study points to the importance of socially conditioned fear-learning about race – which then becomes neurologically represented in each of us.  Despite the headlines, racism is not a neurological problem but a cultural one, which means that the solutions are a lot more complex than popping a pill.