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Debate about race matters

19 June 2020

FIRST the good news: prejudice is shrinking. A large study of bias in the United States, published last year, found dramatic improvements in attitudes towards race, skin tone, and sexuality. The study, “Patterns of Implicit and Explicit Attitudes”, published in Psychological Science, was produced by Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji (and is available online). It looked at two types of data covering the ten-year period between 2007 and 2016: a set of associative tests designed to uncover implicit bias, and a series of direct questions that reveal explicit bias. Over the decade, attitudes to sexuality changed most dramatically: explicit attitudes changed by 49 per cent towards neutrality (i.e. no bias); implicit attitudes by 33 per cent. The changes for race and skin colour were less dramatic, but in the same direction: for race, explicit by 37 per cent, implicit by 17 per cent; skin tone, 21 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. Most of the movement in the attitudes to race came in the White American population: Black/African Americans retained a pro-Black bias.

So much for the raw data. The researchers also attempt to explain the causes. They looked at the relationship between explicit and implicit bias and concluded that, for race at least, changes in implicit attitudes led to changes in explicit ones. (On other topics, the relationship is different or reversed.) More significantly, perhaps, they looked at the frequency of specific terms used in Google searches and found a correlation: the heavier the Google traffic, the greater the attitudinal change. Three other topics in the study — age, disability, and body weight — were searched far less often. Although explicit attitudes on these topics moved towards neutrality, implicit attitudes remained largely the same.

Debate matters, therefore. Protest matters. Curiosity matters. The exposure to views and experiences different from one’s own most definitely matters. The Bishop of Dover, David Lammy MP, Dawn Butler MP, and other critics of the Prime Minister’s proposed commission on racial inequality are right to express scepticism about the likelihood of any practical change. The evidence from the US, however, suggests that even a talking-shop can contribute to the gradual eradication of racist attitudes.

There is bad news, however. Another US study, by Andrei Cimpian and Sarah-Jane Leslie, has discovered that academic disciplines where “brilliance” is most prized — such as philosophy, maths, and physics — award the fewest Ph.D.s to women and African Americans. Most disturbing is the suggestion that the connection between “brilliance” and white maleness is picked up at about the age of six. Were the Church to attempt a racism audit, it would need to include its schools and Sunday schools.

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