Unconscious Racial Bias Still Prevalent, But Researchers Look for Ways to Combat

Scholarly Research Looks at Ways to Reduce or Minimize Unconscious Racial Bias

African American drivingExperts say that even the most “enlightened” people, individuals who regularly work and interact with persons of different color, still have some feelings of racial bias or discrimination. Studies show that for essentially all of us, there are ways that we subconsciously treat others differently based on racial traits or characteristics, or that minimize our contact with people we perceive to be different from us. Sometimes we are consciously aware of these feelings, but often we don’t even realize we are acting out our racial biases. In many instances, there are no life or death consequence, but as the shootings of unarmed black teenagers by white police officers in the last couple of years indicates, there can be potentially lethal implications.

Researchers are now looking at ways to determine and change potential subconscious racial biases. As early as 2001, scholars at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Washington found that they could temporarily change potential prejudices by showing subjects contrasting photos—persons of color who are generally revered, such as Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, and Caucasians who have been associated with horrendous acts, from Ted Bundy to Adolf Hitler.

That study was a breakthrough, according to Calvin Lai, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. Before that, the general consensus among scholars was that racial stereotypes or biases were unchangeable. Lai has been conducting research into a variety of ways that such racial prejudices can be reduced or overcome. He solicited proposals during his research, asking his colleagues to come up with any potential way to address the problem of racial stereotypes. Lai received 16 proposals and conducted an analysis of all of them. They covered a broad spectrum, from using visual and verbal cues to instill empathy to focusing on social wrongs perpetrated by white people. The most effective strategy, according to Lai, involves pairing a picture of a respected person of color with a picture of a heinous white person.

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