New Year’s resolution #37: Stop being a racist

There have been enough tense moments in 2005 to create a “Top 10 Race Stories of 2005" list. This imaginary list would undoubtedly include the disastrous Hurricane Katrina response, Kanye West’s controversial declaration that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” the riots in Paris, the riots in Australia, Rosa Park's death, and the critically-acclaimed film Crash. I’m sure there are about 15 other big stories about racism, racists, or race relations that I’m missing. The point is, it’s been a difficult year.

So what do we do after a disastrous year that has felt like the gods have picked open the scabs of the civil rights movement and left us bleeding again? Apparently, we make New Year’s resolutions.

This week's U.S. News & World Report cover story, "50 Ways to Improve Your Life," provides this advice in New Year's resolution suggestion #37: stop being racist. Along with buying better light bulbs, doing more push-ups, and swearing off ATM fees, the magazine says you should resolve not to “race to racial judgements” and instead "assess your own potential biases before confrontation happens."

This strikes me as a well-intentioned but strange and inappropriate framing for a discussion of racism. Unfortunately, starting with the assumption that everyone holds racist or biased views is probably accurate.

A Harvard study mentioned in the article allows people to measure their own unconcsious biases regarding race and skin tone, among other things. The study is part of Project Implicit, which allows anyone, anywhere to take Implicit Association Tests that measure "conscious and unconscious preferences for over 90 different topics ranging from pets to political issues, ethnic groups to sports teams, and entertainers to styles of music." (Click here to take a 10-minute demonstration test.)

I took the Implicit Association Test for skin tone, which presented me with a series of words alongside a rainbow of computer-generated faces. Through a series of four exercises, the test supposedly measures the test-taker’s negative or positive associations relating to dark-skinned versus light-skinned people. Like most test-takers, I was judged to have a slight implicit preference for the light-skinned people. However, in the race test, which does the same thing with decidedly Euro-white and African-American faces, I was judged to have an implicit preference for Black people. I'm not sure what to make of this self-discovery, though I do think the online test is a useful tool for much-needed introspection and discussion.

Some of 2005's racially-tense events have renewed closeted discussions about race and inspired us to be more open to this sensitive but important topic. The hurricane made many Americans (but unfortunately not its politicians) rethink the relationship between poverty and race; the Crash opened doors for friends and family members to talk about reasons and consequences of racism. The trick is to make sure that in all this talking, we are breaking down – rather than building up – racist attitudes and beliefs.

Thankfully, there is a positive note to begin 2006: On a generational level, there is some evidence that shows Americans slowly but surely retiring their racist attitudes. A study released by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding in November showed that 18- to 34-year-olds were more “sympathetic or sensitized to issues surrounding race and ethnic demographic changes.”

For more information on that study, click here, or for another version of the Implicit Association Test, go here.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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