White conservatism generally stresses that while some whites surely dislike blacks and overtly discriminate against them, racism is no longer a significant societal problem. That is, there are a few “bad apples” in the American bushel, but not enough to affect the lives of most blacks or justify protest movements pushing for change.
Actual research into the subject, however, reveals a rather different story — one of widespread racial prejudice and discrimination that works to cripple any notion of equal opportunity.
First, we must address something many whites simply do not understand: racism can be measured scientifically. That is, researchers can either analyze real-world data or conduct experiments using the scientific method (controlling for outlying variables), which can demonstrate how large a problem racism actually is.
For example, mentioned below is a study showing resumes with “black” names are 50% less likely to be called back for an interview than identical ones with “white” names. In this experiment, researchers created fictitious resumes with equal job and educational achievements for the black and white “applicants,” sent them out to job openings in Chicago and Boston, and waited. The results indicate serious anti-black bias in the labor market.
Second, note that results like this are incompatible with the idea of a “few bad apples.” Were this an insignificant problem — were a black man or woman to come across a bigoted white employer just every so often, once in a blue moon, a 50% discrepancy would simply not be an expected or accurate result. The “bad apples” would not have the numbers to create a drastic statistical disparity such as this; the problem must therefore be more widespread.
Third, it’s important to remember that not all discrimination stems from conscious stereotyping. True, surveys show about 60% of whites can openly admit belief in stereotypes concerning blacks: greater laziness, higher aggression, or lower intelligence in blacks, and 25% of whites say an ideal neighborhood would be totally free of them (see citations in Wise, Colorblind). Among Trump supporters, 40% think black people are more “lazy” than white people. 50% believe blacks are more “violent” than whites. 16% think whites to be a “superior race,” while 14% are “not sure.” This is conscious racism. But nearly 90% of whites hold subconscious (implicit) anti-black biases.
Implicit biases mean whites hold certain dangerous ideas about blacks without even realizing it or being able to control it, ideas pumped into our consciousness since birth, ideas so strong and so pervasive even some 48% of blacks subconsciously believe them. These are subconscious associations: associating blacks with danger, violence, laziness, and so on, versus more positive associations for whites. Those interested in studying implicit biases more should look into Harvard University’s Project Implicit.
Clearly, this is not a small-scale problem. Whether within our awareness or beyond it, anti-black biases lead to discrimination. With prejudice so large an issue, it would be remarkable indeed if the effects were insignificant.
With these three key understandings, observe a few of the arenas in which racism affects the opportunities of African Americans.
Not only are there millions of reports of housing discrimination each year, blacks seeking a home loan are two and a half to three times more likely to be steered into a subprime (high cost, low protection) loan than equally-qualified (same income, credit, etc.) whites. And, as we would expect with such a pervasive problem of anti-black bias, even higher-income blacks are more likely to be offered a subprime loan than same- or lower-income whites. In New York City, “black households with annual incomes of $68,000 or more are five times more likely to have a subprime mortgage than white households with similar or even less income” (Wise).
In Pittsburgh, a study showed that when blacks have better credit, less debt, and higher incomes than whites they are given higher interest rates on loans (among other things) 56% of the time.
In Chicago and Los Angeles, studies showed blacks and Hispanics were, compared to equally-qualified whites, “told about fewer loan products, offered less assistance, and denied basic information about loan amount and house price.”
Real estate agents also consistently steer black buyers into poorer “black” neighborhoods when said buyers earn incomes that would allow them to afford nicer homes in “white” neighborhoods (Wise).
As mentioned, when researchers decided to send out resumes to employers, identical except half had “white” names at the top and half had “black” names, the latter was 50% less likely to be called for an interview. The study was entitled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”
Black men without a criminal record are less likely to be called back for an interview than white men with criminal records, all other qualifications being equal.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, blacks are thus twice as likely to be unemployed than whites with the same work and educational background. That is, among blacks and whites without college degrees, whites are more likely to be hired. Blacks with college degrees are likewise twice as likely to be unemployed compared to others with college degrees.
One often hears conservative whites explaining away doubled unemployment rates among blacks by stating either A) more blacks need college degrees to make them more employable, which ignores the fact these studies look at similarly qualified blacks and whites or B) blacks tend to be twice as lazy as whites, an old racist myth of innate inferiority that, as noted above, too many whites seem willing to believe.
The Criminal Justice System
As surprising as this may be to many whites, blacks and whites use illicit drugs at about equal rates (whites are sometimes a bit more likely to do so). Yet law enforcement tends to pursue black criminals with much more enthusiasm than white criminals.
Blacks are more likely to be pulled over and searched while driving (even driving lawfully) than whites (even driving lawfully). One might suppose whites trying to pretend racism is a thing of the past would say blacks are simply worse drivers, a notion not supported by any evidence. Or perhaps that police focus more attention on black communities — which is true, as blacks disproportionately live in high-crime areas and police are concentrated in such places. That affects such statistics. But such facts exist alongside clear discrimination. For instance, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. One could say it’s because the police are concentrated in high-crime black areas, not low-crime white ones. But black youth are fifty times more likely than white youth to be imprisoned for their first drug offense (see Poe-Yamagata and Jones, And Justice for Some: Differential Treatment of Minority Youth in the Justice System). White youth get off much easier when caught.
Where the police operate and actual discrimination come together with toxic results. During the War on Drugs, two-thirds of the people thrown in prison were people of color, even though they do not use illegal drugs at higher rates. An uncovered interview with a Nixon aide recently showed targeting and jailing black people was a political strategy of the war. Michelle Alexander writes,
In seven states, African Americans constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison, even though they were no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs. Prison admissions for drug offenses reached a level in 2000 for African Americans more than 26 times the level in 1983.
The War on Drugs could have been fought in white neighborhoods. It wasn’t.
Minorities now comprise 60% of all U.S. prisoners. True, part of the reason is higher crime rates for murder and other acts (minorities are more likely to be poor, which results in higher violent crime) and where police are focused, but part of it is discriminatory punishment. For example, blacks are more likely to receive longer prison sentences and the death penalty than whites who commit the same crimes.
How police treat unarmed blacks in confrontations is different than how they treat unarmed whites in confrontations. From 2013-2015, over 57% of black women killed by police were unarmed, vs. only 20% of white men killed by police being unarmed. So when the police kill white men, the latter are usually armed; when they kill black women, the latter are usually unarmed! Overall, blacks in this time period were nearly 7 times more likely to be killed while unarmed in interactions with police (“Race, Gender, and the Contexts of Unarmed Fatal Interactions with the Police,” Washington University in St. Louis).
Blacks are killed disproportionately to their population. Blacks who were not attacking an officer when killed made up 39% of total deaths in 2012, way out of proportion to a small black population, 13% of Americans (compared to 46% of total deaths being white, who are nearly 70% of the American population). Unarmed Americans killed in the first half of 2015 were twice as likely to be black than white. 35% of unarmed people killed in 2017 were black (and 37% of those who were not attacking police). Part of this can be explained by disproportionate police presences and interactions where blacks live, as we saw before. But it is also the expected result of police officers associating blacks — innocent blacks included — with aggression and criminality. They are even perceived to be bigger, more threatening, than they are. That’s what the science shows.
How many studies do we need before you acknowledge a problem might exist?
The police are more likely to become physically violent or draw their weapons at blacks than whites in similar situations (“An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” National Bureau of Economic Research). “The Science of Justice: Race, Arrests, and Police Use of Force” from the Center for Policing Equity found blacks are more likely, by a factor of nearly four, to experience police force, even when controlling for crime rates. “Protecting Whiteness: White Phenotypic Racial Stereotypicality Reduces Police Use of Force” (Social Psychological and Personality Science) found that the whiter you are, the less likely you’ll have force used against you.
“A Bird’s Eye View of Civilians Killed by Police in 2015” (Criminology & Public Policy) found that, when shot by police, “civilians from ‘other’ minority groups were significantly more likely than Whites to have not been attacking the officer(s) or other civilians and that Black civilians were more than twice as likely as White civilians to have been unarmed.”
“Is the evidence from racial bias shooting task studies a smoking gun? Results from a meta-analysis” (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology) found that “relative to White targets, participants were quicker to shoot armed Black targets, slower to not shoot unarmed Black targets, and more likely to have a liberal shooting threshold for Black targets.” That was a meta-analysis of 42 studies.
“A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States, 2011–2014” (PLOS One) found “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average.” Plus, they noted “there is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.”
“Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) showed how police officers associate innocent blacks with criminality and aggression. “The Police Officer’s Dilemma: Using Ethnicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals” from the same journal showed ordinary civilians in simulations are far quicker to shoot armed blacks than armed whites, and decide faster to spare an unarmed white than an unarmed black.
“The Correlates of Law Enforcement Officers’ Automatic and Controlled Race-Based Responses to Criminal Suspects” (Basic and Applied Psychology) found that during simulations police officers with anti-black biases shoot unarmed black suspects more often. “The Consequences of Race for Police Officers’ Responses to Criminal Suspects” (Psychological Science) showed police officers are more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed blacks than unarmed whites. Fortunately, the bias diminished with extensive time in the simulation. In fact, “Across the Thin Blue Line: Police Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) credited time in simulations when police officers (who had implicit biases) did not use lethal force in a biased way during tests. This kind of training, among others, is important, and may explain why some studies contradict the idea of racist use of police force.
Even black off-duty cops are more likely to be killed by police.
One older experiment looked at what whites thought when a white man and a black man came to blows. When the white man pushed the black man, 17% of white respondents said this was a violent act. But when the black man pushed the white man? 75% of whites characterized it as violent. A 2015 study showed whites still view the actions of blacks more threatening and aggressive than identical white actions.
Portrayals in the Media
During one period in New York City, for example, blacks were arrested for 51% of crimes, but received 75% of the news coverage on crime. In Orange County, California, a 2000 study made similar findings: “African-Americans were overrepresented as perpetrators” in local news broadcasts. Blacks are more likely to be revealed to the public in a mug shot than whites who are arrested; for whites, media outlets find yearbook or family photos. One study found that when whites were exposed to a disproportionate number of black mug shots, they supported harsher incarceration policies than when they were exposed to mostly white mug shots.
A study from the University of Houston found that “long-term exposure to local television news, wherein African-Americans are depicted frequently and stereotypically as criminals, predicted increased negative implicit attitudes toward African-Americans.” A University of Illinois study found the exact same thing.
Blacks make up one-third of welfare recipients (though only 4% of blacks use cash assistance, 6-12% use housing assistance, and 11-19% use food stamps; see Loveless and Tin, Dynamics of Economic Well-Being). But the media has reinforced in white minds the idea that most welfare users are black. The media mostly portrayed welfare recipients as white from 1950 to 1964. Yet, from 1967-1992 they were portrayed as black in nearly 60% of news stories. In 1972 and 1973, nearly 75 percent of stories gave a black face to American welfare (see Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy).
Also, just to twist the knife, missing black children receive less coverage than missing white children. From 2005-2007, black children made up 19.5% of the missing youths reported on the news, even though 33.2% of missing child cases involved black kids. Non-blacks made up 66.8% of the actual cases, but received 80.5% of media coverage.
Further — though note this is not a study — some have noticed white mass shooters seem more likely to be labeled “mentally ill” in the papers and on television, whereas people of color are labeled “thugs” or “terrorists.” Others point to headlines that say positive things about white suspects but negative things about black victims (who are often exclusively blamed for their own deaths, a standard rarely applied to white victims).
There are of course many other arenas of life where discrimination takes place.
As Colorblind documents, “Black students are two to three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than whites, even though they do not, contrary to popular belief, violate school rules disproportionately, relative to white students.” This remains true even for black students from wealthier homes attending better schools. In one experiment,
Researchers had 132 educators watch videos featuring a diverse group of students and primed them to expect student misbehavior. Although no misbehavior actually occurred in the videos, teachers tended to focus their eyes on black students. This suggests that educators expected black students to act out more than other students.
Blacks and Latinos are also more likely, under “tracking,” to be put in lower-level classes they don’t belong in. Schools with more black kids have more police officers, regardless of actual crime or misconduct rates.
Studies show blacks are less likely to receive life-saving drugs and operations than whites of identical diagnoses, health insurance, income, and so on.
Also, if you are African American and attempting to sell something online, whites are less likely to contact you — and if they do, they will offer you less money than they would a white seller. Librarians are slightly less likely to reply to email queries from black-sounding names.
Unsurprisingly, whites are less likely to believe racism is a problem than people of color.
About 40% of whites believe racism is an issue, compared to 60% of blacks and Hispanics. This is not so different from a darker American past — in 1963, while blacks were marching and being murdered for their rights, 60% of whites thought blacks were treated equally in America! In 1962, 85% of whites thought black kids had the same educational opportunities as white kids.
Even if the mountain of scientific research proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that racial biases are still a huge issue in American society did not exist, it would still very much make sense to listen to those who claim to be discriminated against. Whites have a history of being wrong about these sorts of things.
As Wise writes,
When more than half of blacks and a third of Hispanics report that they have experienced unfair treatment in public places at some point just in the last month because of their race, for whites to deny the seriousness of racism in America is to say, in effect, that folks of color are hallucinating, irrational or ignorant about their own lived experience. It is to say that we white folks know black and brown reality better than those who live it.