In 2005, an American implicit association test revealed my views about black American males. These computer tests infer your ‘implicit’ attitudes by how quickly you link positive or negative concepts with photographs of persons of particular ethnic groups, or ethnic names where these are easily linked to particular groups.
Back in 2005, the conclusion was that:
Your data suggests a moderate automatic preference for white people relative to black people.
One of the things I really did not like about my trip to the US in June was the way I absorbed the racial culture. I quickly fell into the habit of doing quick risk assessments on young black men. I could not recall the precise statistics, but I was well aware that they are massively over-represented in the criminal justice system. Most times I concluded that they were no threat and I never actually found myself in a worrying situation (unlike my first trip to the US in 1992, when I am pretty sure I at least would have been robbed, had not the police arrived and arrested the guy who was harassing me and my friend – they had been looking for him anyway).
I wanted to take a moral shower every time I thought this way, but my self-defence instincts were too strong to stop the thoughts entering my mind.
In a new Australian implicit association test, organised by Andrew Leigh and Alison Booth, I was spared any need for a moral shower. My responses were neutral as between Anglo and Chinese names, though I expect that if terms like ‘studies hard’ or ‘drives well’ had been used some stereotyping may have been revealed.
While I encourage readers to take the Australian test to help my friend Andrew L to get a reasonably large sample to analyse, I am lukewarm on these tests – or at least think that only very limited conclusions can be drawn from them.
As I noted in 2005, even for stereotyping purposes race is rarely the only information we use. It is only one aspect of general appearance.
My reading of the research suggests that few people are doctrinal racists, believing persons from other groups to be inherently inferior or always to be avoided. However many have prejudices that can be contradicted by information about specific individuals. This is how we can get the phenomenon of people who say that they don’t much like blacks/Asians/Jews/whatever, but that the particular black/Asian/Jewish/whatever persons they know are all ok.
Also, and importantly, prejudices are rarely the only thing guiding behaviour. Social norms and sanctions guide our interactions with others. General norms of civility can maintain good relations between people even when prejudices are widespread.
The internet notoriously weakens those norms and sanctions, as the bad behaviour in comments threads shows. It makes web the ideal place to test underlying prejudices, even if a poor place for working out how people might behave in the real world.