One of the more pervasive assumptions of modern American society, particularly in my generation, is the notion that “everyone is racist,” “society” has made everyone racist, and—most importantly—much of this racism is “implicit” or “subconscious,” something that isn’t directly observable but nonetheless real.
“They’ve done tests,” people insist. “These tests show that you are more likely to have positive responses towards white faces and negative responses towards black faces. It’s been proven by science. You’re probably racist, too, even if you deny it.”
These “tests” have constituted a critical cornerstone of the modern progressive view of racism: where no actual racial animus can be found, liberals have often resorted to accusations of “unconscious” racism, pointing to alleged research that shows an alleged subliminal streak of racism deep within the hearts of us all.
What is most convenient about these accusations is that they cannot readily be denied. If someone accuses you, without any specific evidence, of harboring deep-seated racist tendencies, how can you possibly deny it and prove yourself bigotry-free? You can’t, which is the point.
Well. There are indications that these “tests,” far from being reliable or determinative of any kind of racial animus, are actually—what’s the word?— bunk.
The Weakness of the Implicit Bias Test
The first indication came earlier this year at New York Magazine, in the form of a massive, 13,000-word essay that examines the ubiquitous racism-detecting examination: the “implicit association test” (IAT). According to author Jesse Singal, research shows the test “is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior.” Years of sensational coverage has made this test out to be a foolproof predictor of racist belief. The evidence strongly suggests otherwise.
Over at Vox recently, German Lopez further examined the IAT’s shortcomings. His own experience with this device would be fantastically humorous if it were not so sad. He took the test three different times, each with a different result. One showed him “free of racism, even at the subconscious level,” one showed him with “a slight automatic preference for white people,” and one more showed him with another “slight automatic preference—only now it was in favor of black people.”
“At this point,” he writes, “I was at a loss as to what this test was telling me. Should I consider the average of my three results, essentially showing I had no bias at all? Or should I have used the latest result? Was this test even worth taking seriously, or was it bullsh-t?”
Meditate on the cosmic absurdity of this situation: a grown man struggling to determine whether he is a bigot based on the results of an Internet test. It is hard to tell if this is modern liberalism at its peak, or at its nadir. Maybe both.
The Test Doesn’t Work Individually Or Collectively
Lopez’s investigation turns up solid evidence to suggest this test is, indeed, bullsh-t. Lopez quotes Calvin Lai, the director of the Project Implicit, who claims: “[The test] can predict things in the aggregate, but it cannot predict behavior at the level of an individual” when that individual has only taken the test once.
But as University of Connecticut researcher Hart Blanton once pointed out, this is a self-defeating distinction: “If you’re not willing to say what the positive [IAT score] means at the individual level,” he told New York Magazine, “you have no idea what it means at the aggregate level. … If I’m willing to give 100 kids an IQ test, and not willing to say what an individual kid’s score means, how can I then say 75 percent of them are geniuses, or are learning disabled?”
This is eminently true. But perhaps the most shocking aspect of the IAT is not that it is ineffective both individually and collectively, it’s that, according to its creators, it doesn’t even measure racism. Lopez quotes Tony Greenwald, another co-creator of the test, who says: “I and my colleagues and collaborators do not call the IAT results a measure of implicit prejudice [or] implicit racism…Racism and prejudice are explicit attitudes with components of hostility or negative animus toward a group. The IAT doesn’t even begin to measure something like that.”
Got that? The test that for years has been used to justify countless accusations of racism isn’t even designed to qualify racism. This, mind you, coming from the creators of the test!
This Test Has Already Taught Americans a Lie
These revelations are bad enough. More disturbing still that the implicit-association test has been around for some time, and has become a pop culture touchstone—profiled, as Lopez points out, in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” and newspapers like the New York Times, among countless other places. The test’s supposed ability to identity unconscious racism in individual test-takers has become one of those things that “everyone knows.” It has been this way for years.
Yet for all this time the test creators have apparently not mounted any significant effort to dissuade the public of these wrong assumptions. It would have taken nothing more than a jointly authored op-ed in the opinion pages of the Times or the Washington Post to set the record straight. Nothing of the sort seems to have been done.
More disturbingly, it seems as if many others aren’t willing to push against the test’s assumptions. They may be too afraid. When Lopez reached out to researcher Blanton for additional comment, Blanton refused: “I’m mostly trying to extricate myself from that debate,” he said. “It’s genuinely unpleasant.”
The lesson is clear: progressive racial politics, which reach almost a fever pitch in colleges and academic circles, may frighten dissenters into silence. Indeed, in the course of being interviewed for Singal’s New York piece, IAT co-creator Mahzarin Banaji claimed that at least a few critics of the test are simply “aggrieved individuals who think that Black people have it easy in American society.” Would you want to have that accusation lobbed against you, especially in the ultra-liberal, hyper-sensitive world of academia?
Re-Examine Social Stigmas Based on Predicted Animus
What does all of this suggest? Simply put, that much of the liberal narrative surrounding race may be total nonsense. Of course that doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist, but it does mean we can’t trust this test or the narrative that everyone or even most people are automatically biased against, or likely to act out against, individuals with darker skin.
Common sense has always suggested the IAT is not something we should take very seriously. A silly button-pushing test can’t possibly plumb the depths of the human heart or even the human subconscious. But what if, as appears to be the case, the creators of the test themselves subtly indicate that the test isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? What if we have evidence that dissenting voices on this topic have been cowed into silence? What are we to make of this?
It is worth honestly examining our society’s presumptions regarding race and racism, “implicit” or otherwise, and determining whether these presumptions hold up. There is no real indication that the vast majority of our academies, much less American progressives, are up to the task; they have bungled the conversation thus far and show no intention of fixing it. So perhaps it’s up to the rest of us.
This article previously incorrectly reversed the words in the name Project Implicit. Due to an editing error it also previously said researcher Calvin Lai had only taken the implicit bias test once, a qualification that applies not to him but to his description of a test taker.