Most of Us Are Biased, After All

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Twentieth Century Fox/Everett Collection
Gregory Peck, far left, as a journalist who goes undercover as a Jew for an exposé on anti-Semitism in Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947. Also pictured are Celeste Holm, John Garfield, and Robert Karnes.

In his ill-fated attempt to win a Senate seat in 1858, Abraham Lincoln squared off against the incumbent, Democrat Stephen Douglas, in a series of seven debates that centered on the issue of slavery. Lincoln, of course, was the candidate in favor of equal treatment under the law for the black populace. Here is an excerpt from those debates, in which Lincoln reveals his feelings about black people themselves, aligning himself as much as possible with the political correctness of his time:

There is a physical difference between the white and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior & inferior. I am as much as any other man in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

This doesn’t sound like the man who freed the slaves, but Lincoln didn’t see an inconsistency in advocating for civil rights while holding a belief in white supremacy. As he put it, “I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”1

Today, of course, things are different. Today we have a president whose father was black, and remarks that are taken to indicate racial, ethnic, or gender bigotry can cause great damage to a public figure’s career, for example former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, radio host Don Imus, Nobel Prize winner James Watson, actor Mel Gibson, radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger, news analyst Juan Williams, and comedian Michael Richards. Yet our society still exhibits a stubborn tendency to discriminate, not just on the basis of race, but also gender, religion, ethnic group, and body weight, just to name a few. If open statement of prejudice by well-known people provokes immediate public disapproval, privately held contempt can be pervasive and strong.

In their new book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, social psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald examine the nature of today’s social biases, and the difficulty we face in erasing them. The authors’ central point is that most of us are biased toward various groups. Moreover, though some of us are aware of being prejudiced, and some of us publicly express bigoted views, the authors assert that far more of us hold prejudices seated in a deep level of our minds that is inaccessible to our conscious awareness. The attitudes lurking in that blind spot, they say, have an important part in perpetuating discrimination.

Banaji’s and Greenwald’s view aligns the study of prejudice with a larger movement that has transformed academic psychology in recent years. “A quarter …

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  1. 1

    See The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (Abraham Lincoln Association/Rutgers University Press, 1953), Vol. 3, pp. 248, 146.