Confronting a Pandemic of Racism

Two Tufts psychology professors who study stereotyping and prejudice talk about racism, implicit bias, and what can be done

As part of the Tisch College webinar for students and recent alumni Navigating the Pandemic: Knowledge, Resilience, Civic Purpose and Engagement, psychology professors Keith Maddox and Sam Sommers spoke together on June 17 about the issue of racism and bias in society, and what they see as possibilities for change. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Keith Maddox is associate professor of psychology and directs the Social Cognition Lab at Tufts, focusing on stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Sam Sommers is professor of psychology and director of the Diversity & Intergroup Relations Lab at Tufts, and focuses on issues related to stereotyping, prejudice, and group diversity.

SAM SOMMERS: When we were first approached and asked to participate in this endeavor, we thought we were going to focus exclusively on issues related to racism, intergroup relations, and disparity and bias as they relate to the current COVID-19 crisis, like how the COVID-19 crisis is disproportionately affecting Black and Native communities in the United States.

But in the last couple of weeks, it has also become clear—it has always been clear—but just really acutely, achingly, saliently clear, that we are also in a pandemic of racism in this country. I thought I would start by just centering us in that context.

And then basically saying to my colleague, who I’ve not seen in person in quite a long time, how are you doing during all of this? With all that’s going on in our personal lives and in society at large, what are your reflections and thoughts and where are you emotionally, psychologically right now?

KEITH MADDOX: I will say I’m probably not very different from a lot of other people, that it’s been a roller coaster. There have been moments that I’ve been incredibly downtrodden and depressed with respect to the outlook for our country. But then there are also moments where I’m hopeful, I’m cautiously optimistic about the future and the potential for change.

I’m in a moment now where I’m able to process and talk about this, but what I’ve found is that, like the conversation that we’re about to have, talking about it has been useful, it’s been helpful. It’s helped me to think a little bit around what my role would be in contributing to, and hopefully sustaining, the effort to uproot some of the systematic elements of racism—not just in policing—but in a lot of different domains in our society.

But at the same time, again, that question of sustainability and trying to figure out what can we do—how do we keep it going? How do we maintain momentum past what might be elections in November, which people might think of as a natural stopping point—that we’ve won, that we have some success? And I’m still in doubt about the outcome of that election, to be perfectly honest. I think that’s the defensiveness, the pessimism in me to some extent.

But there’s going to be more work. There’s going to be sustained effort that’s going to be required. It’s going to ask each of us to look at ourselves, look at our situations, and make some decisions about how badly we want this type of change, how passionately we want to argue for, or fight for “in our own lanes,” for racial justice, racial equality. And how long we’re able to do that.

So, how are you feeling, Sam?

SOMMERS: By turns dejected, and hopeless, and guilty, and frustrated. Thinking through all the things that you’re talking about, Keith, you and I are empirical scientists. We conduct research and we publish, for the most part, in academic journals. There’s a part of me that has always thought, well, that is making a contribution to combating racism, to fostering equity and goals related to diversity and inclusion.

But I have to be honest. We’re spending a lot of time in our research, and in our conversations, thinking about the mechanisms underlying processes of stereotyping—why stereotypes, for example, are in many respects natural offshoots of the natural categorization processes that we use, architecture we use to make sense of the world around us on a regular basis.

Are you concerned at all that what we do, when we talk about those issues, is at some level normalize those processes, and ratchet us back from a state of alert and emergency and suggest, well, this is going to be a normal offshoot of the way that we think and the way we process?

Is there any portion of you that’s concerned that what we’re doing is—not giving people carte blanche or a license to engage in the world in a biased manner, but taking our foot off the accelerator and telling people, “Well, this is human nature, and this is the way that we think.”

MADDOX: Honestly, that’s probably troubled me ever since we started doing this kind of work. For those who don’t know, we focused a lot on trying to understand different forms of bias and how they play out in our interpersonal relationships with other people—and how they can blossom and bloom into larger, inter-group disparities.

As social psychologists, we recognize that this kind of bias—implicit bias, explicit bias, what have you—can play a role in people’s outcomes. But we also know that situations make a difference. Organizational processes and procedures are situations. We don’t spend a lot of time studying those kinds of things, even though we do acknowledge in a lot of our work that they’re important, that they need to be addressed. And we also try to make some recommendations about how to go about addressing them.

I think the point you were bringing up, that our focus on implicit bias and implicit prejudice often gets overemphasized in terms of trying to understand and explain some of the disparities that we see in our society—I think where I land is that it’s still important to understand that perspective.

An implicit bias perspective is that there are lots of things about the way people are wired that makes stereotyping and prejudice a little bit more likely to happen, a little bit more automatic. It takes a lot of effort and thought in order to short circuit that and to derail it.

It’s not that it’s not important. And it’s not that, because it’s something that’s natural—our cognitive system is looking for shortcuts—it necessarily excuses us from being able to do anything about it. It allows us to recognize that if we understand a little bit more about the process and the mechanism, that we can then hack the system, to try to come up with ways to not change how we make judgements, but to at least mitigate the impact of those judgements.

If we can try to understand the role that contextual processes play in the organizations—thinking about climate, thinking about inclusion, ways in which racial bias and other types of biases are baked into the status quo—if we can start to really re-examine those, and start to make changes that are going to help mitigate the impact of bias on individuals from different groups, I think that there’s still a value in trying to get people to recognize that they play a role in this.

If you recognize that bias is playing a role, even if it is something that’s natural, if you don’t do anything about it, you may just, in fact, be a bad person.

SOMMERS: This is a conversation you and I have had many times, over many years now, as we work together. And we’ve been friends for a long time now. We’re scientists, but how do you see our identities—our own personal sense of who we are as playing a role in these kinds of conversations?

Keith and I have given workshops for a variety of different constituencies across campus and off campus—with HR, IT, the faculty, with incoming students, and with the Tufts police—in which we talk about issues of bias and the psychology underlying all of that.

It has never been lost upon us that we do that as an interracial pair, that we’re doing that as a white man and a Black man. We think that there are some benefits to doing these kinds of exercises that way, because of the experiences we bring to bear, but also because of the way that we are going to be seen by other people just as soon as we walk in the room.

MADDOX: I think identity is really important. Consider the message and the framing of that message, but also consider the audience, who you’re going to be directing the message to, and then also consider the messenger.

And a lot of times the messenger and the audience can be really, really impactful, because some messengers are going to be more accepted by some audiences compared to others. When a group of individuals across different racial and ethnic backgrounds sees a Black man and a white man confronting bias together, they are going to be different people in the audience that are going to respond differently to each of us.

There are going to be some people who may look at me as a Black man and think that I’m making these claims about racism as a way of trying to explain away some of the lack of success that I may have had in society—that really I’m just trying to complain. And they might dismiss the message that I might convey to them.

So, if people think that way, they’re going to show a lot of backlash and not listen to my message. But the same people in the audience might hear the same message from you, and not necessarily make the same conclusion.

Because again, as a white man in our society, for the most part, when you make claims about the role that bias plays in the outcomes of underrepresented groups, and some of the solutions that we suggest to try to ameliorate that bias, you’re arguing against your own interest in some way. So, it’s not as easy for people to dismiss you from that perspective.

But I think there are also challenges on the other side, that there may be some people, particularly people who are Black and activists, who might look at a white man making these kinds of claims and still elicit some backlash towards that person. Because again, they might question your motivations. Are you doing this to get paid? Are you doing this to signal that you’re one of the good ones, so to speak?

There may be some people in the audience that might think that you are doing something in terms of confrontation to amplify your own voice—and sometimes at the expense of other voices, of minority voices, who have been basically conveying this message for years and years and years, without anybody necessarily listening.

So, then those same individuals may look at me as a representative of the Black community. And that voice being considered and heard in a particular context is going to be validating for them. Again, I think for people who are from underrepresented groups, knowing that the kinds of claims that you’ve been making for years and years are being heard from you, and not necessarily having to come from another source, is incredibly validating.

But yeah, I think our identities are incredibly important. And for anybody else out there, considering your identity is important: who you are, what you’re good at, trying to understand your temperament, trying to understand your skill sets, and trying to find a way to push yourself in ways that maybe a little bit less comfortable, but still consistent with how you are and what you do well, so that you can create sustainable efforts towards anti-racist efforts.

SOMMERS: Yeah. You asked before how I’m doing. And I’m feeling—I was going to say—it’s going to have the wrong connotation, not in a negative way, but obligated to do something, and to be more vocal in different ways than I have in the past.

And to do that with the humble recognition that I do have the ability—and I think burden—to do so as a white man in this society. Not that college professor is the highest status occupation in the world—we’d like to think of it as a high status individual in that regard—on a college campus who has a voice, and has a platform, but also to do it in the right way and share what the right ways is to do that. And I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not suggesting I have the right answer to that.

But how you do that in a way that draws attention to the right things, that makes it clear that you’re doing so, not to shine any light on your own contributions or your own work, but on the issues that are important.

And that does so with the humility to recognize that you’re not always going to get that right, and that when you are called out as not getting that right, or putting the emphasis in the wrong place—and this is not something that I, or many academics are good at—but putting ego aside and not dwelling on that, and learning from that, and move forward and doing it in a better way. And I think that’s those issues that you are articulating for the presentations that we’ve given.

MADDOX: And I think in very similar ways, right? Again, trying to figure out a way to be a good and effective and authentic ally is really, really difficult. But I don’t think there’s any one right way. I think we have to, as you said, try make efforts, make mistakes, be willing to make those mistakes, be willing to listen, grow, and change, and develop.

And I think, again, you finding your voice isn’t a destination, it’s more of a journey and it’s going to change over time. And I think we have to be responsive to the situation. But most importantly, Sam, look, just deciding and feeling the need and the urgency to get involved is going to be the most important thing. It’s just that all of us have to find that place of getting on this highway, if you will.

HOST PETER LEVINE: We have two questions. We have a student who wants to be an educator of kids, especially I think, elementary kids, who asks, how do you suggest talking to children about race, racism, and the current injustice, in a way that they will understand, but then also does not downplay the realities?

The other question is, one police department reform that’s been proposed many times, is the anti-implicit bias training. Do you believe that this can play a role and why or why not?

SOMMERS: The young people question is a good one. Neither Keith nor I are developmental psychologists, but we have colleagues in our department, as well as in Child Study and Human Development that could probably give better answers to those kinds of questions.

These are conversations that for a long time in our society have only happened in certain households and “certain types” of families. And I think they need to be happening in all families. And just to be very explicit: these are conversations that shouldn’t just be conversations that are had in Black families, that are in Latino families, that are had in Native families. These are conversations that all of us as Americans should be having. White families, all families should be having conversations about these kinds of issue.

Keith, what your thoughts are on this?

MADDOX: I say the same thing. I think again, in terms of having conversations with our kids, it’s come up in lots of different ways over the years. And I don’t, again, purport to have the right answers about this. But one thing would be understanding the cognitive development of children over time.

And so, one question is how old is the kid? If you understand that kids have a progression by which they’re able to access certain kinds of concepts, then the conversation, or the metaphors that you use to try to explain the situation, are going to differ depending on the age of the child.

So, Sam and I both have kids who are now in their teens. Early on, I would say that most of the conversations that we have about this is really—as a lot of work with Sam has identified—is starting with just getting kids comfortable about talking about color and race and differences. And that a lot of work has demonstrated that we tend to endorse this idea of colorblindness, and of colorblindness as being a progression or a way of moving forward progress.

A lot of Sam’s work has demonstrated that that’s not true—that it keeps us from talking about the factors that actually contribute to the disparities. They’re the functioning mechanisms that lead to the disparities that we see in our households and in our society. So, if you take away color, if you take away race, if you take away the dimensions of group differences and categorizations—you take away the reasons, the explanation for the disparities that we see.

So, getting people comfortable identifying and talking about color early on, and color differences and race differences, it’s OK. It’s good to talk about those things and feel comfort. And I think what that does is it probably ameliorates any anxiety that kids might have later on when they start to see and hear these kinds of conversations.

And I think for parents, that’s when you can start to increase a little bit more of the information that you get about what’s happening in society, the ways in which race and other dimensions of group difference play a role in people’s outcomes. I think it’s just as important to know what level they’re at. And then once you know what level they’re at, you have to target your communication to be consistent with what they can grasp at that point.

SOMMERS: On the policing front, I think it’s very clear that there is no evidence to suggest that simply checking the box, and having your police department sign up for our implicit bias or unconscious bias workshop training, that you’re good to go. And the same for corporations and other organizations, but we’re focused on police here, specifically. There’s no evidence that that’s sufficient.

Keith and I have done workshops with the university police to talk through some of these issues. But again, we’re talking here about the need for real structural conversations about not just at an individual level, how we see each interact with each other, but just how the system itself is set up and how the structure of these interactions with the society and with civilians are taking place.

And so, we suggest if you’re interested, there are organizations you can look up. There’s the Center for Policing Equity; they’re proposing, as others are, a variety of different remedies and strategies that include good data. We have data to suggest what’s actually happening in police-civilian interactions with arrests, with stops, with use of force and so forth. And real commitment at a top down leadership level to making these issues first and foremost in the institution.

And so, it’s an open question still. If we knew how to “solve it,” just like that, the problem of bias policing or any of the kinds of biases that we’re talking about, we wouldn’t hold out. We would let everyone know. But it’s a very complicated system in place, at both individual and structural levels and everything in between. And so, I think we’re still trying to think through all of those issues and a lot of really bright and motivated folks have been spending a lot of time with doing that kind of work.

Watch the full webinar video here.

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