Implicit Bias and American History

Sit-in protesting police violence in San-Francisco, June 2016 Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Sit-in protesting police violence in San-Francisco, June 2016 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the first presidential debate, Lester Holt asked Hilary Clinton to expand on prior comments regarding police violence: “Do you believe that police are implicitly biased against black people?” Clinton replied, “implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.” While there is vibrant scholarly debate about the relationship between memory, perception, socialization, stigmatization and history, scholars like Jennifer Eberhardt, a 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Grant Awardee, are opening the study of criminal justice within the field of social psychology. Eberhardt and other scholars, like Philip Atiba Goff, Melissa J. Williams, Matthew Christian Jackson, Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald and Brian Nosek, to name a few, have not only transformed social psychology, but have raised public awareness of implicit bias to the point that the idea is helping to shape current debate about prejudice, racism and anti-black violence.

This new scholarship raises important questions about the relationship between culture, consciousness and history. It suggests the possibility of new interdisciplinary approaches to the study of race and oppression made legitimate through intentional and unintentional behavior. Certainly, historians have thought a great deal about the relationships between slavery and race and the connections linking slavery and freedom. It might be interesting to see how work on implicit bias and historical studies of race, human bondage, and post-slavery, might inform each other so as to open new revelations and pose new remedies for the issue of race in the United States.

Certainly, the scholarship on implicit bias is informed by historiography. The important article, “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization, and Contemporary Consequences,” provides an excellent introduction to the relationship between histories of race and the recent study of implicit bias. The authors briefly trace the historical emergence of the racial stereotypes that are the basis for their research. Their general argument is that even among people who expressly deny the racist and longstanding association of black people with apes, psychological experiment reveals that these same individuals nonetheless unintentionally affiliate black people with apes.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This finding is striking, though not surprising, in that it highlights clear historical continuity. None other than Thomas Jefferson postulated that black people were derived from “the preference of the Oranootan (orangutan) for the black women over those of his own species.” The militant black abolitionist, David Walker, called out Jefferson for this, exclaiming, “Have they not, after having reduced us to the deplorable condition of slaves under their feet, held us up as descending originally from the tribes of Monkeys or Orang- Outangs? Jefferson helped draft the Declaration of Independence and yet he played a pivotal role in consciously inscribing racial difference deeply within the legal, political and social foundations of national identity and local community.

To be sure, this paradox did not begin or end with Jefferson. Historians of slavery have debated the relationship between human bondage and racial prejudice, and they have had to contend with the problem of the intentional and unintentional, and conscious and unconsciousness sources of racism. In his book, White Over Black, Winthrop Jordan argued that the transatlantic slave trade expanded as the consequence of “Unthinking Decision.” Jordan mined exhaustively private and public literature that detailed racial attitudes. Jordan noted about slavery in colonial America that “Englishmen in America had created a legal status which ran counter to English law (p. 44).” Yet, Jordan continued acquiescently, “Unfortunately the details of this process can never be completely reconstructed; there is simply not enough evidence (p. 44).” Rather than argue which came first, slavery or race, more recent scholarship has emphasized the integrated development of slavery and race. This has produced insights like the analytical idea of unfreedom as a bonding force between the progress of slavery and racial oppression. Yet questions still remain about how race, in its American incarnations, would become such a powerful determinant of experience and outlook.

1821_grandbobalition_boston_aas_africansociety
Grand Bobalition (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For example, the American War for Independence led to the freeing of African Americans in some former colonies, but it mandated that emancipation be gradual as a way of partially compensating owners, it compromised with the expansion of slavery in the South, and it did not confer equal rights to blacks. Historians of emancipation have fashioned rhetorical constructions of consciousness that, however vague, have sought to explain how racial attribution could simultaneously change and be continuous. For example, Joanne Pope Melish in her illuminating book, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” In New England, argued that at “some level of consciousness,” even while white New Englanders recognized how the Declaration of Independence exposed their hypocrisy, they nonetheless were not fully able to see free Blacks wholly as persons and not property (p. 81). For Melish, the paradox of abolition arose, in part, from prior social relationships that embedded the idea of Blacks as property so deeply within white “consciousness” that even the private act of manumission did not necessarily illustrate an unqualified belief in the equality of former slaves.

4th United States Colored Infantry. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
4th United States Colored Infantry (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly enough, three recent and important books on slavery, freedom and race prior to the twentieth century do not cite the idea of “implicit bias” in their indexes: Patrick Rael, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery In the United States, 1777-1865, Manisha Sinha, The Slaves’s Cause: A History of Abolition, and Ira Berlin, The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States. However, all three books examine why racism continued in pervasive and pernicious ways despite transformative historical events that seemingly should have, could have, or did radically reshape the social and legal terrains of United States history. In similar and different ways, all three of these major works demonstrate how race operated as something that was simultaneously social, ideological, political, religious, and epistemological.

That race operated on all of these levels helps to explain why it continued to inform action and thought. That the most recent histories of race in the nineteenth century do not seriously engage new areas of social psychology suggests the possibility that historical interpretation and psychological insight might inform each other to reveal further the deep rootedness of racial associations, of structural racial oppression, and legally condoned anti-black violence.

While the science of bias might find that the propensity to be prejudiced or to dehumanize others is a natural feature of human expression and experience, this is not the same thing as defining particular implicit biases to be natural because they are held in our unconscious. Historically, there are a great many examples that, by now, should have made implicit racial biases explicit. The sciences of cognition and psychology are revealing new insights into the various relationships between social circumstance, ideological construct, and biological pattern.

Perhaps advances in the social sciences will help historians reframe their understanding of consciousness. Although historians have clearly illustrated the continuing prevalence of racial stereotypes, new work in various areas of psychology might suggest new ways of looking at old documents or introduce novel questions leading to the discovery of new kinds of evidence. There is still much work to be done to explain the persistence of racial antipathy and violence but also to trace those seemingly indiscernible relationships between perception, cognition, and expression that continue to invigorate the specter of racism.


Chernoh Sesay Jr. is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University. He earned a Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006. He is currently completing a book entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America. Follow him on Twitter @CMSesayJr1.


Chernoh Sesay Jr.

Chernoh Sesay Jr. is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University. He earned a Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006. He is currently completing a book entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America. Follow him on Twitter @CMSesayJr1.

Comments on “Implicit Bias and American History

  • As it is is adopted, particularly in popular media, the term “implicit bias” has become a vague euphemism that undermines a focus on the specificity of racist and racialist formations. “Everyone has implicit bias, both blacks and whites.” In context, a term like “white supremacy” might be more useful as an analytical category for historians and social scientists.

  • Hi Yvonne, thank you for reading and, yes, I agree with you that the idea and language of implicit bias has become adopted in vague and euphemistic ways that actually obscure the functioning and the pervasiveness of white supremacy. White supremacy has to be called out in its intentional and conscious forms. Yet, when black people, like black police officers for example, internalize white supremacist notions to enact violence upon other blacks, I think this raises important questions about how intentional racist acts are perhaps informed by unconsciously adopted patterns of white supremacy. In addition, I think that a great many well meaning white people are unknowingly shaped by structural and racist patterns of community formation that lead them unintentionally and unconsciously to perpetuate white supremacy. Again, I agree with you about how the term implicit bias is used to redirect debate away from clear patterns of white supremacy. Time and time again, intentional acts have alloyed white supremacy. At the same, I suggest that the science of implicit bias (rather than its unspecific public use) together with historical study could further help identify and explain how conscious and unconscious racialist formations help to perpetuate white supremacy.

  • Excellent. Thank you.

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