A protester holds her hands up in front of police in Ferguson, Missouri, on Tuesday, November 25.
'Racism without racists'?
01:24 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Whites and blacks don't speak the same language when they talk about racism

For many minorities, racism is less about overt hostility and more about bias

One sociologist calls it "racism without racists" and says "we are all in this game"

A new conversation on race can start with three phrases that often crop up

CNN  — 

In a classic study on race, psychologists staged an experiment with two photographs that produced a surprising result.

They showed people a photograph of two white men fighting, one unarmed and another holding a knife. Then they showed another photograph, this one of a white man with a knife fighting an unarmed African-American man.

When they asked people to identify the man who was armed in the first picture, most people picked the right one. Yet when they were asked the same question about the second photo, most people – black and white – incorrectly said the black man had the knife.

Even before it was announced that a grand jury had decided not to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, leaders were calling once again for a “national conversation on race.”

But here’s why such conversations rarely go anywhere: Whites and racial minorities speak a different language when they talk about racism, scholars and psychologists say.

The knife fight experiment hints at the language gap. Some whites confine racism to intentional displays of racial hostility. It’s the Ku Klux Klan, racial slurs in public, something “bad” that people do.

But for many racial minorities, that type of racism doesn’t matter as much anymore, some scholars say. They talk more about the racism uncovered in the knife fight photos – it doesn’t wear a hood, but it causes unsuspecting people to see the world through a racially biased lens.

It’s what one Duke University sociologist calls “racism without racists.” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who’s written a book by that title, says it’s a new way of maintaining white domination in places like Ferguson.

“The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits,” says Bonilla-Silva.

“The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers, the tea party or to the Republican Party, the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game.”

As people talk about what the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson means, Bonilla-Silva and others say it’s time for Americans to update their language on racism to reflect what it has become and not what it used to be.

The conversation can start, they say, by reflecting on three phrases that often crop up when whites and racial minorities talk about race.

‘I don’t see color’

It’s a phrase some white people invoke when a conversation turns to race. Some apply it to Ferguson. They’re not particularly troubled by the grand jury’s decision to not issue an indictment. The racial identities of Darren Wilson, the white police officer, and Michael Brown, the black man he killed, shouldn’t matter, they say. Let the legal system handle the decision without race-baiting. Justice should be colorblind.

Science has bad news, though, for anyone who claims to not see race: They’re deluding themselves, say several bias experts. A body of scientific research over the past 50 years shows that people notice not only race but gender, wealth, even weight.

When babies are as young as 3 months old, research shows they start preferring to be around people of their own race, says Howard J. Ross, author of “Everyday Bias,” which includes the story of the knife fight experiment.

Other studies confirm the power of racial bias, Ross says.

One study conducted by a Brigham Young University economics professor showed that white NBA referees call more fouls on black players, and black referees call more fouls on white players. Another study that was published in the American Journal of Sociology showed that newly released white felons experience better job hunting success than young black men with no criminal record, Ross says.

“Human beings are consistently, routinely and profoundly biased,” Ross says.

The knife fight experiment reveals that even racial minorities are not immune to racial bias, Ross says.

“The overwhelming number of people will actually experience the black man as having the knife because we’re more open to the notion of the black man having a knife than a white man, ” Ross says. “This is one of the most insidious things about bias. People may absorb these things without knowing them.”

Another famous experiment shows how racial bias can shape a person’s economic prospects.

Professors at the University of Chicago and MIT sent 5,000 fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. Each resume listed identical qualifications except for one variation – some applicants had Anglo-sounding names such as “Brendan,” while others had black-sounding names such as “Jamal.” Applicants with Anglo-sounding names were 50% more likely to get calls for interviews than their black-sounding counterparts.

Most of the people who didn’t call “Jamal” were probably unaware that their decision was motivated by racial bias, says Daniel L. Ames, a UCLA researcher who has studied and written about bias.

“If you ask someone on the hiring committee, none of them are going to say they’re racially biased,” Ames says. “They’re not lying. They’re just wrong.”

Ames says such biases are dangerous because they’re often unseen.

“Racial biases can in some ways be more destructive than overt racism because they’re harder to spot, and therefore harder to combat,” he says.

Still, some people are suspicious of focusing on the word bias. They prefer invoking the term racism because they say it leaves bruises. People claiming bias can admit they may have acted in racially insensitive ways but were unaware of their subconscious motivations.

“The idea of calling it racial bias lessens the blow,” says Crystal Moten, a history professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

“Do you want to lessen the blow or do you want to eradicate racism? I want to eradicate racism,” she says. “Yes I want opportunity for dialogue, but the impact of racism is killing people of color. We don’t have time to tend to the emotional wounds of others, not when violence against people of color is the national status quo.”

‘But I have black friends’

In the movie “The Godfather,” the character of Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, hatches an audacious plan to kill a mobster and a crooked cop who tried to kill his father. Michael’s elders scoff at his plans because they believe his judgment is clouded by anger. But in a line that would define his ruthless approach to wielding power, Michael tells them:

“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.”

Ferguson has become a symbol of how some whites and racial minorities speak differently about racism, some say.

When some whites talk about racism, they think it’s only personal – what one person says or does to another. But many minorities and people who study race say racism can be impersonal, calculating, devoid of malice – such as Michael Corleone’s approach to power.

“The first thing we must stop doing is making racism a personal thing and understand that it is a system of advantage based on race,” says Doreen E. Loury, director of the Pan African Studies program at Arcadia University, near Philadelphia.

Loury says racism “permeates every facet of our societal pores.”

“It’s about more than that cop who targets a teen while ‘WWB’ (walking while black) but the system that makes it OK to not only stop him but to put him in a system that will target and limit his life chances for life,” she says.

Racial bias is so deeply engrained in people that it can manifest itself in surprising places, says Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at La Salle University in Philadelphia. He gave a hypothetical example:

“A white police officer in Ferguson may be married to a black woman and have black and Latino friends, but that doesn’t mean the officer is above racial profiling,” Gallagher says.

These old and new ways of talking about racism can be seen in how some whites and blacks perceive the events in Ferguson.

Many have already looked at them as something beyond a personal interaction between a white police officer and a young black man. They point out that two-thirds of Ferguson’s population is black, yet the mayor, police chief and five of six city council members are white – as are 50 of the 53 people in its Police Department.

Ferguson is like countless multiracial communities, they say: calm on the surface but seething with racial disparities beneath.

But those disparities are invisible to many whites, who often see themselves as victims of discrimination, writes Jamelle Bouie of Slate magazine in a recent essay, “The Gulf That Divides Us.”

“Median income among black Americans is roughly half that of white Americans. But a narrow majority of whites believe blacks earn as much money as whites, and just 37% believe that there’s a disparity between the two groups. Likewise, while 56% of blacks believe black Americans face significant discrimination, only 16% of whites agree,” he writes.

“Many whites – including many millennials – believe discrimination against whites is more prevalent than discrimination against blacks.”

But as Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out in The New York Times, the U.S. has a greater wealth gap between whites and blacks than South Africa had during apartheid.

Such racial inequities might seem invisible partly because segregated housing patterns mean that many middle- and upper-class whites live far from poor blacks.