I get what they’re saying. And I think I actually agree with a lot of it.
Almost everyone has subconscious (or conscious) racial biases which affect how they perceive, for example, a man walking down a dark alley (perhaps not the best example, as Mark Cuban has now acknowledged). Race isn’t the only thing people take into account when perceiving such situations (a bald, white man with lots of tattoos on his face might concern many of us too, as Mark Cuban also pointed out). But the race of a person can affect how many of us perceive people in certain situations. I think that’s one of the points that Mark Cuban and Stephen A. Smith were making.
There’s actually a lot of scientific support for the idea that most people have subconscious racial biases, even people who don’t want to have any racial bias. There’s a book called Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People sitting on my desk waiting to be read. I understand that it summarizes (for a popular audience) the mountain of social science research that has accumulated on this topic over the last couple of decades using Implicit Association Tests.
In fact, Anthony G. Greenwald, coauthor of the book and a professor at the University of Washington, did an interview with the Washington Post in response to the Mark Cuban incident. As he explains, “We find that about 75 percent of white Americans, and almost that exact same percentage of Asian Americans, have what we call an ‘automatic white preference’ in a test that compares white and black [races]… Even many black Americans have an automatic white preference, because they’ve been raised in a society that’s white-majority and white-dominant.”
So Mark Cuban is correct?
Well… his point about most people having racial biases is spot on. But there’s a little more to the picture, in my mind.
Setting aside concerns about comparing hoodies to prison-culture tattoos and how such imagery might relate to the Treyvon Martin case (for which Mark Cuban apologized), I guess my big remaining concern (as a white man) is the ways in which Mark Cuban’s and Stephen A. Smith’s words might be received by many white Americans.
Keep in mind, Mark Cuban made these remarks in response to a question about Donald Sterling. Mark Cuban was asked, “How do you prevent that kind of ugliness from getting out? And how do you keep it out of the league?” The first thing he said was, “You don’t.” Several sentences later are his now-[in]famous words.
(To clarify, there are two fairly similar but distinct interviews of Mark Cuban with Inc. magazine that I’ve seen on the Web. The one that strikes me as more provocative is harder to find, but it’s the one I refer to here.)
Using the fact that most (all?) people have subconscious racial biases to justify inaction (or less rigorous action) against overtly racist people is kind of an alarming thought-process (to me at least). But this line of thinking is bolstered by Mark Cuban’s use of the terms “prejudice” and “bigoted” rather than something like “[unintentional] racial bias.”
Now, I’ve watched enough of Mark Cuban’s interviews at this point to realize that he expresses deep concern over minimizing the “prejudices” of himself (except for “safety issues”) and his employees. That’s great, and maybe Mark Cuban is not the real problem.
But I’m worried about what his words mean to other white Americans (of which I am one). I’m worried that, especially as context is lost, his words come to mean that a little racial prejudice is everywhere, and there’s little we can do about it, and maybe it all evens out. It’s not our responsibility.
But the stark reality is that racial biases harm minorities. Even if the biases are unintentional.
Want proof? There’s actually a lot of social scientific evidence (which has been very poorly communicated to the public, in my opinion) indicating that these biases do more than just cause people to walk on the opposite side of the street. Take, for example, the experiment where researchers sent resumes to a bunch of employers in response to job listings. All of the resumes the researchers sent out were identical except that some had a stereotypical “black” name listed on them while the others had a stereotypical “white” name. Employers (who believed the resumes were real) were 33% less likely to call if they were sent a resume from a “black” person. (The experiment is nicely explained in this YouTube video taken from Freakonomics: The Movie.)
Other studies using similar research designs indicate that people with stereotypical “black” names are also less likely to receive a response from their state legislator or a potential landlord. The book Blindspot discusses numerous other studies.
Okay, so there’s some racial bias. And it’s unfair. But life’s not fair, it’s unintentional, and what are you going to do about it?
Well, for starters, I hope that more white people will actually begin to acknowledge that racial bias is still an issue that harms minorities. According to Gallup, 74% of white Americans believe that “blacks have as good a chance as whites in [my] community to get any kind of job for which they are qualified.” Another survey found that 58% of white millennials think that “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”
In my opinion, it would do our nation’s race-relations a lot of good to have more white Americans come forward and say, “We acknowledge that (often unintentional) racial bias is persistent throughout society, and we know that this, unfortunately, harms minorities. And we want to try to help find ways to counteract this.” Figuring out how to help is the difficult part. I won’t really get into it here, except to note that counteracting racial bias doesn’t necessarily have to look like a bigger government program or an affirmative action policy.
As a final note, I’m concerned that part of the reason the words of figures like Stephen A. Smith resonate so strongly with some white people is because they hear someone talking about a response to racial inequality that requires no action on the part of white Americans. It’s easy to stand by and cheer on a successful African American telling other African Americans to care more about how they present themselves and to stop blaming other people for their failures.
It’s easy to hear someone say that black America needs to change.
But I’m not black. I’m white. And white America needs to change.
It’s time to admit that we’re a part of the problem. It’s time to acknowledge that our (often unintentional) racial biases contribute to the racial disparities in our society.
White America, you need a wake-up call.