There is not one or two, but three ways to be a racist.

By Berit Brogaard & Dimitria E. Gatzia

Evidence points to a broad pattern of discrimination in law enforcement against black drivers in the United States: Police officers pull over black drivers at significantly higher rates than white drivers. 

What explains such patterns of discrimination? Is it just blatant racism? Or is the answer more nuanced? The short answer is yes, racism is definitely involved, but matters are more complicated than that.

As we have argued in previous work, to account for such patterns of discrimination, we need to distinguish between three types of racism: inadvertent bigotry, habitual racism, and explicit racism (Brogaard & Gatzia, 2020).

Inadvertent Bigotry

Inadvertent bigotry can be traced solely to implicit racial biases. Inadvertent bigots tend to sincerely deny that they committed a racially motivated action. This is because their actions are not intentional.

Suppose that Jo, a police officer, pulls over more black than white drivers. If Jo is an inadvertent bigot, then her actions are not consciously motivated. So we can imagine that if someone were to ask her whether her actions are motivated by racial biases, she would sincerely deny it.

In 1999, psychologist John Bargh coined the phrase “cognitive monster” to refer to cases where stereotypes are so entrenched that they become activated automatically, thereby making it difficult to consciously control their influence on our actions. 

Inadvertent bigots are neither implicitly nor explicitly racially motivated. As a result, they are not accountable for their racist acts. Nevertheless, the inconsistency between their racist actions and their explicit, sincere rejection of racist biases makes them subject to cognitive dissonance. This, in turn, causes them to unconsciously employ dissonance-reducing strategies. For example, Jo may unconsciously either stop pulling over more black than white drivers or come to implicitly accept that blacks are more likely to be criminals, depending on what is cognitively easier for her to do. 

Habitual Racism 

Jo, of course, might be a habitual racist rather than an inadvertent bigot. The actions of habitual racists can be likened to the irreflective actions performed by experts. (Annas, 2011).

We know, for example, that the performance of professional golf players is negatively affected when they are asked to consciously reflect on their swing (Flegal & Anderson, 2008; Bell & Hardy, 2009). 

Nevertheless, the lack of reflection in this case is not an indicator that their swing is not intentional (Brogaard, 2020; Brogaard & Gatzia, 2020). After all, the professional golfer intends to rest the club flat behind the ball, to hold the club with her hands flowing straight down from her shoulders, and to bend her knees. She also intends to tilt her upper body forward but keep it straight, to position her right hand lower than her left, and divide her weight evenly between her two feet. Once she is in the right position, she intentionally hits the ball. 

The professional golf player is not, however, thinking about each of these different actions. After all, she has already acquired the requisite skills to swing the ball without having to reflect on it.

Habitual racists are akin to the professional golfer in that they are acting in a skilled and irreflective manner toward people they are biased against. The fact that police officers, say, act without reflection when pulling over more black than white drivers does not mean that they lack agency. Unlike inadvertent bigots, habitual racists do intend to perform their racist act. It’s just that their intention is unconscious.

Habitual racists tend to be delusional about their values (Sullivan-Bissett, 2015; Khalil, 2017). They don’t think of themselves as racist, nor do they value racist actions. They explicitly disapprove of discriminating against people of color. Even so, they regularly discriminate against black and brown people. 

During a 2015 speech on the senate floor, Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican Senator, shared his own experience of being pulled over by police officers seven times in a single year (Barrón-López, 2016). Senator Scott attributed these incidents to a “trust gap” between law enforcement and the black community: 

There is a deep divide between the black community and law enforcement — a trust gap. We cannot ignore these issues. Because while so many officers do good — and we should be very thankful in support of all those officers that do good — some simply do not. I’ve experienced it myself.

The stereotype of black men as criminals is all too common in the United States, a country with a long history of criminalization of black communities. This sort of socialization that normalizes racial discrimination enables biases and stereotypes to become entrenched. This inevitably results in some people becoming habitual racists.  

Suppose the police officer, Jo, pulls over many more black drivers than white. Suppose furthermore that Jo is a habitual racist and not an inadvertent bigot. If she were to be confronted with the fact that most black drivers she pulls over are law-abiding citizens, like Tim Scott, she would be inclined to sincerely reject the influence stereotypes of blacks have on her actions.

In our envisaged scenario, Jo wants to think of herself as a good person and her delusions about who she is (not a racist person) or what she does (performs racist acts) prevents her from confronting her racism, despite disapproving of racism. 

Jo’s racist practices thus conflict with her values of justice and equality. To avoid the distress that such cognitive conflicts elicit, Jo may convince herself that when she pulls over drivers, she acts for good reasons. We can imagine, for example, that she thinks that the black driver she pulls over has stolen the car he is driving. 

Explicit Racism

Like habitual racists, explicit racists intend to commit racist acts. But, unlike habitual racists, the values of explicit racists are consistent with their actions. They do indeed view people of color as inferior to themselves and as inherently prone to criminal behavior. Explicit racists can easily retrieve their motives. Accordingly, there is no conflict between their racist practices and their racist attitudes. 

There is, however, a conflict between their racist practices and the largely egalitarian norms of our society. While it may be easy for explicit racists to keep their overt racist beliefs to themselves, their racial practices stride against society’s egalitarian norms, which can be a source of great distress to them. To reduce this distress, they attribute a “logical” motive to themselves.

Explicit racists appeal to the very stereotypes that move them to justify their actions. For example, Jo may take her discriminatory practices (pulling over black drivers) to be justified on the grounds of her belief that blacks are criminals. 

Unlike habitual racists, explicit racists remain steadfast to their white supremacist ideology—an ideology that hides the true nature of their motives. Their racist actions are commonly motivated by a need to feel powerful and in control. They then realize their motives by punishing people who deserve punishment in their eyes.

The cognitive dissonance and confabulation that lie at the heart of habitual and explicit racism are among the main obstacles to opening the eyes of these racists to the morally despicable nature of their actions.

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