Mis-Measuring Racism: A How-To Guide

Years ago a friend who signed on with a large prestigious law firm recounted how one of his first orientation sessions was “sensitivity training” (the precursor to “diversity” workshops today) with regard to ethnicity and sexual orientation. Back in those innocent days it consisted largely in an inventory of terms and phrases that you might not be aware are pejorative or insulting to minorities. To which my pal said, “I learned a whole lot of offensive terms I didn’t know existed! So now I have an expanded vocabulary to use.”

Of course, today this kind of thing is down to an art form, as measuring racism has gone from using metaphorical calipers to metaphorical micrometers. How else are you going to classify ever-smaller “microaggressions”? But my pal’s inverse reaction to the hyper-sensitivity of sensitivity training came back to me when I came across a preprint of a forthcoming study by two Belgian academics who find that “Implicit Association Tests” (IATs) that seek to measure unconscious racial bias may actually increase racial bias. Here’s the typically dull abstract that is dynamite once you translate its cautious academic language into plain English:

The Implicit Association Test has been used in online studies to assess implicit racial attitudes in over seven million participants. Although typically used as an assessment measure, results from four pre-registered experiments (N = 940) demonstrated that completing a Race IAT exacerbates the negative implicit attitudes that it seeks to assess. Increases in White participants’ negative automatic racial evaluations of Black people were observed across two different implicit measures (SC-IAT and AMP) but did not generalize to another measure of automatic racial bias (Shooter Bias task). Results highlight an important caveat for the Race IAT, but also for many other forms of psychological assessment: that by measuring, we often perturb the system that we wish to understand.

Who could have seen this coming? Well, we have, several times, such as our reporting on how the “ban-the-box” laws prohibiting asking whether a job applicant has a criminal record actually increases discrimination against black job applicants (here, and here).

I think you can generalize beyond the findings of this narrow study and propose the hypothesis that the left’s obsession with finding racism—especially “subconscious” racism—is making it more difficult to address the real problems of race. Which is probably on purpose: without the racism banner to fly, just what do liberals have left?

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