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The Embedding of Discrimination in the American Unconscious

On the surface, racial discrimination against African Americans seems virtually nonexistent in the United States. The public inaccurately assesses race relations based on the lessening of blatant discrimination and concludes that it therefore does not exist. However, American society perpetuates racial inequalities, although with much more subtlety than ever before. The discrimination that occurs today is largely implicit. Nonetheless, the implicit forms of discrimination harm advances in true equality.
The question regarding the origin of prejudice seems an important issue to tackle before further talk about equality can begin. One must first understand the origin of prejudice in the unconscious before trying to overcome it. In this case, the U.S. must overcome the prejudices that persist today. We all acknowledge that racial prejudice against blacks is a rather antiquated and ugly facet of U.S. history. From the slave trade, constitution, Civil War, Jim Crow era, Civil Rights Movement, etc. overt racial prejudice was the norm. However, Hurwitz and Peffley contend (3) that today “blatant bigotry is unfashionable; racists couch their sentiments in more socially acceptable guises.”

Immediately after the Civil War, the Republican-controlled congress passed three amendments, which gave rights to newly freed African Americans. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments all helped ensure that blacks would no longer be second-class citizens. “More than six hundred African-American men were elected to state legislatures in the South, although whites continued to chair most of the important committees. Except in Louisiana and South Carolina, most of the black legislators were former slaves.” (Frankel, 251) For a while, it seemed that nothing could hamper black achievement. However, whites in the Southern state legislatures sought to take away many of the freedoms that blacks had earned. “Southern state legislatures under the control of whites sympathetic to the confederacy passed laws that applied only to African Americans. These laws, passed from 1865 to 1876, attempted to thwart African Americans’ visions of freedom and their quest for individual and community independence.” (Frankel, 242) The passage of the Black Codes across the South demonstrated the slow degradation of black freedom. These codes “bestowed certain legal rights on former slaves, such as the right to enter into contracts legally. As a result freed people gained the right to marry and acquire personal property.” (Frankel, 242) Although the codes gave certain rights the passage of the codes ultimately reinstituted black subjugation:

Those laws required freed slaves to have written evidence of employment, forbade interracial marriages, and barred blacks from testifying against whites in court. In addition, these statutes made it illegal for African Americans to possess guns and called for any white person to arrest freed persons who left the service of employers before the expiration of their contracts. (Waldrep, 1426)

The end of presidential reconstruction demonstrated the failure of the nation in keeping the promises it made to African Americans as a whole. When the Union soldiers left the South, African Americans in the South witnessed a return to massive oppression. “In 1876, the federal government withdrew even its marginal support for Reconstruction.” (Kelley and Lewis, 253)
“What came to be impressed on several generations of black Southerners—first born in freedom and coming to maturity in the 1890s and the early twentieth century—was the material, political, and military superiority of white people.” (Litwack, 7) The relationship between racial stereotyping and public policy became more explicit during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Schuman et al, 90)
The significance of the Jim Crow era in the perception and prejudice of the African Americans and other Americans cannot be undermined. Jim Crow transformed black-white race relations. For instance, young Richard Wright remarked on the experience of traveling by train to Arkansas with his mother and waiting in line at the “Colored” ticket window. Wright said that the “Colored” sign “forced him to contemplate the kind of world he was entering—‘a sense of two worlds had been born in me with a sharp concreteness that would never die until I died.’” (Litwack, 9) Social morays and public policy during the Jim Crow era reinforced the notion that blacks were inferior and completely different from whites. The implementation of Jim Crow laws or Black Codes left blacks increasingly dependent on whites for sustenance. The codes required that blacks had “written evidence of employment” and this evidence manifested itself in labor contracts. Many blacks were afraid that signing these contracts were the equivalent of “signing themselves back to their masters.” (Frankel, 255) Most, however, eventually capitulated. Many became sharecroppers or found jobs as “blacksmiths, bricklayers, or carpenters.” However, opportunities for employment were usually scarce. Due to the lack of well-paying jobs, most blacks lived on the plantations of their employers. Most of the money these sharecroppers made was spent on goods from plantation stores. Furthermore, the fact that these plantation owners charged their sharecroppers for housing and other services left many sharecroppers insolvent or with very little profit from their work. (Frankel, 261) The dearth of income received from jobs such as sharecropping ruined the prospects of buying a home for many African Americans in the South. Nevertheless, in South Carolina the state government helped some [blacks] gain small homesteads. However blacks that became landowners were the exception.” (Frankel, 254) The large gaps in socioeconomic wealth amongst blacks and whites increased the former group’s feelings of inadequacy. Differences in wealth hurt blacks physically as well. Unless a black mother worked for a white family in the South and shared “the scraps” from the former family’s dinner the likelihood of this mother, having enough money to buy food for her family was slim. “Esther Mae Scott recalled of her upbringing in Warren County, Mississippi that there was ‘nowhere to go [for food] and nowhere to turn to get it.’” (Litwack, 19)

It is important to note the trend toward the complete elimination of miscegenation in the United States during Jim Crow. Prior to the Jim Crow era, many freedmen married black women and slave masters took black slave concubines, although such practices occurred, they occurred “often without widespread public acknowledgment. (Spickard, 104) The prevalence of racial mixing in the eighteenth century probably reflects the fact that slavery guaranteed whites a comfortable position at the top of the country’s social order. However, when the legalized practice of slavery dissolved whites had to find other ways to maintain the racial hierarchy that existed under slavery. The laws made in the South regarding race and racial segregation shaped the social order of the South. Southern legislators found a solution to the burgeoning power struggle, the one-drop rule. The one-drop theory supposed that “any person” with “known African ancestry, no matter how remote” qualified as black. (Spickard, 105) “Light-colored “ African Americans such as Alice Dunbar sometimes enjoyed “the white traveling convenience” or other privileges that light or white-color provided. (Wallinger, 86) Clearly being black during Jim Crow had more social costs than benefits.
The persistence of racial segregation in Southern state legislation during the Jim Crow era stemmed from whites’ belief in black inferiority. “A white doctor in Tennessee explained to a visitor in 1920 “that the Negro mind is incapable of any considerable development, and Dr. A, being a colored man, is not to be seriously regarded as a real physician.” (Litwack, 340) One of the most widespread arguments for the maltreatment of blacks was their supposed mental inferiority. In the early twentieth century, many educated Americans, such as the aforementioned Tennessean embraced aspects of social Darwinism or the theory in its entirety. Social Darwinism is an extension of Darwinism to social phenomena; specifically a sociological theory that sociocultural advance is the product of intergroup conflict and competition and the socially elite classes (as those possessing wealth and power) possess biological superiority in the struggle for existence. (“Social Darwinism” def. 1) Thus, many whites saw their superiority as deserving and just because the tenets of social Darwinism promote intergroup competition and conflict, such conflict social Darwinists believed allowed for the survival of the fittest individuals in society. The assumption many whites held of black intellectual inferiority “encouraged” them to “believe that blacks could not, and should not be integrated into the white world.” Thus, the persistent discrimination against blacks was in the time of Jim Crow supported by intellectual theories. The mistreatment of blacks produced the very inferiorities, which in the eyes of whites were even more reason to continue segregationist policy in the United States. A number of scientists claimed that blacks had smaller cranial structures in comparison to whites and advanced the notion that blacks had less mental capacity than whites did. These “theories” gained a great deal of popularity and justified segregation, the elimination of miscegenation, and black subservience.
Although blacks legally had the right to vote and exercise other political power in the United States during Jim Crow, whites infringed on black voting rights through overwhelming intimidation. One such form of intimidation was lynching. Whites performed public lynchings in the South on a regular basis. Between 1882 and 1901 more than one hundred people were lynched each year, however, additional murders by lynching occurred, but went unreported in local records and overall statistics. (Bair, 306) The prominence of lynchings indicates that law enforcement or elected officials often allowed the murderers to go unpunished. “If Jim Crow translated into separate and unequal facilities, disfranchisement rested on elimination of most black voters according to laws and constitutional provisions that would be enforced arbitrarily and selectively.” (Litwack, 368) Nevertheless, the effects of Jim Crow were more widespread than unequal public facilities. Blacks began to blame other blacks for their mistreatment from whites. For example, some black leaders adopted the notion that “There was never a respectable colored man lynched in the south.” (Litwack, 436) Such ideas increased the likelihood of African Americans modifying their behavior in order to please whites. For example, fewer and fewer blacks voted as lynchings increased. Moreover, fewer stood up to their white tormentors. Overwhelmingly lynchings and other acts of violence committed against blacks succeeded in maintaining a rigid racial hierarchy. Looking at the effects of Jim Crow on African Americans one can see that African Americans began to endorse the notion that they were inferior, thus as members of a low-status group African Americans showed reduced levels of ingroup positivity.
The Civil Rights Movement in the twentieth century advanced the realization of equality in policy and legislation for African Americans, but this focus on segregation did not combat the ever-present stigmas, which serve as barriers to the true attainment of racial equality. Blacks in the United States suffer from the effects of the stigmatization that has never fully evaded them since the slave trade. This stigmatization is a product of several factors, one of course being slavery; another is the current attitude other groups possess regarding the liberal commitment to African Americans, one final reason for black stigmatization is the tendency for blacks to be stereotyped. Many historians believe that the slave trade accounts for the majority of prejudice that blacks face today. However significant the issue of the slave trade is, slavery alone, cannot account for the myriad ways in which society ascribes certain characteristics and assumptions towards blacks. Although the news media helped showcase the corruption of Southern white politics in the Deep South during the 1950s and 1960s, the media only focused on the “big events” in the movement and seemed to care little about the Civil Rights Movement in its entirety. In terms of what made the airwaves during the mid to late 1960s, violence usually won out. “In order to play” a story had to be “packaged with violence or with white involvement of national celebrities. Where violence was present, the press could be counted on to be more attentive, but that did not necessarily mean that they would convey the messages the movement wanted conveyed.” (Payne, 394-395) For example, when Paul Good, an ABC reporter “tried to interest his editors and producers in background pieces on the Atlanta sit-ins, he found them uninterested.” (Payne, 394) Moreover, there are other instances where the media selectively reported issues during the Civil Rights Movement. Many historians contend that Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other organized protests was not as prominent as the media would have the nation believe. For instance, they point to the fact that King was hesitant to lead marches and involved himself very little with organizing. Other than the fact that King was black, he was quintessentially American. King was heterosexual, Protestant, had a wife and children and spoke eloquently all of these were normal characteristics often associated with whites, while blacks had been labeled pathological in their sexual and paternal relations. White Americans identified with King’s patriarchy, morality and seemingly impeccable character and thus other contributors in the movement without King’s persona received little to no airtime. The fact is the manipulation of media coverage occurred during the Civil Rights Movement because reporters and other journalists allowed their own backgrounds to muddle the objectivity of their stories. “The undervaluation of the leadership role played by ordinary people corresponded to an over-concentration on the role of national leaders, Dr. King in particular.” (Payne, 400)
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a stereotype as “something conforming to a fixed or general pattern; esp: a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.” Stereotypes and bias are examples of the various “guises,” which discrimination takes today. Loury argues (17) “the practice of grouping people together on the basis of their common possession of visible bodily marks is a universal aspect of the human condition.” Furthermore, teams of neurologists and social psychologists found that a “particular part of the brain becomes more active when people look at members of a different race.” These facts support the notion that human beings are born with the ability to categorize information. Human beings have the ability to categorize information because of the need to simplify the world in which they live. The world is a very complex place and each human being must deal with the overwhelming details of life by putting information into chunks. For instance, when a toddler goes into a zoo the child will probably not be able to differentiate between a lion and a tiger. Instead, the child will group these two different animals into a “cat category.” The child’s grouping of the animals is quite oversimplified. Therefore, examining stereotypes on a purely cognitive basis, stereotypes are “not necessarily more or less inaccurate, biased, or logically faulty than any other kinds of cognitive generalizations. (Taylor, 84) Unfortunately, the tendency of human beings to categorize information does not explain the abundance of racial stereotypes directed toward blacks. Research in neuroscience alone cannot adequately explain the tendency of non-blacks to ascribe certain characteristics to blacks. Those who uphold the notion that stereotypes cannot be detrimental because of the research in neuroscience fail to take into account the implications of stereotypes in social life. 
Social psychologists now have the opportunity to examine the implications of racial stereotypes. The results of research in the area of social psychology clearly indicate that the effects of stereotypes in a social context are anything but innocuous. In a study of social cognition, researchers tested college undergraduates using the Go/No-Go Association Task (GNAT). In each of the tasks subjects had to make an assumption of images flashed before them. The images in the study were of faces and not words because testing prior to the actual study indicated that all of the subjects could process the former more quickly than the latter. The subjects completed three different types of tasks: two Implicit Association Tests, six GNATs, and explicit measures. The research focused specifically on black-white racial attitudes (Nosek and Banaji, 27-28). Results derived from the IAT supported previous work in the field, the subjects showed an “automatic preference” for white over black faces. Results produced from the GNAT showed that the subjects had positive attitudes toward the group white and negative attitudes toward the group black. These results support the pervasiveness of negative impressions of blacks in the United States. Another study of white-black racial attitudes tested public opinion. Two thousand two hundred and twenty three people were respondents in a national survey, white respondents were asked to gauge “how well” common stereotypes of blacks described blacks as a group. Questions were placed in two dimensions or categories, one section dealt specifically with “black work ethic” and the other “black hostility.” Overwhelmingly the respondents displayed that they believed the negative stereotypes associated with blacks were true. For example, 49% disagreed with the statement that blacks were determined to succeed; 57% believed that blacks were not hard working, and 55% felt that blacks were undependable. In the category concerning black hostility, 50% of those who responded said that they agreed with the notion that blacks were “aggressive or violent.” (Peffley and Hurwitz, 62)
Besides, the “brainwashing” contention, psychological research suggests that human beings practice the art of favoritism, specifically, ingroup favoritism, which often leads to discrimination. “30 years of evidence suggest that ingroup favoritism is a robust and nearly ubiquitous fact of social life.” (Lane, Mitchell, and Banaji, 355) Psychologists assert “that people disproportionately favor their own groups—in attitudes, beliefs, and behavior.” (Lane, Mitchell, and Banaji, 353-354) Current research suggests two disparate concepts regarding ingroup favoritism. One of these positions is “the self as a source of implicit ingroup attitudes”—that is, positive associations toward the self coupled with strong associative ties between the self and one’s group ought to yield positive implicit evaluations towards one’s group. The alternate suggestion is that one’s group status can influence implicit attitudes. (Lane, Mitchell, and Banaji, 357) Moreover, research suggests that people favor their groups even when these groups are arbitrarily assigned. Researchers at Harvard University utilized Implicit Group Evaluation to examine the prevailing notions regarding ingroup attitudes. The team of researchers focused on randomly assigned groups. The team measured attitudes toward Yale and its smaller residential colleges. “Unlike previous work, in which groups were either known to participants or experimentally manipulated to differ widely from one another, the differences among the residential colleges” were known primarily to members of the small, intimate community. (Lane, Mitchell, Banaji, 359) The team of researchers explored the “two potential sources of implicit ingroup attitudes—self and culture.” None of the groups in the study were stigmatized and all of the groups had the same access to resources. The differences among the colleges were very minute and with few exceptions students cannot choose their residential colleges. (Lane, Mitchell, Banaji, 360)
The twelve residential colleges are divided based on shared features (e.g., location). Unlike the university, residential colleges are not known outside of Yale. Thus, the residential colleges are purposely made microcosms “of the larger student” body. The subjects “completed measures of implicit self-esteem and implicit and explicit attitudes toward and identity with Yale and their residential college.” (Lane, Mitchell, Banaji, 361) Two hundred and ninety five students participated in the study; of that number, thirteen were Hispanic, fourteen were African American, one hundred and eighty five were Caucasian, fifty Asian, fourteen Bi-racial and nineteen "Other" Six implicit association tests were administered. Each test included two blocks of juxtaposing viewpoints. For example, one IAT tested whether the students felt that flower+good or flower+bad. Explicit and demographic measures followed the IATs. The results of the tests demonstrated that ingroup attitudes were a function of the group’s status. For example, high-status residential colleges showed a strong ingroup preference, while seemingly low-status residential colleges showed moderated preference toward their group. (Lane, Mitchell, Banaji, 363-370) Moving away from the abstract, these results undoubtedly describe the dynamic of most black-white race relations since the time of Jim Crow.
During the Jim Crow era, white legislators and the public believed that blacks were inferior to them. Although many whites today may not believe in the genetic inferiority of blacks, the stereotyped beliefs that many whites do possess have a similar affect on public policy as beliefs of inferiority had during Jim Crow. For example, after the Civil Rights Movement the white response or white backlash exemplified deep-seated feelings of resentment towards African Americans. These deep-seated feelings translated to “new right racial ideology.” (Ansell, 50) This racial ideology has had a profound impact on public policy in the United States since the Civil Rights Movement. The burgeoning ideology was a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement and “forged during the period of economic contraction and conservative business mobilization beginning in the mid-1970s.” (Huddy and Virtanen, 313)
The period from which the ideology rose is significant because prior to these periods of economic instability the United States—through the Great Society and landmark Civil Rights legislation such as affirmative action—committed to ensuring equality for African Americans. “The economic and political conditions that previously had supported these commitments had changed, with the effect that conservative and nationalist sentiments within the business community began to soar. (Ansell, 54) Thus, the fact that whites overwhelmingly view blacks as “not hard-working” is not surprising when one figures the values of contemporary conservative political ideology. The Right consists of “individuals professing support of the established order and favoring traditional attitudes and practices and conservative governmental policies.” (“Right” def. 13) New right ideology influences the sentiments of the United States as a whole and often leads to new or symbolic racism. The emphasis within new racism on opposition to blacks’ violation of “traditional values,” especially regarding work ethic, is illustrated further by the kinds of items used to assess symbolic racism, including feelings that blacks are generally lazy and don’t want to work. (Huddy and Virtanen, 312) Furthermore, in the aforementioned survey of two thousand two hundred and twenty three people, one can surmise that a majority of the respondents were inclined to oppose government aid specifically for blacks.
Perhaps more than any other medium television has affected the way in which Americans view certain issues and historically have affected race relations. Following the Civil Rights Movement the media began to show blacks in an increasingly negative light and many politicians utilized the media to virtually brainwash white American voters. Kevin Phillips, an ex-Nixon aide, wrote a book highlighting Phillip’s argument that Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was wrought with “thinly-veiled” anti-black rhetoric, which Nixon’s campaign hoped would serve as a building block for conservative electoral realignment. (Ansell, 76) Nixon’s nearly undetectable rhetoric was a response to the growing popularity of George Wallace, a legitimate third-party candidate in 1968 who although was pro-segregation managed to garner fourteen percent of the popular vote. (Harding, Kelley, and Lewis, 541) Historians contend that one of the ways stereotypes continue to remain embedded in the American mind is by the media “defining anything a public official says as news.” (Payne, 396)
“Film and television has had a profound impact on race relations in the United States.” (Kelley, 590) Paul Good explained how there was often a natural tension between field journalists or reporters and their editors. One instance in particular delineated the ways in which editors attempted to manipulate the truth in order to sell more magazines and other media publications. With the saturation of new technologies, such as the internet and particularly viral videos, one could contend that the reinforcing of stereotypes has actually increased since many are now actively seeking certain images and representations of blacks. Nevertheless, Good remembers one of the stories he submitted on Selma and how it was “altered by the editors to make it appear that ‘militant’ blacks had forced ‘moderates’ to knuckle under, which had not been the case at all.” At the peak of the Civil Rights Movement reporters loved to highlight “black militant-moderate controversy.” The press tends to play up controversies in order to generate more ratings, oftentimes through excellent photography and sensational headlines the press creates these controversies entirely. In the case of black stereotypes, these “embellishments” and “creations” can have lasting and detrimental effects. However, even scripted television tends to portray African Americans in a stereotypical way. In legal and cop dramas, situational comedies, reality television and television news blacks are negatively stereotyped. A number of television shows, such as The Flip Wilson Show, Good Times, Family Matters, and Chappelle’s Show came under fire for their reliance on racial stereotypes. (Kelley, 593)
In terms of racial stereotypes, many argue that the negative associations many whites have towards African Americans are perpetuated by the news media. For example, Lowery, a researcher from Stanford University surveyed a number of probation officers and deputies in Los Angeles. The researcher asked them to make “judgments about a hypothetical adolescent (whose race was not identified) who had allegedly either shoplifted or assaulted a peer.” The officers were exposed to words commonly associated with African Americans. In contrast to subjects who did not receive this priming, officers with the subliminal messaging attributed “more negative traits” and greater culpability to the hypothetical offender. (Rigoglioso) Lowery’s study found that although “negative stereotypes about various racial groups bombard us every day in the mass media and deposit their residue deep into our minds,” the effects are reversible.
If you've ever seen a reality TV show, chances are you've seen her: a perpetually perturbed, tooth-sucking, eye-rolling, finger-wagging harpy, creating confrontations in her wake and perceiving racial slights from the flimsiest of provocations. At the very sight of her, her cast mates tremble in fear. And no wonder. She's the Sista With an Attitude. She's the one with a boulder on her shoulder, screeching through endless catfights, a sight so pervasive that Africana.com has trademarked the expression The Evil Black Woman to describe these African American denizens of Unreality TV. (Wiltz)

Reality television often shows black characters in a one-dimensional light and usually emphasizes the negative rather than real attributes of these characters, such as the dubious “attitude” problem that black females possess. More research into the effects of reality television needs to occur in order for academia to truly gauge the effects of negative media attention towards African Americans in the form of reality television. These controversial characters in reality television generate high ratings for their networks. Therefore, when producers cast African Americans they often look for the usual stereotyped African American characteristics.

W.E.B. DuBois stated that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” (“The Souls of Black Folk”) Unfortunately, I feel that the problem of the color-line remains even in the twenty-first century. The myriad barriers to racial equality that exist in the modern, technological age are perhaps more complex than ever before and therefore require more attention than in years past. Although I would not attempt to provide a precise solution for every deterrent to positive race relations in the United States, I do, however believe that several solutions are necessary. Clearly, the negative associations that many possess towards African Americans are not mere coincidence. The fact that most Americans have a greater susceptibility to discriminate against African Americans as opposed to other groups requires that we change the way in which the media delivers information. Safeguards, not censorship, but rather skeptical vigilance and genuine critical thinking should be employed by Americans to stave off inaccurate, unrealistic, and damaging stereotypes against certain groups, blacks in particular. Public confrontation of media bias in news reporting must be implemented in order to break down the psychological barriers to racial equality. The media’s dependency on high ratings and profit should neither jeopardize the nation’s goals regarding racial equality nor the status and livelihood of an entire group of people.


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