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Why it matters if people are racist: A Response to Neil Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures

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Author: Fergus Peace, BPhil student, University of Oxford

Podcasts of Prof. Levy’s Leverhulme lectures are available here:


It’s only a little more than forty years ago that George Wallace won the contest for Governor of Alabama by running ads with slogans like “Wake up Alabama! Blacks vow to take over Alabama” and “Do you want the black bloc electing your governor?” That year, 1970, 50% of people surveyed in the American South said they would never – under any circumstances – vote for a black President. By 2012, that number was down by 8%, and it’s hard to deny that open, avowed racism has been in steep decline for most of the last forty years. But even as people’s overt commitment to racism declines, experiments still show that black candidates are less likely to be given job interviews than equally qualified white candidates; African-Americans are still disproportionately likely to be imprisoned, or shot by police.

So what’s going on? That is the motivating puzzle of Professor Neil Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures, and his answer centres on an increasingly well-known but still very disturbing psychological phenomenon: implicit bias. There are a range of tests which have uncovered evidence of implicit negative attitudes held – by a majority of white Americans, but a sizeable number of black Americans too – against black people. Harvard University’s ‘Project Implicit’ has a series of Implicit Association Tests (IATs); Keith Payne, among others, has developed tests of what he calls the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP). IATs ask us to sort faces and words according to their race and ‘valence’, and we find that task much easier when we have to associate black faces with negative words than we do otherwise. Tests of the AMP ask subjects to rate the pleasantness of an image which is entirely meaningless to them – a Chinese character, for people who don’t speak Chinese – and find that they rate it less pleasant if they’re shown an image of a black face immediately beforehand.

There’s no doubt these results are unsettling. (If you want to do an IAT online, as you should, you have to agree to receiving results you might disagree or be uncomfortable with before you proceed.) And they’re not just subconscious attitudes which are uncomfortable but insignificant; implicit bias as measured by these various tests is correlated with being less likely to vote for Barack Obama, and more likely to blame the black community for violence in protests against police brutality. Tests in virtual shooting ranges also reveal that it correlates with being more likely to shoot unarmed black men when given the task of shooting only those carrying weapons. Implicit biases certainly seem to cause, at least partly, racist actions and patterns of behaviour, like being quicker to shoot at unarmed black people and less likely to invite them for job interviews.

Professor Levy’s lectures grappled with two questions about these attitudes: first, do they make you a racist; and second, are you morally responsible for actions caused by your implicit biases? If you, like me, abhor racism and make that abhorrence at least some part of your political and social identity, but nonetheless come away with a “moderate automatic preference for European … compared to African” on the race IAT, then are you – protestations to the contrary – a racist? His answer to this question in the first lecture, based on the current state of conceptual investigation of what racism is and empirical evidence about the character of implicit biases, was a qualified no: they don’t clearly count as beliefs, or even as feelings, in a way that could let us confidently call people racist just because they possess them.

The second question is similarly complex. When interviewers prefer white applicants over equally qualified black ones, due to their implicit attitudes, are they responsible for the racist character of that action? Levy focused largely on the ‘control theory’ of moral responsibility, which says that you’re responsible for an action only if you exercise sufficient control over it. Levy’s answer to this question is a pretty clear no: implicit attitudes don’t have the right sort of attributes (in particular, reliable responsiveness to reasons and evidence) to count as giving you control over the actions they cause.

I find it very hard to disagree with the core of Professor Levy’s arguments on his two questions. The points I want to make in response come from a different direction, because after listening to the two lectures I’m not convinced that these are the important questions to be asking about implicit bias.

First, on the issue of whether implicit biases make you a racist. Getting a solid answer to this question would require a lot of effort, particularly in gathering more empirical evidence about the nature of implicit attitudes. And I’m not sure the answer is worth the effort. What difference could it make? Levy told the story of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, which denied being sexist but selected very few women performers – until it started using blind auditions, at which point the number of women chosen to join the orchestra jumped immediately. Were the people conducting the auditions beforehand sexist? Hard question! (Assuming, of course, that this was just a matter of implicit bias – which it may well not have been.) But here are some easier questions. Was the rejection of talented women performers beforehand a sexist act? Undeniably, whether or not it was done by sexist people. Should the orchestra have adopted blind auditions? Absolutely! Should other orchestras do the same? Of course! And once we’ve answered those questions, the ones really relevant to how we conduct ourselves, ploughing empirical and philosophical labour into discovering whether we are really sexists or racists doesn’t seem like a very worthwhile endeavour.

Research on the nature of implicit bias and how it works, both philosophical and empirical, helps us to identify ways in which people are being unfairly disadvantaged and come up with ways to combat that disadvantage. In Britain, UCAS will soon start enforcing name-blind university applications to reduce the injustice that tests like the IATs have uncovered. That makes this research incredibly important – but not because it’ll help us answer the question of whether we’re racists.

I suspect Professor Levy might agree with that; but I’m also uncertain about the question of moral responsibility. Levy’s negative conclusion is not meant to be reassuring. Not being responsible for our racist actions doesn’t mean we have no duties to mitigate the influence of implicit bias, or try to eliminate that bias altogether. Levy stressed the duties of collectives – nations, universities, social groups – which have the power to change the long-term patterns in how black people, women and other disadvantaged groups are portrayed which are the root of implicit biases. I found it a little strange that he was quite resistant, both in the lecture and in subsequent questions, to concluding from this that there were duties individuals have as well. I might not be able to consciously counteract or reduce my implicit biases – experiments on people trying to do this suggest they sometimes only make things worse. But I can take steps (like blind auditions) to stop them being triggered; and insofar as the whole community has a duty to reduce negative and stereotyped portrayals of black people and women, it surely follows that individuals in that community have a duty not to create or allow those portrayals – not to make sexist jokes, or let racist caricatures go unchallenged.

All this leads me to have the same sort of worry about the question of responsibility for implicit bias as I have about the question of whether it makes you a racist. The concept of moral responsibility has a storied history, and it’s natural to be interested in the question here: do you deserve to be ashamed of your actions, or censured for them, when they’re caused only by implicit biases? Levy’s answer is no, and that we should be focused on what we can do to lessen the damage of racism, not on criticising ourselves or others for having implicit biases – and, for what it’s worth, that’s more or less the answer that groups like Oxford’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality have been giving for some time now.

And Levy’s approach itself calls into question whether we should focus on the question of moral responsibility. If, as the lectures suggested, moral responsibility comes apart – and not just slightly but quite dramatically – from the question of what duties you have to mitigate and control your behaviour, then one reason to be interested in moral responsibility seems to be off the table. Another reason to be interested in it is just that we are interested in it, in our natural moral thinking, and regard it as a central moral concept. But explaining his methodology, both in the lecture itself and in response to some suggested counterexamples, Professor Levy argued that ordinary intuitive thinking about moral responsibility is frequently in error because it’s based in false folk psychology. It’s hard to see why we should see the fact that everyday moral thinking takes some concept to be important as any sort of reason to think it actually is, once we recognise that everyday thought about the concept is shot through with errors.

Consider the following possibility: if a huge new amount of psychological research revealed tomorrow that our implicit attitudes are ‘inferentially promiscuous’ and systematically responsive to a broad range of evidence, that (on Levy’s view) would show we are morally responsible for the actions they cause. But it’s hard to imagine that anyone would treat this sort of discovery as showing us anything morally significant. That makes it seem very plausible that we only think moral responsibility is important due to the same erroneous folk psychology which infects our intuitive judgements about it, or because we mistakenly think it has a closer tie to what duties we have. So I’m not sure what positive reason is left for thinking that the question of moral responsibility for implicit bias is a significant one.

In short, I found the project of these Leverhulme Lectures to be ultimately quite self-undermining: this close investigation of whether we’re responsible for the action caused by our implicit biases, or whether they make us racist, ultimately left me thinking that those questions simply aren’t that important – especially compared to other questions about what we can and ought to do to manage them.

Prof. Levy’s response to this article is available here:

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5 Comment on this post

  1. Fergus Peace writes that

    it’s hard to deny that open, avowed racism has been in steep decline for most of the last forty years.

    The implicit claim, namely that open avowed racism is generally in steep decline, is plainly wrong. Unfortunately he does not make clear where this decline was supposed to have happened – the southern US, or perhaps the US as a whole, or western societies in general. Nor does he explain ‘racism’, which is a very disputed term. In the US more people are inclined to define it as a structural relationship between white and black – activists would say between white people and People of Color. For those who use this structural definition of racism, the distinction between overt and implicit racism is largely irrelevant. So is the issue of whether an individual white person is a racist, because in that model all white people have a structurally unequal and oppressive relationship, to those who are not white.

    Obviously this view of racism is influenced by the history of the United States, where traditionally a large minority descended from West African slaves confronted a majority descended from European immigrants. More diverse immigration since the Second World War has undermined this neat duality in the US, but the model of white/black structural racism persists. Given the more complex ethnic patterns here in Europe, the black/white structural racism model is less popular. As many people have pointed out, it does not make sense when applied to tensions with Muslim migrants, for instance.

    This matters because if we want to talk about ‘declining overt racism’ we need to know what racism is. If it is not declining, then the thesis that ‘implicit bias’ has somehow taken its place, is no longer logical. To illustrate the importance of definitions, take the question of whether voters in the US would vote for a black President. Many apparently now say that they might, but would you get the same result if you asked whether they would vote for a Muslim President? We need to know what we are talking about, before assessing any claim that racism is in decline.

    1. “Many apparently now say that they might, but would you get the same result if you asked whether they would vote for a Muslim President? We need to know what we are talking about, before assessing any claim that racism is in decline.”

      But Islam is not a race it is a religion. I don’t mean that Islamophobia is in any way right, but a) it is not racism (even though it is equally as abhorrent) and b) making judgments about who to vote for based on religion might not be any kind of phobia/ ism. For example, a voter might be able to reasonably infer something about a candidate’s beliefs or values based on their religion that they could never do about race. For example, I might choose not to vote for a Catholic president because I would have reason to believe that they would be more likely to create legislation that restricts abortion. I might be wrong but I still don’t think it would be discrimination akin to racism to not vote for them. So I agree that we need to know what we are talking about before assessing.

      1. Some people do see ‘Islamophobia’ as a form of racism, but of course the term ‘Islamophobia’ itself is controversial, and some people reject it entirely. The point is that you can not make sweeping statements about a ‘decline of overt racism’ without giving an indication of what racism is. Both Fergus Peace and Neil Levy throw in very disparate examples – attitudes to blacks in the American South and women in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra – so that it is not clear what they are really talking about, and specifically to what precisely moral responsibility should apply.

        1. Yes, I understand your point but it seemed odd to make it with an example that made the same mistake you were trying to point out.

          In fact, although their examples were disparate and no doubt each group has very different experiences, and there are different solutions, they are linked by the fact it relates to people making judgments about others which are based on something entirely irrelevant e.g. whether they are a violent criminal based on the colour of their skin, or whether they can play the violin to a certain standard based on their sex. Skin colour or sex are completely irrelevant to behaviour and talents. But the religion a person follows is not entirely irrelevant to their beliefs or behaviour, though of course it is equally not prescriptive. So I thought your example is unfair.

  2. Although the details are important, it is the underlying politics of this issue which concern me. I have not listened to the original lectures, two hours long, and unfortunately a transcript is not available, so I can’t comment on them. What is clear is that both Neil Levy and Fergus Peace are committed to principles of equal treatment and non-discrimination, which are rooted in liberal assumptions about a shared commitment to society by its citizens. We know by now that western societies are not like that, and the principles themselves are therefore inadequate. The tone of both Neil Levy and Fergus Peace is old-fashioned. The Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (Oxford Student Union), which Fergus Peace praises, also seems exemplary for what goes wrong, when liberal principles take no account of recent developments. I can say a lot more about this, but I would prefer to read a transcript of the two lectures first, to better understand what Neil Levy is proposing in a political sense.

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