Our Unconscious Minds and Racism


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As Martin Luther King, Jr. day (January 15, 2018) approaches, I am thinking about what to do this year. Last year (2017) I got up early and went to the MLK memorial to join a small group of people. Looking back, I think I was largely motivated to go to the program at the memorial because I didn’t have a clear plan for how to spend the day. The previous year, (2016) I joined people I worked with at the U.S. Department of Education in a service project where we worked on cleaning up and adding fresh paint to a DC public school.

Using King’s holiday as a day of service makes a lot of sense. One of Dr. King’s important legacies is that he challenged America to become a “beloved community.” In the beloved community each of us would practice humility—always being open to other people and new ideas. No one would think of her or himself as better than other people and life’s goal would be to serve others. So, a day of service should sensitize us to our own hubris and convert us to lives of selfless service to others. I remember that working on a community service project in 2016 was fun, but I don’t think it changed the direction of my life.

In 2017, after the speeches and picture taking was over (I took a selfie of myself and Harry E. Johnson Sr., the man whose vision and dedication brought the memorial to fruition.), I hung around and read all of the quotations from Dr. King that are inscribed on the north and south wall behind the statue. Maybe I was just looking for an excuse for my failure to make plans to spend the day participating in a service project, but I didn’t see a quotation that said anything about doing something once a year for poor people.

The quotations that Harry Johnson and his committee chose to put on the wall talked about “unarmed truth and unconditional love,” a “desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world,” and that true peace “is the presence of justice.” But the quotation that really caught my attention was “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”

At the time, I was working on finding my own answer to the questions: “If Dr. King challenged us at a march for integrated schools in 1956 and to commit ourselves to a struggle, why haven’t we had the necessary commitment to achieve equal rights for all?” The truth is that I didn’t know how to address the issue of commitment. So, I wrote that “The belief that racism is immoral continues to dominate the American consciousness, with the exception of a small minority of citizens.” (Realizing the Civil Rights Dream, 2017, pg. 33) However, when I addressed the question of “Why should we commit ourselves to the struggle?” (pg. 225) I could only quote Dr. King again, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” (Oberlin College Commencement, 1965)

Why is commitment to equality for all so difficult? And, more importantly, how can we take a belief in the immorality of racism and convert in to a will to take action? What is happening in our minds that makes a unity of purpose so difficult? John Bargh addresses the last question in his book, Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We do What We Do. (2017) He is a social and cognitive psychologist at Yale University. Bargh describes what he and other social and cognitive psychologists have discovered in the last half century about how our minds work and what this means for how we can “make a career of humanity.”

The starting point is the evolution of the human mind with characteristics that made it possible for our ancestors millions of years ago to survive. As Bargh says, “the unconscious came first, both in the course of human evolution and in  the course of our individual development from infancy to childhood to adulthood. (pg. 32) Our unconscious mind today still has abilities that were extremely useful for our ancestors. Without conscious thought our ancestors avoided risk-taking and they resisted change when they were under threat. (pg. 36) Around the world experiments in psychology laboratories have demonstrated  that new born babies have unconscious minds that avoid risks, show a preference for people that are like their mother, and have other capacities.

At birth the genetic capacity of the unconscious mind is all we have. Immediately we begin to supplement the genetic capacity with information about the social world. The genetic capacity to distinguish the difference between us and them was extremely important for the survival of our ancestors. It is a compelling motivation as we learn who in our society is one of us. By the time we are about five we have hidden away in our mind goals and preferences that we do not remember. “These foundations of our future thoughts and actions, created by our hidden past, operate the rest of our lives in the background, unconsciously, driving much of our daily behavior and shaping much of what we think, what we say, and what we do.” (pg.56)

The claim that our unconscious mind drives what we do, say, and think is hard to believe, but Bargh gives example after example of research results from psychology labs around the world where psychologists have demonstrated the amazing role of our unconscious mind. Some of this is well known like the unconscious mind influencing us to buy more in the grocery store if we are hungry. But most of the discoveries that psychologists have made are completely transparent to our consciousness. Choices we make about careers, who to be friends with, how we treat our spouse and children when we come home from work are influenced by our unconscious mind. People involved in the experiments of psychologist universally claim decisions and actions were directed by their conscious decision process, while the experiments demonstrate the guidance of our unconscious minds.

At first this is not only surprising but scary. Bargh says that “we are tuned to in-group/out-group distinctions starting at a very young age, indicating it is an innate tendency to do so.” (pg.67) This gift from our evolutionary past does not serve us well in our multi-cultural environment where trust and cooperation across groups is essential for humans to develop just and fair social systems. Cross group cooperation may even be essential to prevent human extinction.

If the workings of the unconscious mind go unnoticed and denied we will continue to be victims of our genetic heritage and all the social prejudices that are added to our unconscious mind by the time we are about 12 years old. This suggests that one thing we can do is to take extremely seriously the way stereotypes are transmitted through mass media. (pg. 90) Bargh calls on the editors and producers of mass media to use their power “more responsibly than they have in the past.” (pg. 93) But all is not lost once the unconscious has been seeded with bias. The unconscious functions by trying to bring our thoughts and actions into agreement with the goals the unconscious has for us. The goals in our unconscious “are such a powerful influence over us that they can override even our long-term values and beliefs.” (pg. 229)

This brings us to the first really good news. There are steps we can take to modify the goals that are implanted in our unconscious. “What we wish for, our desired futures in the short term as well as the long, has considerable and mainly hidden effects on our minds and behavior.” (pg. 235) Our minds know what we are thinking about and what we wish for. If we establish goals and equally important develop and carry out actions consistent with those goals. Our unconscious mind adopts these goals and the new goals can even replace the goals that the unconscious mind previously pursued. Bargh suggests, “You need to give your goal some conscious thought in order to ‘set’ it as an important goal, and then you will find yourself working on it unconsciously and reaping the benefits.” (pg 283)
But our unconscious cannot be tricked. Racism persists because too few of us have taken on the task of reordering the goals in our unconscious mind. The unconscious mind needs to experience our conscious thoughts as well as our habits and the implementation of our intentions. “If you want to be less racist and sexist, then use implementation intentions such as “When I see a person of color, I will remind myself to be fair!” (pg. 284)

This brings us to the second really good news. Once we have accepted the power that our unconscious mind has over us, worked hard on overcoming the influence it has in making us do things we don’t want to, so our unconscious mind adopts the new goals that are based of the realities of modern life, then our unconscious mind becomes our friend and helps us. Our unconscious mind can help us identify racist and sexist comments and institutional practices without the need for us to think about it. Our unconscious mind will guide us to say things or take actions that are based on the goal of treating all others without bias. And, equally important, our unconscious mind will abandon the goal of protecting our-group and guide us toward cooperative action. (Pgs. 261-278)

As Bargh wrote the last chapter of his book, I doubt very much that he thought in his conscious mind about the quotation from Dr. King’ speech in 1956 that caught my attention at the King memorial. My guess is that lodged in Bargh’s unconscious mind was King’s goal: “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” Then Bargh’s unconscious mind led him to write, “If we truly better ourselves, we have a chance at bettering our community, and by extension, our world.” (pg. 280)