Implicit Racism

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Implicit Racism

Situated within the discussion of racism in the United States and elsewhere, particularly in relation to the study of social psychology, the term implicit racism is often erroneously used in oppositional comparison to explicit racism. Explicit racism is overt and often intentional, for it is practiced by individuals and institutions that openly embrace racial discrimination and hold prejudicial attitudes toward racially defined groups, which they assume to be scientifically identified through genetics. Implicit racism, however, is not the opposite of explicit racism but a different, yet no less harmful, form of racism. Implicit racism, broadly defined, refers to an individual’s utilization of unconscious biases when making judgments about people from different racial and ethnic groups.

According to a number of observers, implicit racism is an automatic negative reaction to someone of a different race or ethnicity than one’s own. Underlying and unconscious racist attitudes are brought forth when a person is faced with race-related triggers, including preconceived phenotypic differences or assumed cultural or environmental associations. Since this type of racism lies beyond the awareness of the person displaying the attitudes or actions, it is quite possible for someone to report that they hold few, if any, overt racist ideologies and yet display implicit racism in their everyday interactions with people of different racial groups. In particular, this can occur among whites when they are confronted by others not perceived as white. As discussed by the sociologist Joe Feagin, examples of everyday racism can include such things as being treated differently when exchanging money at cash registers, being seated at bad tables in restaurants, or being assigned undesirable rooms when checking into hotels. Each of these scenarios is a possible result of the implementation of implicit racism.

Project Implicit is a large and somewhat controversial psychological study that was designed as a demonstration project at Yale University in 1998 and later taken over by researchers from Harvard University, University of Virginia, and University of Washington. The study utilizes Internet testing as a primary research tool for subject recruitment and data gathering. The goal of the Implicit Association Test is to explore the “unconscious roots of thinking and feeling” in the contexts of particular words and pictures associated with gender, sexuality, age, weight, race, and other areas. In reference to implicit racism, it explores reactions to factors such as skin tone, ethnic groups, and race. The goal of these tests is to gauge participants’ implicit preference for one group in comparison to another through responses to representative stimuli.

An average of 15,000 tests per week have been completed in the seven years Project Implicit has been gathering data via the Internet, for a total of 4.5 million tests administered and over 200 investigations published. Researchers have uncovered four main results from this large data set: People are unaware of their implicit biases, biases are pervasive, implicit biases predict behavior, and people differ in their levels of implicit bias. Specific to implicit racism, people harbor negative associations in reference to particular racial groups while reporting that they hold no such biases, resulting in statistically significant racial preferences such as 75 to 80 percent of white and Asian Americans showing an implicit racial preference for whites over African Americans. Individuals with higher levels of implicit racial prejudice engage in acts of discrimination including lower levels of friendliness, lack of racial inclusion, and lower evaluations of performance in the workplace.

Implicit racism has taken hold in our everyday lives, where decisions about individuals and groups continue to be based on racial identifications dictated by perceived clues pertaining to racial group membership. These split-second decisions are based upon non-definitive sensorial associations including, but not limited to, skin color, speech patterns, hair texture, and clothing style. In this day and age of many professing color-blind ideologies, there is strong evidence to show that a large portion of the population, albeit subconsciously, continues to discriminate according to race. Lines are drawn between individuals based on difference, in particular those not perceived as fitting into a category of white. As a result, limitations are placed on minorities in a myriad of societal arenas resulting in everyday racism, relatively low possibilities for interracial friendship formation, and inadequate access to and mobility within housing, education, and jobs.

SEE ALSO Cultural Racism; Racial Hierarchy.


Dovidio, John. F., and Samuel L. Gaertner. 1996. “Affirmative Action, Unintentional Racial Biases, and Intergroup Relations.” Journal of Social Issues 52 (4): 51–75.

Feagin, Joe R. 2000. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New York: Routledge.

Feagin, Joe R., and Melvin P. Sikes. 1995. Living with Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kawakami, Kerry, and John F. Dovidio. 2001. “The Reliability of Implicit Stereotyping.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27 (2): 212–225.

Killen, Melanie, Jennie Lee-Kim, Heidi McGlothlin, and Charles Stangor. 2003. How Children and Adolescents Evaluate Gender and Racial Exclusion. Boston: Blackwell.

Project Implicit.

Sears, David O., Jim Sidanius, and Lawrence Bobo, eds. 2000. Racialized Politics: The Debate about Racism in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ingrid E. Castro