The phenomenon has been even more pronounced since Barack Obama became America’s first black president:
-Montana’s chief federal judge resigned after emailing a joke in which a young Obama asks why he is black and his mother is white. The punch line involved a dog. “Although (the joke) is racist, I’m not that way, never have been,” Judge Richard Cebull said.
- After drawing national attention for selling an anti-Obama bumper sticker that said “Don’t Re-Nig in 2012,” creator Paula Smith of Hinesville, Georgia insisted that neither she nor the sticker were racist. She called the uproar “amazing and entertaining.”
- New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino was pilloried for sending an email labeled “Obama Inauguration Rehearsal” that showed an African tribesman dancing. His response: “I’m not a racist. I’m proud to have created jobs for hundreds of people of every color and ethnicity.”
- Arizona radio host Barbara Espinosa said she “voted for the white guy” and called Obama a monkey. Asked if that was offensive, she replied, “I’m anything but racist.”
Clay Routledge, a social psychology professor at North Dakota State University who studies the ways people defend themselves against psychological threats, said they often engage in “self-deception”: They may think they’re a good athlete, for example, or have an outgoing personality – or do not have racial biases.
“People have narratives about themselves, self concepts, a whole host of attitudes that they want to think about themselves,” said Routledge. “A lot of times they match well, but sometimes they don’t.”
Other psychologists go further. They blame “implicit bias” – unconscious attitudes based on the way racial groups are commonly portrayed in the public space.
Using scientific studies that measure how quickly people associate words like “black” with “criminal” or “Asian-American” with “foreign,” these researchers conclude that many people – of all backgrounds, not just white people – are unaware of their own racial biases.
Phillip Atiba Goff, a UCLA social psychology professor, says this may be what happened with Garcia: “He was trying to be funny. In the moment, especially if you’re nervous and not thinking, stereotypes come to mind very quickly.”
Goff emphasizes that having an unconscious bias does not mean someone is a racist – it means he or she is a human being who has absorbed ubiquitous information.
So, can a person say something racist but not BE a racist? Might people who make racist statements be telling the truth when they say they are not racist?