Black Americans overwhelmingly say unconscious bias is a major barrier in their lives

After a summer of protest, a poll shows large gaps between attitudes of Black and white people over bias and discrimination

Black people say unconscious racial bias has been a major barrier in their lives, posing as much or more of a problem than structural racism and individual discrimination, according to a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and The Undefeated.

About 7 in 10 African Americans say unconscious racial bias – which the poll defined as white people discriminating against Black people without realizing they are doing it – has been an obstacle in their own lives. About two-thirds cite structural or systemic racism, individual acts of discrimination and historic wealth gaps for Black people as problems that have stood in their way.

Also known as implicit racism, unconscious bias is an amorphous subject, hard to prove and difficult to measure within individual minds. In a series of interviews, poll respondents sometimes struggled to identify their own experiences with it, or to differentiate between unconscious bias and overtly racist actions. But they also understood the concept of unconscious bias on a visceral level – as the reason Black star NFL quarterbacks are only a recent phenomenon, or why Black newborns in Georgia were more likely to die when cared for by white doctors, or why white people insist “I’m not racist” after connecting golfer Tiger Woods to fried chicken or President Barack Obama’s mother to a dog.

And the difference between deliberate and unconscious bias may not matter much in the actual moments of painful discrimination. Although unconscious bias ranked at the top of the list of personal obstacles in the poll, 70% of Black people who experienced discrimination say they were treated unfairly on purpose. Only 27% said white people were unaware of discriminating against them.

Jason Willis, a 40-year-old audiovisual specialist who grew up in New York City, said he has often been approached by white strangers when walking through a white residential area. “Those are the type of places I look out for unconscious bias,” he said. “The majority of the time you’re approached and they ask, ‘Are you looking for somebody?’ You can tell when certain questions are genuine curiosity or come from what they’ve been taught about Black people.”

Willis was stopped by police countless times as a young man. “That’s automatic racism right there, it’s something the police are used to,” he said. Willis classified such racial profiling as “systematic, so it’s definitely conscious,” but said unconscious bias is potentially a bigger problem.

Poll Black adults who said they were treated unfairly in the past year because of race attributed it to people:

“It affects your whole mental health, besides your opportunities,” he said. “The environment it creates inhibits your quality of life. Unconscious bias makes it easier for you to get a criminal record, harder to get a good job, harder to provide for your family. It affects your whole lifestyle, period. It has a trickle-down effect.”

Cheryl Jones sees unconscious bias at her job in a Georgia government office. She has two bachelor’s degrees and is two courses shy of a master’s degree, but said she makes less money than a white woman who only has a high school diploma.

“I define unconscious bias as they know it’s there, but they don’t want to admit it’s there,” she said. “It’s called white privilege. The person I’m talking about who is paid more than me, she’s a sweetheart. It’s not something she asked for, it’s something that she gets.”

Toggle the buttons within the charts to filter the poll responses by demographic:

Poll Do you think unconscious bias or individual racist acts are obstacles to Black people achieving equal outcomes with white people today?

major obstacle
minor obstacle
not an obstacle
no answer

Daniel Jenkins, who works for a government defense contractor, sees unconscious bias in the way some white people receive assignments or other opportunities at work.

“It’s preferential treatment,” said Jenkins, who lives in Bowie, Maryland. “They might not realize they’re giving more attention to one person than the other, because they’re more accepting of who they are or naturally gravitate to that person. They’re unconsciously being more open to fostering relationships with them that lead to more opportunities.”

KFF and The Undefeated polled 1,769 adults, including 777 African Americans, from Aug. 20 through Sept. 14 after persistent police violence against Black people led to a monumental racial upheaval that forced many white people, and institutions, to examine their roles in systemic racism. The results show that despite unprecedented white support for the Black Lives Matter movement, a majority of white people don’t agree that racism is a major obstacle to equality.

When asked about obstacles to Black people achieving equal outcomes with white people in the U.S., Black people are much more likely than white people to recognize various obstacles to equality. Asked about structural racism – defined as a system of established policies and practices that disadvantage Black people – 79% of Black adults see it as a major barrier for Black people to achieve equality, compared with 43% of white people. The historic wealth gap was seen as a major barrier to Black equality by 76% of Black people compared with 44% of white folks. Similar differences were reported in unconscious bias (71% vs. 45%), individual acts of racism and discrimination (73% vs. 46%), limited opportunities for career advancement (70% vs. 36%), and limited access to quality housing (69% vs. 41%) and quality education (66% vs. 42%).

“Walking through a friend’s condo garage, a white woman demanded to know why he was there. Was that unconscious or conscious bias? “It was some of both. Oftentimes they’re interwoven into each other.” Chris Bridges, of the National Implicit Bias Network

When asked if these same problems had affected them individually, unconscious bias was at the top of the list for Black people, with 71% saying it has been a personal obstacle, followed by 65% who named structural racism or individual acts of racism and discrimination, and 63% who named historic wealth gaps. Nearly as many – 57% – say they have personally faced limited opportunities for career advancement. About 4 in 10 saw limited access to quality housing or quality education as barriers in their own lives.

Poll Percent of Black adults who say each of the following has been an obstacle in their own life

The concept of implicit racism was introduced to mainstream America in the late 1990s through academic research, then spread to activists, policymakers, corporations and government agencies. The original academic study, the Implicit Association Test, measures the connections people make between white and Black faces and various positive or negative words. Other researchers have presented evidence that the test is not scientifically sound. But the belief that many people discriminate against others without knowing they are doing so has become widely accepted, with evidence of disparate racial outcomes in prison sentences, school discipline, health care and other areas of American life.

The sometimes contradictory nature of unconscious racism was captured by rapper Joyner Lucas when he inhabited a stereotypical white psyche in his 2017 song, “I’m Not Racist”: “Take that du-rag off, take that gold out your mouth, quit the pitiful stuff, and then maybe police will stop killing you f—s … I’m not racist.

“Folks have the ability to kind of compartmentalize their racism,” said Chris Bridges, program manager of the National Implicit Bias Network, which seeks to dismantle legal and social justifications for racial discrimination. “They will say, ‘I’m not racist, I don’t even have any Black people in my neighborhood,’ but then make decisions at their board meetings or at their school board about actions that negatively impact Black lives.”

“Decisions are being made without the label of being a racist, or without Black voices being in those rooms,” he said. “When we start talking about increasing the conversation around implicit bias, that’s one strategy for trying to help folks understand that you’re actually having a negative impact on people who look like me, even though you are saying outwardly that you’re not a racist.”

Poll Percent who say that in the last 12 months they were treated unfairly in the following places because of their racial or ethnic background

Bridges was not surprised that most Black people who experienced discrimination said white people treated them that way not unconsciously, but on purpose. “That’s the nuance and the dance that explicit racism does with implicit biases,” he said.

This is particularly true today, when overtly racist statements such as “don’t hire a Black person” are clearly taboo. While some believe racism ended when separate water fountains were outlawed and Black people weren’t forced to sit in the back of the bus, others look into the attitudes of people who don’t – or won’t – recognize their own biases.

Bridges said that he recently had an experience walking through a friend’s condo garage when a white woman demanded to know why he was there. Was that unconscious or conscious bias? “It was some of both,” he said. “Oftentimes they’re interwoven into each other.

“In the outwardly, obviously racist society that we currently live in, implicit bias sometimes operates as the glue that holds that system together.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.