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Originally published March 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 28, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Guest columnists

We can't address discrimination with policies that ignore color

Many whites believe governments shouldn't consider race in making any decisions. They typically believe in colorblindness...

Special to The Times

Many whites believe governments shouldn't consider race in making any decisions. They typically believe in colorblindness as a state policy, because they think we have solved all race problems since they don't know anyone who still believes the pernicious view that blacks are inferior.

Although attitudes about race have changed for the better, there are still serious problems of race facing us. A government policy of colorblindness not only ignores these problems, but can make them even worse.

A person can consciously believe all races are equal but still have subconscious preferences that cause discrimination. Discrimination can result from racist attitudes; but it can also result from common prejudices and preferences that people don't' even know they have.

It is common for people who reject racist ideologies to unknowingly harbor disparaging stereotypes about race that affect their behavior. This is what happens when someone immediately thinks of a young black man upon hearing about a violent crime, or when a woman reacts to a young black man's presence by clutching her purse tightly.

An important ongoing study shows that most people have automatic preferences for their own race. Project Implicit administers a series of implicit association tests (IAT) that identify and measure unconscious attitudes about persons belonging to various groups. This study shows that more than 80 percent of whites display a subconscious preference for whites over blacks. In a nation in which whites are disproportionately responsible for making hiring decisions for the most lucrative and desirable positions, this results in unfair affirmative action for whites.

Conscious racial prejudice is much more culpable than subconscious preferences. Conscious prejudice is based on false and malicious views about other races, while these subconscious preferences are the result of a common tendency to mistrust difference and gravitate toward similarity in people.

But the prevalence of such preferences among whites results in much injustice — despite the progress made over the past 50 years. Here are just a few examples of continuing race discrimination.

One study showed that light-skinned immigrants make more money, other things being equal, than dark-skinned immigrants from the same country. Another showed that white employers are more likely to offer a low-level job to a white college gradate with a felony conviction than to an equally qualified black graduate without a criminal history.

Yet another showed that job applicants with "black names," such as Latisha, are 50 percent less likely to get an interview than whites with comparable résumés — exactly what one would expect if whites generally have automatic preferences for associating with whites.

But other forms of discrimination are hard to explain in such terms. A 1998 study showed, other things being equal, blacks are twice as likely as whites to be turned down for a home loan. Another study showed cardiologists are more likely to order sophisticated diagnostic testing for white men than for black men or white women presenting the same symptoms.

This cannot be explained without assuming that the subjects harbor unknowing discriminatory stereotypes about blacks. Bankers and doctors, unlike employers, are not choosing someone with whom they will have an ongoing social relationship. Something more ominous is at work here — and it afflicts the best of us.

Economic discrimination continues. Black men with professional degrees earn only 79 percent what their white counterparts earn, and the median net worth of blacks — a more accurate indicator of wealth than income — is a small fraction of that of whites.

One predictable result is that blacks are far more likely than whites to live in poverty. Recent studies show that 33.3 percent of blacks (and 29.3 percent of Hispanics) live in poverty, compared with 11.6 percent of whites.

Regardless of the cause, the sociology tells us these are serious injustices that we have a collective obligation to address — and these problems cannot be addressed by state policies making color irrelevant in official decisions. Whites, despite their commitments to racial equality, continue to act in ways that wrongly impact people of color.

People should remember that slavery ended nearly 150 years ago, but apartheid in the South did not end until the early 1970s, when the Supreme Court finally ordered compliance with its 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education. Thirty-five years is not long enough to solve the problems of once-legal racism.

Sadly, individuals are not yet colorblind. Until they are, the state must take color into account to remedy the effects of unconscious racial stereotypes and preferences. An official posture of colorblindness is an ideal the state should strive for, but not until individuals become truly colorblind and the lingering problems of discrimination have been resolved.

Kenneth Einar Himma is an associate professor of philosophy at Seattle Pacific University. For more information about Project Implicit, see implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

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