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I liked to think of myself as tolerant. Growing up, I was frustrated by an environment in which race played such a central role in peoples' lives, yet remained unspoken, an untouchable subject. I vowed to myself that I was different.

In a seminar, I was introduced to the principle of implicit bias, or unconscious prejudices against people and things formed by outer influences and repeated exposure. When I learned of implicit bias, I became nervous. The idea that one could harbor unconscious racial biases was alarming. I decided to take Harvard University's Project Implicit race demonstration test. My anxieties were confirmed when the test told me that I had a "moderate" amount of implicit racial bias, tucked deep inside me and concealed by my well-meaning conscious desires for equality and tolerance. I was crushed. 

It is often difficult to address the subject of race. It is because of its closeness to us, our very personal brushes with racism and racial discomfort, that we often find it hard to discuss race openly with others. It is not a communication breakdown. Race is the proverbial elephant standing, ignored, in the middle of the room. And because it is central and the root cause of so many inequalities in our economic and sociological systems, we fear criticism by our acceptance or rejection of issues surrounding it.  

Influential forces, including news coverage, popular culture and social assumptions, may result in implicit biases. Undetected or not, these biases could be harmful to the people around us. We decided to speak with the presumed subjects of such discussions – namely young, Black males – to hear their perspectives in order to garner more understanding of society's greater implicit biases.    

"I understand why there is a suspicion of Blacks, but why is "What race was he?" the first question everyone asks when a crime is committed?" Malik, a recent graduate of Penn State and the manager of a local retail store, is spending his day off reading and relaxing in the sun in Central Park. Trim and handsome, he fields our questions receptively, and approaches the question of public suspicion toward the black man openly. "People definitely look at me differently sometimes, especially when I go into high-end designer stores. I'm watched a little more, given a lot more 'help'."  

Stanford University social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt validates Malik's observations, arguing that the implicit association of “Black man” with “criminal” may be contributed to by repetition of criminal images in the media. "People associate Black physical traits with criminality. 

The more stereotypically Black a person's physical traits appear [sic], the more criminal that person is perceived to be." If this is true, then it may be no surprise that Malik found store employees responding to him with a heightened sensitivity.  

New York University neuroscience psychologist Damian Stanley echoes Eberhardt's findings: "It's a basic learning principle. Associations are reinforced over time, which results in a shift of the unconscious."

A Florida pizza delivery man who fell victim to an armed robbery and assault demonstrated his unconscious association between "criminal" and "black man" earlier this year when he identified Joshua Lilly as his aggressor. The victim, who suffered severe memory loss, chose Lilly out of a line-up containing six men. "Lilly's face stood out," his attorney said, because Lilly was "the only black man in the group with long, braided-style hair". The state dropped the charges against Lilly when confronted with conflicting witness testimonies. "This could have ruined my who life," said 19-year old Lilly. "Not a lot of people get this chance. A lot of people get railroaded and sent away." 

Over a thousand miles away in Think! Coffee Shop in Manhattan, the anxieties similar to Lilly's case are felt. As St. John's University student Frank Jerome sat, studying an investment banking handbook, he expressed deep concern about the existing situation between Black men and law enforcement professionals. "Honestly, I don't feel comfortable when I drive or walk by the police. I feel like they're against me. Just like the image of the Black man needs to be changed, likewise so does the image of the police. They need to reassert their position as individuals who protect and serve." 

By using large images of preferably black young man, often mug shots that show the suspect in a subtly hostile way, the media clearly contributes to an omnipresent mistrust towards black men. 

When the subjects of mug shots is brought up, the security guard at Hunter College of Manhattan grimaces. As soon as we assure him that his identity will remain anonymous for this article, he tentatively begins to talk. "People in Manhattan are tense, scared,” observes the night security guard. "As soon as something happens, everybody is victimized because of the fear, and the media often contributes to this fear-mongering." 

This correlation between images of young black men and news coverage intended to inspire fear is not a new one. "In general", testifies Janine Jackson, the Program Director of FAIR, an organization, which specializes in equitable media, "I believe that young black men are covered by mainstream media through a lens of pathology. When we see young black men, it is often in a context of drugs, crime, or some kind of negative behavior. I think that this is undeniable, particularly in urban news." 

Negative depictions of Black men are even more slanted by circumstance; there are relatively few positive representations of black men in the media, outside the realm of entertainment and sports. Stanley supports this statement, citing his difficulties in finding well-known respectable black male figures for visual use in a research study. "It was very difficult," he admits. "It's hard to use, say, Colin Powell, or Malcolm X, because people are too conflicted about them. You have Martin Luther King, Fredrick Douglass, Jesse Jackson." Crime depictions are made more potent by this lack of contrast. 

"If you're looking for a black male role model, you should look at me!," exclaimed a young businessman, enjoying his lunch on at Astor Place, "I'm a good role model. I have a little brother, and he looks up to me because I have achieved something. I might not be famous, but I'm working in a corporation, I have a masters degree. I should be a role model." 

As we discovered, the executive relaxing in the Astor Place Starbucks was not the only indi-vidual to feel that popular positive role models were hard to come by. We spoke to Steve Lloyd, who recalls an instance in which he found popularized role models to be lacking. "I would like to see more Black business or financial executives in the media. Restaurant chefs, magazine publishers. You know, normal people." He explains:

"I was working near the south of Central Park, where they draw all the pictures of famous people," he says. "I always saw them drawing Tupac and Biggie Smalls. One day I asked one of the artists, "Why don't you ever draw anyone like Martin Luther King?" And they were like, "Who is that? No one would want that." That's our own people, that's our own culture. That made me very upset. Very angry."

While Lloyd is frustrated with the lack of positive role models, critics such as Heather McDonald feel that this lack is warranted. A scholar at the Manhattan Institute, McDonald argues that this disparity is a reflection of a societal reality. "The media and corporations in their advertising portray blacks as doctors, bankers, financial advisors, and other professionals at rates that far exceed their actual numbers in the population," she asserts. On the contrary, she believes that the media does not exaggerate the situation of the Black man. In recent years it has done "everything it can to hide the truth about Black crime; many media outlets have stopped reporting the race of suspects and convicts." 

Shola Lynch, a documentary filmmaker and director of "Matters of Race", strongly disagrees: "It is not the case that there are not any positive figures, but the pop culture is not interested in it. Kids interpret these representations as, I can be a rapper, I can be an athlete, or I can be a criminal. But there are more possibilities than that."  Lynch believes that these portrayals are largely profit-driven. "These images sell," she says. "But sharing information should be a service. It shouldn't be for profit."  

Lynch finds an ally in New York University law professor and former ACLU president Burt Neuborne, who agrees that much mis-representation can be attributed to decisions made in the interest of profit. "Whether it's intuition or formal marketing, bad news sells," he argues. "It is a market-driven phenomenon. Fear inspires readership." Neuborne also contends that many in the press are trained to "write to the profit". From paper to paper, "they use the same marketing-savvy judgments. The public likes to be titillated, not challenged. I think that this is a great challenge to democracy."   

Back at Union Square, Steve reflects on the power of the media. "The media is the most influential thing in this country. It is influential around the world, but especially here in this country." Those who specialize in media influences agree. Janine Jackson of FAIR recognizes the American media as indicative of the power structure. "Mainstream news is what powerful people say and do," she says. "When looking for sources of problems, the most likely place is to look downward, finding social ills among the powerless."  

Among the ducks surrounding the serene lake at Central Park sits Aaron. An artist, Aaron approaches the issue of racial unrest carefully. "We need to improve the media by balancing and diversifying production," he explains when asked for a potential solution. "Start at the top. We learn the truth through differing opinions and values, and by recognizing strengths of all cultures and races."  

Aaron is not the only optimistic voice in this discussion. Most consulted agree that the situ-ation is not futile. As long as the readership is capable of criticism, options for change will be available. The first step to a more balanced perspective may be self-awareness. "Be aware of your input," Stanley advises. "Be aware of what's happening to you, or try to. Make kids aware that everything they are taking in is pushing them, subtlety, in one direction or another." 

Participation in the media itself is another option. "It's important to be a watchdog, and to monitor the news, for two reasons: to alert the population, and also to alert the press of any pernicious patterns," Neuborne states. "I think that so much of this is unconscious coverage, and it often takes someone else to point out inconsistencies." 

However, he warns that too much intervention might yield undesired effects. "I would not support a government regulated, manipulated news. A press which is patrolled will not be trusted." He echoes Aaron in his suggestion that direct participation- the creation of a new media- could grant a more balanced perspective. "A big step toward reform would be integrating the newsrooms," he says. "Move toward a press which is not dominated by any one race. I also think that, for all the irresponsibility of bloggers, the Internet is a great way to break through the mass press." 

While the prospect of an implicit bias is both frightening and disheartening, there is evidence that one can alter the biases he or she has developed from his or her surroundings. Open dialogue with others, even if they are perfect strangers, is a great first step in overcoming a subconscious bias. It may be time to take the bias test again.


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Aaron, Artist, interviewed August 7, 2007
Businessman in Starbucks, interviewed August 7, 2007
Janine Jackson: Program Director of FAIR, interviewed August 8, 2007
Frank Jerome, interviewed August 4, 2007
Steve Lloyd, interviewed August 7, 2007
Shola Lynch: documentary filmmaker, inter-viewed August 6, 2007
Burt Neuborne: New York University Law Professor, interviewed August 6, 2007
Malik Roache, interviewed August 7, 2007
Security Officer, interviewed August 4, 2007
Damian Stanley: New York University Neuroscience Psychologist, interviewed August 3, 2007
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