American Denial documents nation’s hidden biases

MIKE McGEE | 6/15/2015, 8:59 a.m.
“Race is like a nerve, we hit it and everything explodes.” – Vince Brown, Harvard University
Reenactment of young man getting frisked by police officers. Zachary Stuart

“Race is like a nerve, we hit it and everything explodes.” – Vince Brown, Harvard University

Issues stemming from racial bias and discrimination have been woven into America’s history and continue today. However, today’s laws and modern morality no longer allow for blatant displays of racism – to a point where some deny it exist and others may not recognize it for what it is, according to research published through PBS.

“In my general impression of human beings, [it] is that they are very confused in their mind,” said Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in an audio section of the PBS documentary American Denial. “Their public opinions are certainly not their private opinions.”

The feature from the Independent Lens series explores the end result and hidden depth of racism in America by employing as a framework An American Dilemma, Myrdal’s 1944 study of bigotry in the South. The report, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation in the late 1930s, is an outsider’s view of Jim Crow laws that examines America’s principals of freedom and equality juxtaposed against its racist roots – a paradox often pawned-off in the past as “the Negro problem” by the Caucasian mainstream.

American Denial has been shown around the country as a way to create conversation and move communities to action, according to PBS. The South Dallas Cultural Center sponsored a screening of the video and post-show community discussion afterward on May 22.

Vicki Meek, manager of the center, mentioned to attendees that the facility owns the copy of the film and plans on having another screening and discussion at a time yet to be determined.

“We were interested in bringing it because, with all that’s going on right now in America, and particularly around issues of race where people are even reticent to even embrace it wholeheartedly …” she stated, “… a lot of the young people are saying ‘You just don’t understand all of this,’ and it tells me that we didn’t prepare them well because it’s not really new.”

The film delves into Myrdal’s travels in the Deep South and what he experienced when he engaged in candid conversation with the regional Caucasians. The work also examines what he witnessed in regard to the effects of the era’s racial separation polices upon African Americans. Commentary from contemporary social scientists and educators about how America’s long reaching, bias-tinted past continues to shade modern culture is featured in the film as well.

One notable segment of the presentation highlighted the Implicit Association Test, an evaluation said to reveal subconscious bigotry within even the most seemingly accepting of people. As depicted in American Denial, the IAT uses photos of African Americans and Caucasians, and links them with positive or negative words on a computer monitor. How subjects repeatedly associate one ethnicity or the other with the words reveals hidden bias that is unknown to even the subject taking the test.

In the film, experimental psychologist Mahzarin Banaji points out that, for about 75 percent of White Americans, it is difficult to put “Black” and “good” together. Further, she states that 40 percent of Black Americans find it easier to link positive associations with Whites than with Blacks. Banaji concedes that such results show that the country still struggles with a racial dilemma.