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What’s to be done about the implicit racial bias I found in my English class textbook?

While I did not know the faculty members who selected the textbook, it’s a good bet that they did not consciously exclude premier African American journalists.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Three years ago, while teaching a course at a college in Florida, I drove to school on my day off because Leonard Pitts was going to speak.

I had reason to be excited, but also worried.

Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist based at the Miami Herald and among the best in his field. Whether commenting on a complex legal question facing the Supreme Court or explaining why one of his favorite musical hits from the 1960s is so enduring, he seizes the reader’s attention with a compelling, personal voice, astute analogies and graceful sentences of luminescent clarity.

Arriving at school, I spotted him seated at a table in the lobby outside the auditorium, where teachers and students might say hello or get an autograph. He was a little heavier, a little older than how he appears in column mugshots. But then, who isn’t?

I got in line to personally tell him how much I appreciated his work and that I use his columns in my classroom to teach writing. There is no better model of an organized, gripping and lucid 800-word essay than a persuasive piece by Leonard Pitts.

What I feared, however, was that in talking about my classroom, the subject of our textbook might also come up.

That’s because the school’s required textbook contained more than 100 essays from newspapers and periodicals, but it had no essays by Pitts. I was embarrassed that it did not have a single work by the journalist invited today to speak about journalism.

What was worse, the textbook had not a single op-ed written by any of the other African American syndicated columnists in the United States. It featured work by many “bigs” such as William Safire, Paul Krugman, Nikolas Kristof and Eric Schlosser. But none by Pitts, Eugene Robinson, Charles Blow or Clarence Page.

The school is predominantly white, so that a typical English class has 25 students, with perhaps two or three African American students. It’s not very hard to imagine how different and remote and unequal one’s educational experience would be, when those two or three must pay for and study a book with text after text written by no one who looks like them.

While I did not know the faculty members who selected the textbook, it’s a good bet that they did not consciously exclude premier African American journalists, nor would they countenance any action that was racist.

Instead, they probably felt good about their selection based on criteria which included topics, teaching methodology, exercises and cost.

And therein the problem lies, and partly why African American progress toward full freedom and equality has been too little and too slow. By not adding race to their criteria, the faculty members unwittingly allowed “implicit bias” to deny equal representation to African American authors, and equal education to African American students.

Likewise, many white employers or teachers or police or politicians think that there is no racism as long as they ignore race. In other words, if they no longer say the N-word, and don’t purposely commit acts that deride or deprive African Americans, that everything is now equal, and that nothing more needs to be done.

But just trying to be color blind does not eliminate the implicit bias of white Americans: their internalized, unconscious fears and preferences rooted in culture, society and their upbringing, which influence their choices and attitudes, if no overt and ongoing effort is made to counteract them.

A recent example of implicit bias was uncovered by investigative reporters for the Sarasota Herald Tribune who discovered that trial judges throughout the entire state consistently gave longer or harsher sentences to African Americans than to whites for identical crimes. Judges were incredulous and ashamed, even as they acknowledged the overwhelming evidence.

And an example of an affirmative action to counteract implicit bias is something like the Rooney Rule in the National Football league, which mandates that team owners interview African American candidates for coaching vacancies. The rule, named after the late Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and head of the diversity committee, was deemed necessary in 2003 after investigations found that white owners ignoring qualified African American candidates in a league in which 68% of players are African American.

When I finally greeted Pitts, he was cordial and funny, and we spoke briefly about a recent column of his which I used in class. And then he addressed the entire group of about 150 people about the increasing importance of journalism in today’s world.

The main point and happy ending to this recollection on the eve of Black History Month is that in the two years since Pitts’ visit, the school changed to a different textbook with many more essays on topics of race, with increased representation by African American authors.

Not just that, but these days more people are cognizant of implicit bias and its potential harm, thanks to studies and articles coming out of universities and essays such as, “How to Think About ‘Implicit Bias’” in Scientific American in 2018, which have exposed and explained its toxic existence.

It’s one small step forward in a long slow process of overcoming generations of racial oppression.

David McGrath is emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage and author of THE TERRITORY. mcgrathd@dupage.edu

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