Washington Post Columnist Admits Racial Bias

Courtland Milloy, the Metro editor of the Washington Post, admits that he’s racially biased.

So now it can be told:

“Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for Black relative to White,” the summary of my test results said.

For some readers, no doubt, this is confirmation — if any was needed — that I am a “reverse racist.” But the last thing I wanted was to end up in that group of African Americans who showed a pro-white, or anti-black, bias. I’m talking about 48 percent of black test takers who have internalized the same biases as a majority of white people: Black is bad; white is good.

The test (which can be found here) to which Milloy refers was developed by a Harvard psychologist to detect hidden, deep-seated, “implicit” bias. As described in an article in the Washington Post magazine last Sunday,

By linking together words and images, the race bias test measures what associations come most easily to mind. People who take the Web version are asked to classify a series of faces into two categories, black American and white American. Then they are asked to mentally associate the white and black faces with words such as ‘joy’ and ‘failure.’ Under time pressure, many Americans find it easier to group words such as ‘failure’ with black faces, and words such as ‘joy’ with white faces.

Actually, Milloy passes quickly over his own biases, as well he should since the virtue of this test (if virtue it is) is that it finds bias in just about everyone. As the blurb under the headline of the Sunday article puts it,

Many Americans believe they are not prejudiced. Now a new test provides powerful evidence that a majority of us really are.

That’s probably an understatement. As the article reports, based on those taking the test at the web site linked above,

88 percent of white people had a pro-white or anti-black implicit bias; nearly 83 percent of heterosexuals showed implicit biases for straight people over gays and lesbians; and more than two-thirds of non-Arab, non-Muslim volunteers displayed implicit biases against Arab Muslims.

The article begins — and you can get a good sense of the test from this beginning — by describing the test experience of a young woman in Washington who recently took the test.

Her office decor attested to her passion for civil rights — as a senior activist at a national gay rights organization, and as a lesbian herself, fighting bias and discrimination is what gets her out of bed every morning. A rainbow flag rested in a mug on her desk.

The woman brought up a test on her computer from a Harvard University Web site. It was really very simple: All it asked her to do was distinguish between a series of black and white faces. When she saw a black face she was to hit a key on the left, when she saw a white face she was to hit a key on the right. Next, she was asked to distinguish between a series of positive and negative words. Words such as “glorious” and “wonderful” required a left key, words such as “nasty” and “awful” required a right key. The test remained simple when two categories were combined: The activist hit the left key if she saw either a white face or a positive word, and hit the right key if she saw either a black face or a negative word.

Then the groupings were reversed. The woman’s index fingers hovered over her keyboard. The test now required her to group black faces with positive words, and white faces with negative words. She leaned forward intently. She made no mistakes, but it took her longer to correctly sort the words and images.

Her result appeared on the screen, and the activist became very silent. The test found she had a bias for whites over blacks.

“It surprises me I have any preferences at all,” she said. “By the work I do, by my education, my background. I’m progressive, and I think I have no bias. Being a minority myself, I don’t feel I should or would have biases.”

Although the activist had initially agreed to be identified, she and a male colleague who volunteered to take the tests requested anonymity after seeing their results. The man, who also is gay, did not show a race bias. But a second test found that both activists held biases against homosexuals — they more quickly associated words such as “humiliate” and “painful” with gays and words such as “beautiful” and “glorious” with heterosexuals.

If anything, both activists reasoned, they ought to have shown a bias in favor of gay people. The man’s social life, his professional circle and his work revolve around gay culture. His home, he said, is in Washington’s “gayborhood.”

“I’m surprised,” the woman said. She bit her lip. “And disappointed.”

One more example: Saj-Nicole Joni was the first woman hired in applied mathematics at MIT. She was a very successful pioneer in the struggle against bias against women in science.

[Her] test came up on the screen. Joni’s fingers, trained for many years on the piano, flew as she classified a number of words such as “husband,” “father,” “mother” and “wife” between “male” and “female” groups. She then grouped words such as “chemistry,” “history,” “astronomy” and “music” under “science” or “liberal arts.” The computer then asked her to group “male” with “science” and “female” with “liberal arts.”

When the groupings were reversed, Joni had to group “male” words with “liberal arts,” and “female” words with various disciplines in science. She made a mistake in classifying “uncle.” She hesitated over “astronomy” and made a second mistake in classifying “physics.”

The results popped up: “Your data show a strong association between science and Male relative to Female.”

Joni’s fingers tapped the table in frustration. “I fought for women to be scientists all my life,” she said, incredulous

I will leave it to others more versed in psychology and testing than I to comment on the validity, if any, of this test. I certainly would not say that its apparent findings are meaningless or even uninteresting. But I will say that it seems to me these findings have less to do with “bias,” at least as usually understood, than most of those who comment on it, like Milloy, obviously believe.

In his column in today’s Washington Post (about the Summers affair, not this test), Robert Samuelson points out that

Women now constitute nearly half the labor force (46.8 percent in 2003), but they represent only 9 percent of civil engineers, 11 percent of aerospace engineers, 6 percent of mechanical engineers, and 8 percent of physicists and astronomers.

Given this reality, does associating scientific careers with men really reflect bias against women? I don’t think so.

Even more far-fetched are the policy implications that are commonly drawn from this implausible notion of pervasive bias. Listen, for example, to Courtland Milloy today:

Last year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted that affirmative action for minorities would no longer be needed in 25 years. Judging from the MIT study [of alleged discrimination against job applicants with black-sounding names], the only affirmative action currently being practiced is for whites.

The Implicit Association Test exposes bias that is deep-seated.

Preferences, in short, need to remain in effect until all our “implicit” bias has been eradicated. But if that is so, then all organizations where people like Milloy make the employment or admissions decisions should be extending preferences to whites.

Say What? (15)

  1. Andrew P. Connors January 27, 2005 at 8:32 am | | Reply


    Good, informative post. Interestingly enough, I wrote on the topic of implicit bias and the Implicit Attitude Test on my website. You can read that post at http://www.snipehunters.com/index.php?page=essay&num=13

  2. Stephen January 27, 2005 at 10:06 am | | Reply

    The purported test for bias is hilarious. Right out of a skit from Monty Python. The fervent statements of the “activist” had me laughing and stomping on the floor. Don’t eggheads ever have a sense of humor about their own loony tunes behavior? When the pointy headed get dumb, they really make a spectacle of themselves. The hilarity is only increased by their belief that they are incapable of utter stupidity.

    Interestingly, bias and race seem confined to issues of black and white. What in the hell happened to Asians? How many Chinese were brought to the U.S. as slaves? Doesn’t count? Why not? (Well, because Asians aren’t complaining much… they’re just succeeding.)

    Why are racial issues always about only blacks and whites?

  3. notherbob2 January 27, 2005 at 12:55 pm | | Reply

    How about my unscientific response to this test. I have taken similar tests and from those results I am willing to believe that this one would show me mildly biased against blacks. That is because I am a good test-taker. If not for that it would show me moderately biased against blacks.

    Do I accept that result as an evaluation of my attitude toward blacks? Hell, no. Think of a test that showed a chocolate cup cake and asked for a quick key response. Even though your mind has gained control over your appetite since you were three years old, you might think of eating several such cakes. You never, I repeat, never would actually contemplate doing so. Still, your reflexes will hit a positive key on that image whether or not you would ever eat even one such cake. So, to me, the test reflects our historical culture, which is biased against colored people. That is why blacks would score the same. Liberals will seize upon this test as proof of what they wish to prove. What percentage scores with no bias against blacks and who are they?

  4. krm January 27, 2005 at 1:35 pm | | Reply

    I still don’t see how the so-called tests really measure anything objective.

  5. Nels Nelson January 27, 2005 at 2:50 pm | | Reply

    Unfortunately, at its conclusion the test just sat there and refused to spit out a verdict, so I don’t know my personal results. But I had two thoughts while staring at the ‘please wait’ screen:

    Is there a standard measure of bias with which this test has been proven to correlate? The test itself may expose bias, but as it has a rather lightweight, even gimmicky, feel, it would impress me more if there were another, accepted test that reported the same, or strongly correlating, results. In other words, were I concerned about what the test reported and wanted to better understand myself, where is the longer, more reliable test that uses a different method to further reveal my biases?

    I would have thought much more of a version of the test in which, for every frame, the placement of the left/right terms was randomized. My impression is that I was conditioned through hundreds of questions in which the placement of the terms was the same, only to be temporarily befuddled as the terms were mixed up. Once I got the hang of the new associations, though, as far as I could tell I was moving along just as quickly and without error, but I’m sure I lost valuable points during that adjustment period. (Re-education camp is hard work!)

    Imagine standing in front of a conveyor belt on which cans of soup are whizzing by. You’re told to grab cans of minestrone and tomato soup with your left hand, and cans of split pea and chicken soup with your right. After hundreds of cans go by you’re a robotic pro. Now you’re told to use your left hand for minestrone and chicken soup, and your right for split pea and tomato. If you’re like me, either an idiot or a firm believer that certain soups just don’t belong together, then you’re going to stumble for a bit.

  6. tl January 27, 2005 at 4:38 pm | | Reply

    What a stupid test. As Nels points out, you go through all these questions where you associate black with bad, and then you’re expected to switch. Wonder why the researchers didn’t have black associated with good. Perhaps because they WANT to find bias?

  7. tl January 27, 2005 at 4:39 pm | | Reply

    I mean I “wonder why the researchers didn’t have black associated with good FIRST.”

  8. notherbob2 January 27, 2005 at 5:15 pm | | Reply

    No you don’t tl. Wonder, I mean.

  9. Richard Nieporent January 27, 2005 at 10:02 pm | | Reply

    Nels, I can give you the result of your test. It would show that you are a bigot. Why? Because it shows that everyone is a bigot! There is no way to detect hidden, deep-seated,

  10. actus January 28, 2005 at 1:13 am | | Reply

    ‘Nels, I can give you the result of your test. It would show that you are a bigot. Why? Because it shows that everyone is a bigot!’

    maybe the test needs some sort of a margin of error — so that we can statistically rank people and only apply the term ‘bigot’ to those more than a standard deviation away from zero. Shouldn’t be too hard to calculate that for their sample.

    ‘! There is no way to detect hidden, deep-seated,

  11. notherbob2 January 28, 2005 at 1:57 am | | Reply

    So maybe we can all learn something here. We spotted this one, but how many more are out there being readied for use by people who have a deep-seated belief that where racial matters are concerned, the end justifies the means. People who won

  12. Richard Nieporent January 28, 2005 at 11:31 am | | Reply

    Actus, there is no way to fix the test because the test has no validity. There is no way to measure something that doesn

  13. Cobra January 31, 2005 at 6:49 pm | | Reply


    I have a question for you, and it isn’t a trap, or trick. Many times on this blog I have provided studies and research showing what I believe to be the ongoing racial discrimination against underrepresented minorities in America. These studies have run the gamut–from housing, employment, law enforcement, education, lending, etc. (I guess I put poor ol’ Stephen to sleep because he only reads my first line, and my conclusions.) I’ve always tried to support my beliefs with facts, yet many posters claim that statistics are NOT an indicator of existing racism. Often I’m told to dismiss data, because “we’ve progressed as a society”, and “we’ve come so far.”

    You yourself have claimed from time to time that you don’t feel racism is prevalent in American society.

    My question to you is this: If mountainous statistical data, collegiate research, documented personal accounts and even “bias tests” as you depict above won’t convince you of the omnipresence of racism in America, exactly what WILL? What will you have to see, read, or experience before you would state that there is a real problem?


  14. Smitty February 1, 2005 at 1:01 am | | Reply

    Think of a test that showed a chocolate cup cake and asked for a quick key response. Even though your mind has gained control over your appetite since you were three years old, you might think of eating several such cakes. You never, I repeat, never would actually contemplate doing so.

    Notherbob2, I enjoyed reading your insightful comments on the topic especially like the one above. Rather than flat out ridicule or emotionally criticize, you gave well thought out opinions with clear analogies that helped shed more light on the topic for me. Interestingly, before I saw your handle, I assumed that I was reading comments by a woman. I guess that means I am biased into believing that women are more likely to be patient enough to study a topic and then give a thoughful opinion. I guess I get that bias from growing up in the South where images of hate mongers drag black men behind trucks for no reason other than the color of his skin and the subtle rascism I face here in the north. Why are the neighborhoods in the North just as segregated as the the neighborhoods in the South. Bias? Look around you – look at your community, your places of worship, your schools. Are we any less segregated than in the 60’s? Is segregation by a choice a bad thing?

    Notherbob2, are the cows smarter than us? They don’t seem to have any color bias or perhaps they do. Is there a way to get cows to take this test? Maybe we can get some politician to back such a project.

  15. Pride, Or Prejudice? March 14, 2012 at 12:24 pm |

    […] Milloy, the metro editor of the Washington Post, was last seen here admitting his racial bias. It, or something very much like it, is on display in his column today […]

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