The new threat: 'Racism without racists'

Willie Grace | 11/26/2014, 2:47 p.m. | Updated on 11/26/2014, 2:47 p.m.
They showed people a photograph of two white men fighting, one unarmed and another holding a knife. Then they showed ...
Part of being careful is expanding our definition of racism, says Bonilla-Silva, author of "Racism Without Racists."

(CNN) -- In a classic study on race, psychologists staged an experiment with two photographs that produced a surprising result.

They showed people a photograph of two white men fighting, one unarmed and another holding a knife. Then they showed another photograph, this one of a white man with a knife fighting an unarmed African-American man.

When they asked people to identify the man who was armed in the first picture, most people picked the right one. Yet when they were asked the same question about the second photo, most people -- black and white -- incorrectly said the black man had the knife.

Even before the Ferguson grand jury's decision was announced, leaders were calling once again for a "national conversation on race." But here's why such conversations rarely go anywhere: Whites and racial minorities speak a different language when they talk about racism, scholars and psychologists say.

The knife fight experiment hints at the language gap. Some whites confine racism to intentional displays of racial hostility. It's the Ku Klux Klan, racial slurs in public, something "bad" that people do.

But for many racial minorities, that type of racism doesn't matter as much anymore, some scholars say. They talk more about the racism uncovered in the knife fight photos -- it doesn't wear a hood, but it causes unsuspecting people to see the world through a racially biased lens.

It's what one Duke University sociologist calls "racism without racists." Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who's written a book by that title, says it's a new way of maintaining white domination in places like Ferguson.

"The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits," says Bonilla-Silva.

"The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers, the tea party or to the Republican Party, the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game."

As people talk about what the grand jury's decision in Ferguson means, Bonilla-Silva and others say it's time for Americans to update their language on racism to reflect what it has become and not what is used to be.

The conversation can start, they say, by reflecting on three phrases that often crop up when whites and racial minorities talk about race.

'I don't see color'

It's a phrase some white people invoke when a conversation turns to race. Some apply it to Ferguson. They're not particularly troubled by the grand jury's decision to not issue an indictment. The racial identities of Darren Wilson, the white police officer, and Michael Brown, the black man he killed, shouldn't matter, they say. Let the legal system handle the decision without race-baiting. Justice should be colorblind.

Science has bad news, though, for anyone who claims to not see race: They're deluding themselves, say several bias experts. A body of scientific research over the past 50 years shows that people notice not only race but gender, wealth, even weight.

When babies are as young as 3 months old, research shows they start preferring to be around people of their own race, says Howard J. Ross, author of "Everyday Bias," which includes the story of the knife fight experiment.