In this post, Erin Beeghly and Jules Holroyd introduce a recent symposium they edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the role of biases in oppression and injustice.

For over a century, activists and theorists have decried the role of prejudice and stereotyping in creating—and sustaining—group oppression. In an 1892 editorial, Ida B. Wells argued that white lynch mobs and their defenders seemed to believe that all black folks were “criminal, ignorant, and bestial.” In liberation movements of the mid-to-late 20th century, feminists and anti-colonial theorists likewise critiqued stereotyping and prejudice as part of their push for social equality and political self-determination. “My true wish,” writes Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, “is to get my brother, black or white, to shake off the dust from that lamentable livery built up over centuries of incomprehension.” “Shaking off the dust” requires, in part, freeing one’s heart and mind from biases.

But how easy is it to do this, and how significant are these personal, psychological transformations to ending injustices? In the 1990s and early 2000s, psychologists increasingly began to argue that social biases had gone “underground” in our psychologies, and were therefore both widespread and particularly difficult to root out. They referred to these biases as “implicit.” Implicit bias was posited as an important cause of discrimination and exclusion, capable of explaining why social inequality could persist in the absence of ill will and explicit prejudice. Yet many objections exist to explaining injustice via prejudicial attitudes and implicit bias in particular. Some worry that attention to the role of psychological factors obscures the real causes of injustice, which are structural in nature. Others argue that implicit bias theorists downplay the existence of explicit racism, sexism, and homophobia in the 21st century. Yet others contend that the scientific quality of the research is questionable and not sufficiently predictive of real-world behaviour.

In 2016 and 2017, we—along with Alex Madva—hosted a series of four workshops to scrutinize these critiques, and explore how one might understand the role of psychology in group oppression. This post provides a brief snapshot into the conference series, as well as the symposium that emerged out of it. We outline some of the symposium’s main themes and connect these with the three articles featured in it, as we do in our introduction to the symposium.

The first article—Gabriella Beckles-Raymond’sImplicit Bias, (Global) White Ignorance and Bad Faith”—provides a challenge to implicit bias research, bringing the literature on implicit bias into contact with work of critical race theorists. Citing examples from recent political discourse, Beckles-Raymond persuasively argues that implicit bias explanations in their simplest form manifest a kind of “bad faith.” For those who seek to maintain there is value in implicit bias explanations, her piece provides a powerful challenge: explanations framed in terms of individual psychology must capture the motivated dimensions of biases and acknowledge the ways in which white people often intentionally support racist institutions and practices.

The symposium’s second article—Lacey Davidson and Daniel Kelly’sMinding the Gap: Bias, Soft Structures, and the Double Life of Social Norms”—takes up issues raised by Beckles-Raymond about the role of individual psychologies in oppressive social structures. Davidson and Kelly reject the explanatory sidelining of individual psychology. They argue that individual psychology is not something separate from social structures, but is one medium through which “soft” social structures manifest and become part of individuals. If so, any adequate explanation of how oppression functions—and how to address its negative impacts—must take psychology into account.

The third article—Alex Madva’sIntegration, Community, and the Medical Model of Social Injustice”—intervenes in a historically prominent debate in the United States about how to best promote racial justice. The question is this: should activists and policy makers prioritize policies that promote racially integrated social spaces, or should they advocate for “lifting up communities of color” by investing resources in them? Madva argues that advocates of both solutions (for example, see the writings of Elizabeth Anderson and Tommie Shelby) overstate their effectiveness. On his view, we must be willing to “diversify our portfolio” of interventions and go back to the drawing board if they do not work. He also argues that theorists on both sides of the debate understate the importance of prejudice reduction in making structural reforms possible. If he is right, we must give equal significance to social structures and individual psychology, in explanations of inequality and policies meant to combat social injustice.

These three articles address a number of pressing questions, and they provide a taste of the kind of challenges that emerge for philosophers who study oppression. What is the relationship between psychological and structural explanations of persistent injustice, for example? Must we prioritize one kind of explanation over the other? Or, are there ways of integrating these two types of explanation to provide a better understanding of how injustices emerge and persist over time? Should strategies for tackling injustices focus on structures rather than individuals and their cognitions, or is there a role for psychological interventions too? More radically, is it even worth talking about implicit bias anymore, given the rise of far-right social movements and overtly prejudiced political rhetoric?

The debate you’ll find in the symposium over these questions is of course an iteration of a conversation with a venerable historical lineage. Marxists, critical race theorists, feminists and queer philosophers, and disability rights theorists—as well as theorists and activists with overlapping, intersectional commitments—have long argued about how best to explain and disrupt persistent social injustices, including racial and gender oppression. One new feature of the current debate is the focus on implicit bias. Our hope in organizing the conference series was to spark debate and publicize new research that engaged these issues—not just as they relate to implicit bias but about psychological markers of injustice more generally—in a critical, empirically informed, and innovative manner. We invite readers to check out our symposium, and the blog posts that follow in the next couple of weeks here, to keep the conversation going.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.