Understanding Implicit Bias with Jonathan Church

Writer and economist Jonathan Church examines the concept of implicit bias, and what researches have written about it. His book critiquing Robin DiAngelo’s white fragility theory will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in January of 2021. Jonathan’s articles about implicit bias and other topics have appeared in Quillette, Areo, Arc Digital, The Agonist Journal, Merion West, The Good Men Project, New Discourses, and The Federalist, among others.

10 Excellent Critiques of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility Theory

White Fragility author and scholar-activist Robin DiAngelo

by Christopher Paslay

These 10 resources, written by conservatives and liberals alike, provide a toolkit for understanding — and debunking — Robin DiAngelo’s toxic concepts.

Robin DiAngelo, whose white fragility theory has become one of the most influential ideas about racism in America, is a scholar-activist who has openly called for academic “revolution” as a means of de-centering whiteness in America and stopping so-called white supremacy and institutional racism.

As she writes in her seminal paper on white fragility, “Whiteness Studies begin with the premise that racism and white privilege exist in both traditional and modern forms, and rather than work to prove its existence, work to reveal it,” making it clear she’s more interested in forwarding her narrative about the oppressive nature of whiteness than in using the scientific method to prove it. In her Author’s Note to her bestselling book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, DiAngelo admits that it’s “unapologetically rooted in identity politics,” and that we as Americans “have yet to achieve our founding principle, but any gains we have made thus far have come from identity politics.”

DiAngelo’s progressive activism is rooted in ideas that lack sufficient support from social science research, and as a scholar-activist, she tends to put politics over science, making her work more about ideological preferences than rational inquiry. Her work lacks rigorous hypothesis testing and quantitative measurement; makes sweeping generalizations about entire groups of people without backing these assertions with the use of statistical analysis; relies too heavily on anecdotal observations and flawed implicit bias research; and arrogantly presents her theories as settled science rather than hypotheses to be tested and further explored.

Below is a list of 10 resources which thoroughly critique DiAngelo’s theories and the concepts that underpin them. 

1. Exploring White Fragility: Debating the Effects of Whiteness Studies on America’s Schools, Rowman & Littlefield Publications, by Christopher Paslay. This book, due out in April of 2021, uses both existing research and anecdotal classroom observations to examine the effects whiteness studies is having on America’s schools. (Click here to pre-order.) 

2. The Flaws in White Fragility Theory: A PrimerNew Discourses, by Helen Pluckrose and Jonathan Church. The title is self-explanatory: it’s a primer for understanding the major flaws in white fragility theory. Specifically, it analyses DiAngelo’s concept of “whiteness,” “white fragility,” and the shaky underlying concept of “implicit bias.” The article closes by illustrating how DiAngelo has constructed a house of cards full of logical fallacies.

3. White Fragility Theory Is a Bullying Rhetorical TacticThe Agonist, by Jonathan Church. Robin DiAngelo believes that whites must shut up and listen. This article highlights how she uses white fragility theory to shut down whites — and any and all conversation — when they try to question or offer alternative viewpoints.  

4. How ‘White Fragility’ Theory Turns Classrooms Into Race-Charged Power StrugglesThe Federalist, by Jonathan Church and Christopher Paslay, (discussed further on the Dan Proft radio show). This article, co-authored by Jonathan Church and myself, highlights the flaws in methodology in white fragility, as well as how the approach can provoke resentment among classroom teachers. 

5.  Psychology’s Favorite Tool for Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the JobThe Cut, by Jesse Singal. This article exposes the fundamental flaws of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), and Harvard’s Project Implicit website, and how the IAT has both validity and reliability issues. Implicit bias, of course, is a concept that heavily underpins DiAngelo’s white fragility theory, as well as most approaches in the schools of whiteness studies and anti-racism.

6. Diversity Training Shouldn’t Be Based On Flawed Implicit Bias ResearchPhiladelphia Inquirer, by Christopher Paslay. This article highlights the problems with implicit bias research, and how mandatory implicit bias trainings can have unintended negative consequences on education and business, such as hurting teacher/manager morale and provoking resentment among faculty/colleagues.

7. The Theory of White Fragility: Scholarship or Proselytization? , Areo Magazine, by Jonathan Church. This article exposes the cult-like atmosphere surrounding DiAngelo and white fragility trainings, and how the workshops are based more in religious indoctrination than in education and rational inquiry. 

8. The Intellectual Fraud of Robin DiAngelo’s ‘White Fragility,’ The Logical Liberal, by David Edward Burke. Liberal activist and attorney David Edward Burke’s criticism of DiAngelo’s white fragility proves her questionable use of research and science is not simply a partisan issue. His article exposes how “Robin DiAngelo’s white fragility is snake oil masquerading as insight.” 

9. Are Micro-Aggressions Really A Thing ?The Good Men Project, by Jonathan Church. This article analyzes the scientific legitimacy of “microaggressions,” which like implicit bias, underpins much of whiteness studies, anti-racism, and white fragility theory.  

10. Whiteness Studies and the Theory of White Fragility Are Based on a Logical FallacyAreo Magazine, (discussed further in an interview and podcast with Benjamin Boyce), by Jonathan Church. This articles exposes DiAngelo’s flawed reasoning and the logical fallacies at the heart of white fragility theory and whiteness studies in general.  

Please subscribe to my growing YouTube channel, Inside White Fragility.

Impact vs. Intent: Inside the ‘Racism’ at a Philadelphia Starbucks

by Christopher Paslay

Because only people of color can accurately analyze racism, and that whites — because of their privileged status in a white supremacist society — have no ability to be objective about racial matters, a white person’s intentions can be rendered meaningless if a person of color interprets them as racist.

In April of 2018, two black men were removed from a Starbucks in the Rittenhouse section of Philadelphia by police for refusing to make a purchase. The men asked to use the bathroom and were told by a Starbucks manager that the restrooms were for paying customers only, and were asked to leave. The men, who were apparently meeting a friend for a business meeting, didn’t leave or buy anything.  

They sat down at a table, disregarding the manager, who was a white female, so she called the police; because of a loitering problem in the Rittenhouse Starbucks, managers were apparently instructed to reserve the store for paying customers only. “Hi, I have two gentlemen in my café that are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” the manager said, according the 911 call. “I’m at the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce.” 

The police came and respectfully tried to explain to the men, for nearly 15 minutes, that they needed to leave or be charged with trespassing. According to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, the police gave the men three chances to leave, but they didn’t move.  Finally, the two men were escorted out in handcuffs, but not arrested. The incident was captured on cellphone video by a woman in the store, who then put it up on the Internet. The video went viral, prompting a personal apology from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, and causing the closing of 8,000 stores for anti-bias training. 

The Rittenhouse Starbucks was soon boycotted and vandalized. The manager was quietly transferred to another store, and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross soon caved to pressure and apologized for making a mistake. Later that month, Starbucks issued a new company policy that stated all were welcome at Starbucks — paying customers or not.

The ruling in the court of public opinion was that the Philadelphia police officers (one of whom was black) and the Starbucks manager were racist, if not consciously, unconsciously. They suffered from implicit bias, and their intentions didn’t matter. Sure, the store manager was only following store policy at the time, and the police were only following the law in regard to loitering on private property, but it was the impact of their actions that truly counted; the two black men felt harassed and discriminated against, which is all that mattered. 

Believing that the two black men could have respected the authority of the manager and purchased a cookie or cup of coffee for a few dollars or left the store, was apparently unreasonable. Social justice advocates insisted that if the men would have been white, the manager would have left them alone; defenders of the manger and police insisted that if the men would have been white, their arrests would have gone unnoticed. There was no way of definitively proving any of this, except for the accusation of implicit bias, which was all that was needed to prove the manager and police guilty of racism.

There’s a growing movement within whiteness studies to “think impact, not intent.”

“I think intentions are irrelevant,” anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo said in an interview with Teaching Tolerance. “It’s nice to know you had good intentions, but the impact of what you did was harmful. And we need to let go of our intentions and attend to the impact, to focus on that.” 

Because only people of color can accurately analyze racism, and that whites — because of their privileged status in a white supremacist society — have no ability to be objective about racial matters, a white person’s intentions can be rendered meaningless if a person of color interprets them as racist. This perspective is effectively gaining ground due to a concept known as implicit bias, which underpins a very large majority of anti-racist ideology.

Unfortunately, the actual science behind implicit bias — a person’s so-called unconscious discriminatory attitudes which directly influence their behavior — is relatively weak.  Research continues to show Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, which is viewed as the Holy Grail of racial bias testing, is invalid and unreliable. In the words of New York Magazine writer Jesse Singal, “there’s very little evidence to support the claim that the IAT meaningfully predicts anything.” 

Singal writes:

In fact, the test is riddled with statistical problems — problems severe enough that it’s fair to ask whether it is effectively “misdiagnosing” the millions of people who have taken it, the vast majority of whom are likely unaware of its very serious shortcomings. There’s now solid research published in a top journal strongly suggesting the test cannot even meaningfully predict individual behavior. And if the test can’t predict individual behavior, it’s unclear exactly what it does do or why it should be the center of so many conversations and programs geared at fighting racism. 

This hasn’t stopped the whiteness studies movement from using implicit bias to forward their narrative on racism and white supremacy, however. Despite the absence of hard data, anti-racist educators continue to use implicit bias to focus on impact over intent, claiming the unconscious biases of well-meaning whites are causing them to perpetuate racism despite their intentions to do otherwise. 

So when a situation arises between a white individual and a person of color, and the person of color feels slighted or victimized by racist behavior, the intention of the white person doesn’t matter; it’s just the impact of the white person’s behavior that counts. Furthermore, because whites have no racial objectivity, only the person of color can determine if the behavior was insulting or racist, as there’s no co-creation or co-responsibility between the races when it comes to antiracism.

Is this a recipe for racial healing and understanding?  Hardly.  But it is good for increasing the power of identity politics, which is a major goal of the anti-racist agenda. 

Schools Should Not Teach ‘Whiteness’ Is Problematic

by Christopher Paslay

Whiteness is not a problem that needs to be solved, and educators should refrain from pushing this divisive message in schools.

In his fifth edition of Cultural Diversity and Education, research scholar and “father” of multicultural education, James A. Banks, offers an interesting approach to fair and equitable education called multicultural ideology. Published in 2006, it’s less aggressive and confrontational than current 2020 anti-racist educational approaches, which tend to be more accusatory than celebratory; in 2006, mainstream multicultural education focused on unity over dichotomy, which is no longer the case today, as zero-sum anti-racist philosophies — which seek to deconstruct so-called problematic “Whiteness” — are now heavily influencing policies and perspectives.

Multicultural ideology is a blending of assimilation and cultural pluralism, where the American national identity adapts and develops to become more diverse and pluralistic, yet doesn’t abandon the nation’s core values — the fundamental principles that make America unique and one of the most successful countries in the world. In Cultural Diversity and Education, Banks writes that multicultural ideology is reflected in educational policy that is “guided by an eclectic ideology that reflects both the cultural pluralists position and the assimilation position, but avoids their extremes.”

Multicultural educators hope to end racism by celebrating diversity, and by interacting with people through fundamental human values, both at the conscious and subconscious levels; anti-racists hope to end racism by becoming hyper-focused on race and the cerebral concepts of implicit bias and microaggressions in order to end so-called “white supremacy culture.” The former creates a society based on values from the heart, where both racism and the preoccupation with skin color are eliminated using a moment-by-moment present awareness. The latter creates a world where, in theory, racism ends through a highly cerebral “chatter mind” process which analyzes and rejects all forms of bias whether conscious or unconscious, but still leaves us with a hyper-focus on race.

The double-standards at the heart of anti-racism are many. Tragically, the fact that there are one set of rules for whites, and another set of rules for people of color, does a disservice to the very cause of anti-racism — which is to level the playing field and bring people of all races equal access to America’s resources. Believing that “Whiteness” is a fundamental problem that must be solved is not the best approach to opening the minds of whites.

It’s well documented that the provocative approaches employed by anti-racist educators have an adverse effect on white people, as evidenced by Robin DiAngelo’s theory of “White Fragility.” Unfortunately, whites who are triggered by the divisiveness of anti-racism are not offered compassion, because according to DiAngelo, “niceness is not anti-racist.” On the contrary, whites are told to “get over it,” and that their tears are disingenuous ploys for keeping white racism in place. 

The fact that these anti-racist approaches, despite eliciting such adverse reactions, continue to be put upon whites is reminiscent of a concept made popular by Dr. David R. Hawkins called Power vs. Force,” which analyzes “the hidden determinants of human behavior.”  While true power resides from within, force is applied through projection—an outside force trying to impose its will. Force can only work for so long; once it encounters true power, it immediately unravels. Interestingly, many of the emotions cited by DiAngelo as evidence of white fragility — such as anger, shame, guilt, and apathy — are listed by Hawkins as being a reaction to force. Nowhere in white fragility theory can one find positive responses related to true power, such as courage, love, joy, or enlightenment; everything tied to white fragility is zero-sum and is based on dichotomy rather than unity.

But for some reason, unity — as well as universalism, colorblindness, and other concepts which prioritize racial harmony over dichotomy — are resisted by people like DiAngelo. Such things are delegitimized and even stigmatized, and often rebranded by anti-racists as perpetuating racism. This is necessary in part to shock sheltered whites out of their bubbles and bring systemic racism to light. But the simple fact is that America needs more racial unity, and less confrontation. Provoking whites with the notion that they all suffer from implicit bias and are perpetuating racism by default, is limited in its effectiveness. The goal of disturbing a white person’s racial comfort in order to disrupt a racial hierarchy is using force instead of true power. While whites may be pressured into compliance, is this compliance genuine and long lasting? Is insisting that the advancement of people of color depends on the disruption, de-centering, or deconstruction of problematic “Whiteness” ultimately empowering people of color to live independently from the crutch of identity politics?

Educators should adhere to the mainstream definition of “Whiteness.” The zero-sum fallacy of “Whiteness” is inappropriate in American educational settings, as it does little to empower people of color, and is based in resistance and disruption, rather than cooperation and collaboration.