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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Virtue Signaling, Implicit Bias, and the Recent Black Lives Matter Movement

protesters holding signs at a Black Lives Matter protest

protesters holding signs at a Black Lives Matter protest

Thomas G. Plante

Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor, professor of psychology and, by courtesy, religious studies at Santa Clara University and an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. He has been a Faculty Scholar of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics for more than 25 years.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the many protests in recent weeks following the horrific killing of George Floyd (Minnesota), Ahmaud Arbery (Georgia), and Breonna Taylor (Kentucky) among many others have highlighted our nation’s very long and dark history of racism, discrimination, and violence perpetrated by law enforcement against marginalized people of color. Many from more privileged white backgrounds have been quick to show their support and solidarity with the concerns of the BLM movement by engaging in protests, offering social media posts, displaying lawn signs, offering thoughtful listserv comments, and other efforts to demonstrate that they are allies with the BLM cause.

From an ethics angle, many people of privilege may be tempted to participate in virtue signaling, the attempt to demonstrate that they are virtuous and in this case, are not racist or discriminatory in any way. They may feel guilt and discomfort that they have enjoyed certain undeserved benefits and privileges associated with their skin color and want everyone to know that they are “woke” and are not one of “those” racist people out there. They may live with the perception that there are good white people (i.e., them) and bad white people (i.e., racists) and they want others to know that they are one of the good ones. 

The problem with this tactic is that it is more rooted in egoism than on the virtues of compassion, equity, love, solidarity, and kinship that they wish to promote and highlight. People of privilege might post supporting comments on social media and take a photo of themselves participating in a BLM protest that they share with their friends on social media platforms, but what are they actually doing and thinking that truly supports the virtues and values that they claim to support and embrace? Being willing and acting accordingly to give up undeserved power and privilege is hard. Really working for justice, equality, and equity is very hard too. It is a heavy lift to go beyond merely virtue signaling with a social media post or a brief afternoon protest march. In addition, being honestly and reflectively aware of your own implicit biases about people is really hard and perhaps threatening to our egos as well. 

Research on implicit bias suggests that people are much more complicated that just dividing the population into racists and non-racists or the “woke” and the “unwoke.” It is just not that simple. All of us, regardless of our background and identity, are vulnerable to implicit biases. We can be very quick to over generalize about anyone who we perceive to be “the other.” This bias is not only based on skin color and race but also on ethnicity, gender, age, religious affiliation, country of origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and so forth. None of us is immune from making sweeping generalizations about those who are different from ourselves, outside of our own tribe, and from others who we consider “our people.” 

From an evolutionary perspective, this tendency of bias makes good sense since we historically had to quickly assess who was a friend or foe, or a member of our tribe or another tribe, many centuries ago in order to survive. However, a particular survival tendency that might have made very good sense thousands of years ago when we were hunters and gatherers on the Savannah or living in caves can be deeply problematic for us today.

If we truly wish to embrace the virtues of equality, justice, equity, and nondiscrimination, we must acknowledge our own weaknesses and vulnerability to implicit bias and be humble, rather than overly judgmental and arrogant, about our virtues. We too can make judgements about people who we perceive to be “the other.” It is a process and as I often say, based on my own Roman Catholic religious tradition, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). 

Virtue and progress can be best achieved with humble self-examination rather than judgmental virtue signaling. It is a heavier lift than a social media post but an important and much needed lift for us all who wish to truly be more ethical in what we say and do. Perhaps being honest with ourselves and admitting to our biases may help us to really do the necessary lifting to make a more just and equitable world for everyone. Perhaps then we will come to the conclusion that there is no “other” at all.

Jul 15, 2020