'Am I racist?' You may not like the answer

Updated 10:53 AM ET, Sat June 20, 2020

(CNN)The George Floyd protests have forced many White Americans to consider tough questions about race. But the most difficult question may be the one they're asking themselves.

Google says searches for the term, "Am I racist," have spiked in recent weeks to an all-time high. Floyd's death at the hands of a White police officer has sparked a racial awakening in the US. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has surged, and White people are snapping up books like "How to Be an Antiracist" and "White Fragility."
But a Google search and a few books can only go so far in answering such a complex and loaded query.
So CNN called some activists, psychologists and historians and asked them: How would you help White people answer that question?

First, let's define racism

The first step in self-knowledge is defining what it means to be a racist, and defining racism itself.
Wornie Reed, a veteran civil rights activist and the director of the Race and Social Policy Center at Virginia Tech, says, "A racist person is a person who commits racist acts."
Those acts, he says, are backed by a set of beliefs that support the idea that race determines human traits and capacities and makes one race automatically superior to another.
"If they do racist things, I'm willing to call them a racist," Reed says. "You can be a racist even if you don't intend to be one."
A protester holds up a homemade sign during a march on June 12, 2020, in New York City.
And racism? It's not one thing but many.
It's a system of advantage based on race, scholars say. It's a collection of stereotypes, prejudices and discriminatory behavior. It's overt and covert. And it operates across an individual, group and societal level.

The truth? Everyone has some racist attitudes

Here's the bad news if you are one of those people asking, "Am I racist?"
"If you have to ask if you are a racist, you are," says Angela Bell, an assistant professor of psychology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. "And if you are not asking if you are a racist, you are."
Bell's paradoxical response is part of what she and others say about racism: It's almost impossible not to be a racist growing up in the US. If you think you're immune from it, that denial itself is part of how racism perpetuates.
A woman holds a sign during a rally to mark Juneteenth on June 19, 2020, in San Francisco.
"You start off with the assumption that you are, because everybody living in the United States has internalized stereotypes about Black people," says Mark Naison, an activist and a professor of African American Studies at Fordham University in New York City.
"One of the things I learned very early in my development is that everyone in American society internalized anti-Black attitudes because they are so ingrained in our culture," he says.
That includes White liberals like himself, Naison discovered.
He was in a relationship with a Black woman for six years. Her family practically became his family because he spent so much time with them. One day he stumbled upon a research paper she had written in college. He started reading it and was surprised at how coherent and well-written it was -- and then it hit him.
"I said, 'Holy crap!' " he remembers. "I had internalized all of these expectations that Black people are intellectually weaker. I've got to work on myself."
A lot of anti-racism work today leads to talk about "implicit bias," or "racial bias." Those are terms that describe how racial stereotypes and assumptions infiltrate our subconscious. People can act and think in racist ways without knowing it.
A protester raises his fist during a rally June 1, 2020, in Las Vegas.
A classic example of this was a famous experiment in which researchers sent 5,000 fictitious resumes in response to employment ads. Some applicants had White-sounding names such as "Brendan," while others had Black-sounding names, like "Jamal."
The applicants with White-sounding names were 50% more likely to get calls for interviews than their Black-sounding counterparts.
Some scholars, though, have issues with terms like "implicit bias." They feel it offers people an excuse to justify their racism by claiming, "My subconscious made me do it."
"The term racial bias perpetuates the notion that racism is beyond your control, and that's often not the case," says Bell, the psychology professor. "People might not think that they have control over racism, and they can't ever get rid of it. It's absolutely within their control."

It doesn't matter if you voted for Obama

It can be fiendishly difficult, though, for people to see racism in themselves, says Bell, who studies how people fail to recognize their own racism.
Some of that is because of what psychologists call "moral licensing and credentialing." Translation: A White liberal who brags, "I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could," may be trying to signal that he or she is beyond racism.
In 2009, Stanford University researchers released a study which found that expressing support for Obama made some people feel justified in favoring Whites over Blacks.
Daniel Effron, who helped conduct the study, said at the time:
"This is the psychological equivalent of when people in casual conversation say something like, 'many of my best friends are black.' They say that because they're about to say something else that they're concerned might be construed as prejudiced."