Exploring the Role of Unconscious Bias in the Immigration Debate and the Transformative Power of the Church

Imagining Undocumented Immigrants

[1] What does an undocumented immigrant look like?  What images do those words elicit in your mind, and what feelings and emotions do those images evoke? Compassion? Pity? Anger? Puzzlement? Anxiety? Admiration? Indifference?  Those are probably not easy questions to answer, even if you happen to be an undocumented immigrant yourself!  However, those images and their corresponding emotional responses are an extremely important piece in the complex puzzle that is the issue of migration.  It is an issue that, it must be remembered, is not exclusive to the United States of America or even to the American continents. It’s really a global dilemma.[1] 

Santos.jpg[2] My main contention in this article is that unconscious emotional reactions elicited by the mental images we have of the other, in this case the immigrant other, constrains and shapes our social and political action or lack thereof for the rights of immigrants.  Moreover, I will argue that those images and their corresponding emotional responses are susceptible to manipulation and that the church has powerful resources that can liberate us from unduly negative or patronizing stereotypes that are ultimately based on fear and misinformation rather than on reality.  Those resources do not work mechanically and automatically but are means by which the Spirit can bring about transformation in our lives and ultimately in our life together as a society. 

The Role of the Emotions in Judging the Other

[3] Édouard Claparède was a Swiss physician at the turn of the twentieth century who had an intriguing patient.[2​]  His patient had a rare form of amnesia whereby she could not form new memories.  Every time Dr. Claparède met with her he had to introduce himself as if for the first time.  He would leave the room and come back five minutes later and she would not remember ever meeting him.  It occurred to Claparède to perform an experiment.  He hid a tack between his fingers on his right hand.  He then introduced himself to her. He reached out to greet her.  When she shook hands with him she got pricked and removed her hand.  He left the room.  Some time later he returned and asked her if she remembered him.  She said that she did not remember him.  The doctor introduced himself courteously and offered his hand.   She refused to shake hands with him.  In addition to the ethical issues that Claparède’s method raises, his finding opened an intriguing window into the way we perceive others bodily. Joseph LeDoux, director of the laboratory for neural science at New York University, offers the following interpretation for the patient’s reaction:

Claparède had come to signify danger.  He was no longer just a man, no longer just a doctor, but had become a stimulus with a specific emotional meaning.  Although the patient did not have a conscious memory of the situation, subconsciously she learned that shaking Claparède’s hand could cause her harm, and her brain used this stored information, this memory, to prevent the unpleasantness from occurring again.[3] 


[4] Based on what neuroscientists now know about how the brain works in forming memories, LeDoux explains that:

It now seems that Claparède was seeing the operation of two different memory systems in his patient – one involved in forming memories of experiences and making those memories available for conscious recollection at some later time, and another operating outside of consciousness and controlling behavior without explicit awareness of past learning.[4]


[5] It is becoming increasingly clear to psychologists and neuroscientists that events, things, and persons are not just remembered in the mind. In a sense they are also felt in the body.  The combination of the images encoded in the mind and the corresponding emotions and feelings associated with such images will shape the way we respond to other events, things, or persons (especially faces)[5] that resemble the analogous encoded images.  So emotions shape perceptions!  In fact, according to neurologist V.S. Ramachandran,[6] in the rare cases when victims of a particular type of brain injury are no longer capable of connecting an image with its corresponding emotional response, accurate recognition is compromised.[7]  When one such patient looks at his mother, for instance, he would acknowledge the striking resemblance between that woman and his mother but he would emphatically deny that the person in front of him is really his mother, even though it is.  Ramachandran argues convincingly that the cause of that deficit of recognition, referred to as the Capgras delusion, is that the image is lacking its felt quality (the emotional response); his mind sees her but his heart does not recognize her.  It now seems that we are not blinded by emotions, but the other way around, namely that without emotions we are blinded to the significance of what is in front of us.  The emotions guide our reactions to what and whom we perceive.[8] 

Measuring Unconscious Biases

[6] How do we perceive the stranger?  What determines my intuitive assessments of those who are alien to me?  Research in social psychology and neuroscience suggest that the answer to those questions is connected to the reaction of Claparède’s patient. 

[7] In his book, Our Racist Heart?: An Exploration of Unconscious Prejudice in our Everyday Life,[9] Cambridge trained psychologist Geoffrie Beattie explains how negative emotions, such as anxiety and fear, subconsciously affect the way people perceive and interact with those who do not belong to their group.  At this point the danger of guilt, shame or becoming defensive might arise. So before proceeding it must be made clear that the purpose of this article is not to demonstrate that some people are really secret bigots.  Rather, its purpose is simply to point out that we all rely on intuitive preliminary emotional prejudgments of those that are alien to us which shape and constrain the ways we interact with those others and that ignorance of these processes makes us dangerously vulnerable to manipulation, in terms of our intuitive judgments of others.[10] 

[8] Beatie explains how difficult it is to get accurate measurements of people’s actual beliefs about those who belong to a different group whether racial, ethnic, economic, or others.[11]  People are sensitive to the general attitudes in society about what is polite to say or believe and what is not.  Therefore people carefully self-monitor their responses to questions about bias and tend to offer answers that are politically correct.  For that reason psychologists and others interested in the scientific study of relations of people among different groups have had to devise approaches that circumvent such evasions.  

[9] An important example of one such indirect measurement of implicit bias is the Implicit Association Test (IAT).  Originally developed by Anthony G. Greenwald and colleagues,[12] and later adapted and revised by others, this approach is based on how the human mind implicitly categorizes information in a way such that images and concepts that are considered to be similar are automatically coupled together and are therefore easy to associate.  Greenwald uses the example of the implicit association between male faces with male names and female faces with female names.  In the test each image or concept is paired up with a behavioral response.  You are instructed to say “hello” whenever you see a male face or a male name, and to say “good-bye” whenever you see a female face or a female name. The names and the faces are selected to be unambiguous. Then the procedure changes slightly.  The instruction now is to continue to say “hello” when male images are flashed on the screen, but to say good-bye, instead of “hello,” when male names appear.  Likewise, when female faces appear the response should be “good-bye” but when female names appear the correct response should be “hello.”  The result is a significant decrease in the reaction time.  

[10] The test becomes more interesting when images are paired up with words that have emotional connotations.  Consider the following variation of the test.  Words appear on a computer screen, one at a time.  If the word is the name of a flower, you click a key with your right index finger.  If the word names something pleasant, also click with the right index finger.  Alternatively, if the word that appears names something unpleasant, you are instructed to click with the left index finger on a different key; if the word is the name of an insect, also click with the left index finger.  For the second phase of the experiment the two latter terms are switched.  Now you are supposed to click with the right index finger for words that name flowers or unpleasant things.  Click with the left index finger if the word names an insect or a pleasant thing.  The reaction speed decreases considerably when unpleasant words are associated with flowers, and pleasant words with insects.  Greenwald describes his own reaction after he performed the test: “When I experienced the slowing I found to my surprise that I could not overcome it – repeating the task did not make me faster.  If I tried to go faster, I just started making errors when I was trying to give the same response to flower names and unpleasant words.  This was a mind-opener.”[13]  Responses become slower because participants have to override the intuitive subconscious associations that already exist in the participants’ minds among concepts or images.[14]  Therefore, the test offers an indirect way to determine what images or concepts participants intuitively associate with positive meanings on the one hand, and what images or concepts participants intuitively associate with negative meanings, on the other. 

[11] Tests like the IAT allow researchers to compare peoples’ reported attitudes about race, ethnicity, class, gender, etc., vis-à-vis their implicit attitudes.[15]  In those types of experiments participants are asked to rate their relative attitudes towards their own group and towards a different group (e.g., White versus Black).[16]  Then they go through a series of tasks similar to those described above. But instead of insects or flowers this time, what is flashed are faces and words with positive meanings or negative meanings. You may take the test online at: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ 

[12] Beatie explains the results from the internet-based set of experiments:

In the first web-based experiment of its kind, Project Implicit measured implicit attitudes towards a range of social groups, including an implicit measure of racial attitudes.  The project collated 600,000 tests between October 1998 and December 2000, allowing for replication of the race IAT on an enormous scale using both White and Black participants. . . .  It found that White participants tended to explicitly endorse a preference for the concept White but implicitly they demonstrated an even stronger preference for White names and faces.  Black participants, on the other hand, demonstrated a strong explicit preference for the concept Black yet, remarkably, in the IAT, Black participants demonstrated a weak implicit preference for White names and faces.”[17]


[13] Until relatively recently most of the research had focused on inter-race assessments and particularly on White-Black assessments but the scope of the studies is broadening.[18]  For instance the online Project Implicit that the above quote refers to is also available for measurements on implicit bias based on ethnicity (Race IAT, Asian IAT, Arab-Muslim IAT, Skin tone IAT, Native IAT) and other social categories such as age, religion, sexuality, weight, disability, and even weapons.[19]  The IAT has also been adapted to measure bias against Latino/as in the United States.[20]  Implicit bias has also been shown to affect negatively the health care treatment given to Latinos and African Americans.[21]  It must also be noted that the intuitive bias that has been measured so far is not just expressed in the dominant group, but it also gets internalized in the minority group.  Perhaps no study has shown the effects of internalized racism in a more poignant way than Keneth and Mamie Clark’s famous black doll versus white doll experiment.  In the original experiments young children were given a choice between two dolls that were identical except that one was white and the other was black.  When the children were asked to pick “the beautiful doll” both Black and White children consistently picked the white doll.[22] 

[14] There is no consensus yet among psychologists on how exactly intuitive biases get encoded in people’s minds.  However, it is clear that such biases are accompanied by important emotional responses,[23] and some researchers believe that the emotional responses are not just epiphenomenal to such evaluative processes but are in fact key in guiding cognitive evaluations in one way or the other.[24]  For instance, when we look at a face we process it cognitively and emotively.[25]  Thus it could be said that we not only see the face but also feel it in the way Claparède’s patient felt a feeling of alarm when she saw her doctor extending his hand to shake hers.  In fact, brain scanning studies[26] have found that faces of racial others produce an increase of activity in the amygdala, the alert system of the brain which also results in feelings of anxiety and fear.  The negative intuitive bias against the other may have its roots in an ancient survival mechanism whereby humans had to intuitively be able to tell friend from foe.[27]   

Unconscious Bias in the Immigration Debate

[15] All this has important implications for the immigration debate.  It is reasonable to assume that implicit bias also plays a role in the way people perceive immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, and consequently in the way they feel about immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.  That is precisely what Efrén Pérez found in his study, “Explicit Evidence on the Import of Implicit Attitudes: The IAT and Immigration Policy Judgments.”  He summarizes his findings in this way: 

Across the domains of illegal and legal immigration, ethnocentrism displayed a substantively powerful effect . . . .  What is remarkable, however, is that even after controlling for these ethnocentric attitudes—which are explicit in nature and broadly applied to immigrant out-groups—implicit attitudes still exerted a direct influence on one’s immigration policy judgments.”[28]

[16] He goes on to explain that his findings suggest two things:

The first is that individuals are quite comfortable reporting negative views of immigrants, and that these views strongly affect judgments of immigration policy. The second, however, is that implicit attitudes toward immigrants appear to be more group-specific in nature yet nonetheless influential in political decision-making. Together, these insights teach us that attitudes which are spontaneously activated matter as much in theoretical and empirical terms as those attitudes that are fully within one’s introspection.[29]

[17] Therefore, it is important to be aware of the role that implicit bias plays in the immigration debate because they have the power to stir public opinion, and thus the law, in one direction or another.  The good news, according to Beatie’s research, is that those implicit biases are malleable; they can be corrected.  He explains that:

In 2001, Dasgupta and Greenwald found that by exposing participants to pictures of a range of admired Black Americans, such as Martin Luther King, and disliked White Americans, such as Al Capone, the pro-White effect usually found in the race IAT was substantially reduced, immediately after and even 24 hours after the initial exposure. . . .  Whilst this was only a temporary modification there is the possibility that being consistently exposed to exemplars of admired Black people (particularly in the media) could lead to more permanent changes in underlying implicit attitudes.[30]

The Transformative Power of the Church

[18] That finding offers an opening of opportunity for those in the church interested in correcting unduly negative biased assessments of undocumented immigrants.  The church can be a matrix where intuitive prejudice can be replaced by the truth of the other.  Through narratives, in sermons, bible studies, confirmation classes, and other venues, the church can share positive images[31] of undocumented immigrants that can challenge and eventually replace the negative and incorrect prejudgments that many have regarding this group of brothers and sisters. 

[19] One such story is the biography of Alfredo Quiñones Hinojosa who was forced by poverty to cross the Mexico-U.S.A. border in search of sustenance and opportunities.  After some time picking tomatoes and doing other manual labor he enrolled in a community college and eventually was able to go to medical School.  Dr. Alfredo Quinones Hinojosa is now a brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins University where he also leads the laboratory for Brain Tumor and Stem Cell Research.[32]  His is the image of what an undocumented immigrant can be.  Like him, there are many others that have stories of faith, courage and persistence that have the power to redefine the intuitive schemas that many have of immigrants.[33] 

[20] In the area of political and social advocacy, the prophetic function of the church, the ELCA is already doing significant work.[34] In addition, it is doing significant work in the area of providing humanitarian care for immigrants through its national organizations, such as Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and Lutheran Social Services (LSS) as well as through local congregations and nonprofit organizations. However, based on the evidence presented in this article, it can be seen that effective church action for just immigration reform will require that in addition to the aforementioned work serious attention be given to the role of the church in shaping peoples implicit attitudes towards the other.  Through its proclamation of the cross of Christ (in connection with the cross borne by undocumented immigrants) the church can be a means of epistemic and affective transformations[35] with liberating ripples of social renewal.  The Lutheran understanding of grace opens up a space where we can be honest with ourselves about our sin and our brokenness and the concrete expression of such sinfulness and brokenness in the form of unconscious prejudice described in this article.  We come before God in our sinfulness and brokenness and pray for the Spirit of God to bring about a new creation in us and in our society, transforming our intuitive anxiety of the stranger into the joy of recognition of a new brother and sister.

​Carmelo Santos, Ph.D., serves as associate pastor at St. Mark’s (San Marcos) Lutheran Church in Springfield, VA. He is also a lecturer at Georgetown University.

[1] The focus of this paper is on Hispanic/Latino/a immigrants because that is the community that the author works most directly with but it must be kept in mind that to speak of immigrants is not always the same as to speak of Hispanics or Latino/as, and vice versa, that to speak of Hispanics or Latino/as does is not always the same as to speak of immigrants.  For instance, many Mexicans living in the Southwest of what is now the United States of America never crossed the border, rather the border crossed them when such territory was acquired by the U.S.A. from Mexico; Puerto Ricans are another example of U.S. citizens that are Hispanic/Latino/as but are not necessarily immigrants.  See: Juan González, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (New York: Penguin, 2011), there is also a documentary film by the same name, see: www.harvestofempiremovie.com (accessed on November 19, 2013).

[2​] E. Claparède, “Recognition and Me-ness,” in D. Rapaport, ed., Organization and pathology of thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951 [1911]), 58-75, cited in Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[3] J. LeDoux, The Emotional Brain, op cit., 181.

[4] Ibid.

[5] R. Adolphs, “Fear, faces, and the human amygdala,” “Current Opinion in Neurobiology 18 (April 2008) 2:166-72.

[6] V. S. Ramachadran, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers (New York: Pi Press, 2004); see also his TED Talk on YouTube: http://youtu.be/NMmh-8r_UH8 (accessed on November 19, 2013).

[7]Ibid., 90-92.

[8] For an in-depth study on the interplay of emotions and reason in decision making processes, see: Alain Berthoz, Emotion and Cognition: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Decision Making, translated by Giselle Weiss (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). 

[9] G. Beattie, Our Racist Heart? An Exploration of Unconscious Prejudice in our Everyday Life, (London and New York: Routledge, 2013).

[10] Cf. Mary Elizabeth Hobgood, Dismantling Privilege: An Ethics of Accountability (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2000), and: George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[11]Beatie, Our Racist Heart?, 99-104. 

[12] A. G. Greenwald AG, J. L. McGhee, and J.L. Schwartz, “Measuring individual differences in social cognition: the Implicit Association Test,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74 (1998):1464–80; the article is available online at: http://faculty.washington.edu/agg/pdf/Gwald_McGh_Schw_JPSP_1998.OCR.pdf (accessed November 19, 2013).

[13] A. G. Greenwald and B. A. Nosek, “Attitudinal Dissociation: What does it mean? In R. E. Petty, R. H. Fazio and P. Brinol, eds., Attitudes: Insights from the New Implicit Measures, (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 2008), 65-82; cited in G. Beatie, op cit., 139-140. 

[14] The “stroop effect” is another interesting example of how difficult it is to dissociate concepts that the mind has coupled.  In the test the names of colors appear on the screen, the words are themselves colored.  The word “blue” can appear in red, and the word “red” can be blue, and so on. The test consists in saying the color rather than reading the word.  A version of the test can be found at: http://youtu.be/Tpge6c3Ic4g (accessed November 19, 2013). 

[15] R. H. Fazio, et al., “Variability in automatic activation as an unobtrusive measure of racial attitudes: a bona fide pipeline?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 69 (1995): 1013–27.

[16]Beatie revised and expanded the IAT to measure implicit bias based on ethnicity as well as on race; for a description of his method, see: Beatie, Our Racist Heart?,151-163. 

[17]Ibid., 141. 

[18] See, for example: E. Uhlmann, et al., “Subgroup prejudice based on skin color among Hispanics in the United States and Latin America,” Social Cognition 20 (2002): 198-225; and, Son Hing, et al., “Meritocracy and opposition to affirmative action: Making concessions in the face of discrimination,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (2002): 493-509. 

[19]Beatie, Our Racist Heart?, Table 11.1 “Versions of the IAT online at Project Implicit, 142. 

[20]James M. Weyant, “Implicit Stereotyping of Hispanics: Development and Validity of a Hispanic Version of the Implicit Association Test,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, (August 2005), vol. 27 no 3: 355-363.

[21] I. V. Blair, E. P. Havranek, D. W. Price, et al., “Assessment of Biases Against Latinos and African Americans Among Primary Care Providers and Community Members,” American Journal of Public Health (January 2013), vol. 103, no. 1: 92-98.

[22] Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie P. Clark, "Racial identification and preference among negro children," in: E. L. Hartley, ed., Readings in Social Psychology (New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1958).  A video of the experiment can be seen at: http://youtu.be/oqvJp2gXJI0 (accessed November 19, 2013).

[23] E. Phelps, A. Elizabeth, K. J. O'Connor, et al., “Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, vol. 12 no 5 (2000): 729-738; available online at: http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3512208/Banaji_PerformanceIndirect.pdf?sequence=2 (accessed November 19, 2013). 

[24] Cf.: C. Talaska, S. T. Fiske, and S. Chaiken, “Legitimating Racial Discrimination: A meta-analysis of the racial attitude-behavior literature shows that emotions, not beliefs, best predict discrimination,” Social Justice Research: Social Power in Action 21 (2008): 263-296. 

[25] See: Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Quill, 1994). 

[26] A. J. Hart, P. J. Whalen, L. M. Shin, et al., “Differential response in the human amygdala to racial outgroup vs. ingroup face stimuli,” Brain Imaging 11 (2000): 2351-2355.  

[27] S. Fiske, “Social cognition and the normality of prejudice,” in J. F. Dovidio, P. Glick and L. A. Rudman, eds., On the Nature of Prejudice: Fifty Years after Allport (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2005), cited in Beatie, Our Racist Heart, 91-95.   

[28]Efrén Pérez, “Explicit Evidence on the Import of Implicit Attitudes: The IAT and Immigration Policy Judgments,” Political Behavior (2010) 32: 539; available online at: https://my.vanderbilt.edu/efrenperez/files/2012/11/Perez_Explicit-Evidence-on-Implicit-Attitudes_final3.pdf (accessed November 19, 2013).  

[29] Ibid. 

[30]Beatie, Our Racist Heart?, 142. 

[31] For the stories of dreamers, i.e. youth who were brought to the U.S.A. when they were underage without authorization from immigration authorities, see: http://www.dreamactivist.org/about/our-stories/ (accessed November 9, 2013).  

[32] Dr. Quiñones Hinojosa’s biography can be found at: http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/24/health/lifeswork-dr-q/; his website is the following: http://doctorqmd.com/ (accessed November 9, 2013). 

[33] For a list of Lutheran resources available to churches and members who wish to get involved in ministries for immigrants and for just immigration reform, see: http://lirs.org/act/campaigns/sfw/stand-for-welcome-sunday/  (accessed November 9, 2013). 

[34] For the theological principles guiding such action, see: “Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform: A Social Policy Resolution, passed by the Church Council at the November 2009 meeting,” available online at: http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Immigration_ReformSPR09.pdf​ (accessed April 11, 2014). 

[35] For theological arguments on the power of the cross to bring about social transformation, see, among others: Walter Altmann, Lutheran and Liberation: A Latin American Perspective, translated by Mary Solberg (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992); Mary M. Solberg, Compelling Knowledge: A Feminist Proposal for an Epistemology of the Cross (Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press, 1997); and, VítorWesthelle, The Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006).

​​​© Dec​ember 2013
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 13, Issue 8​​