Recent high-profile deaths of black people at the hands of police have put discussions of racism and bias squarely at the center of the presidential race. During the first presidential debate, the moderator, Lester Holt, asked Hillary Clinton if she believed that police are “implicitly biased against black people,” to which Clinton responded, “Implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.”
During the vice presidential debate, the topic of bias and policing was raised again. “Enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly by making the accusation of implicit bias whenever tragedy happens,” said Republican Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence.
But the highly visible election debate platforms are not the only spaces where the role of implicit bias is being discussed publicly. Last year, Justice Anthony Kennedy recognized the way in which “unconscious prejudice” contributes to inequality in a landmark decision involving the Fair Housing Act. FBI Director James Comey publicly acknowledged the overwhelming research demonstrating the presence of widespread unconscious biases and the way in which these biases may manifest in policing.
In the aftermath of the presidential debate, many were too quick to claim that Clinton meant all Americans are secretly racist. This is not true.
The effects of implicit bias are issues that impact all Americans, regardless of race. But bias is not simply another word for racism and — if we want progress on issues of race — we must be careful not to conflate the two, instead understanding their relationship with and to each other.
Bias represents an association between things. Everyone forms associations, a process that is simply part of being human. “Implicit” refers to associations that are not fully conscious. We could not survive if all our decisions were completely subject to the conscious mind, and so the brain has evolved to look for shortcuts. Simply put, implicit bias is the “mind’s way of making uncontrolled and automatic associations between two concepts very quickly.”
The associations the unconscious mind makes are largely formed by our environment‚ society, and culture. Through movies, music, news, and many cultural and social sources, our society has paired images of black people with drugs and guns. It does not matter to the unconscious that empirically and statistically black people do not use drugs at a rate any higher than their white counterparts. Facts are not necessary for implicit bias. The mere presence of cultural stereotypes between blackness and criminality will suffice. Research by social scientist Jennifer Eberhardt from Stanford has shown that when people are exposed to a black face in an image, they more easily and quickly identify a gun, even without their conscious awareness.
Even if the conscious mind rejects racism, the unconscious may still hold biases. We may think of ourselves as fair people, but our biases can undermine our conscious desire for fairness. Yet this is not insurmountable.
Understanding the role of implicit bias in our national psyche affects all Americans. Having public conversations about implicit bias, including during our presidential and vice-presidential debates, is both powerful and promising, because understanding the role of racism — specifically racism tied to blackness — affects all Americans, not only blacks and whites.
Neuroscience is clear: bias is part of being human. History and biology are also clear: race is socially constructed. While bias may be natural, the outcomes from bias against black people in our country are singularly destructive and have been proven to shorten and take life. Failing to admit and understand how bias affects us stunts our ability to make progress.
There are things we can do to lessen bias: knowledge and training are crucial steps. There are also things we can do to tackle the reality of racism: leadership and scholarship can help.
But we need more. We have to name it, and we have to talk about it, and we also have to truly reckon with it.
Examining the specific, historic, and dynamic role of racism in our society will allow us to recognize how we exclude – and offer the possibility of learning how to include. Dr. Eberhardt’s research shows that it is crucial to “help people become aware of the unconscious ways race operates. If you combine that with other things, there is hope.”
Anti-blackness has been written into the history of who belongs in this country. But it does not have to be. Knowledge, training, and scholarship can lay the groundwork for dismantling the fault lines of injustice and discrimination at the foundation of this nation. But the onus is on all of us.
The effects of racism from our collective bias affect our entire country. We as a nation must acknowledge this reality, and understanding implicit bias can be an important — and empirically measured — method to help us understand the socially-constructed reality of racism. The road to recovery starts with admitting that there is a problem, even when it exists at the unconscious level, and the road to reckoning starts with a willingness to change — as a society, as a culture, and as a nation.
john a. powell is the Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, which brings together researchers and scholars, community partners, strategic communicators, and policymakers to identify and eliminate the barriers to an inclusive, just, and sustainable society and to create transformative change toward a more equitable world. john is a Professor of Law and Professor of African American Studies and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley and holds the Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion.