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When Unconscious Bias Bears Arms – Part 1

November 14, 2016

All people hold unconscious biases, or prejudices, including racial prejudices, but relatively few people are racists. I’ve argued that prejudice is an evolutionary adaptation in humans, and as such is both inevitable and universal. Racism, on the other hand, is an ideology that makes moral distinctions among races. Prejudice is inherent in the human condition; racism is learned.

I think it’s critically important to distinguish between prejudice and racism, and not just because I fervently believe the two are very different. If prejudice is inherent and universal, it is not blame-worthy, but racism is eminently blame-worthy. I believe that prejudices can be addressed through reason, and nothing ends reasoned discussion faster than the barest hint of an accusation of racism.

It’s important that we all acknowledge that we hold implicit biases. In my last job before retirement, our chief diversity officer had us take an on-line test of unconscious racial bias. We used the test offered by Harvard University’s Project Implicit, but if you enter “online test for racial bias” into your search engine, you’ll find a lot of options.

The test program we used showed a sequence of images of black and white faces. We were shown the images four times, and each time we were instructed to select “good” or “bad.” The program didn’t explain how it used this information to determine bias, but I think the idea was to measure the difference in how long it took us to act depending whether the face we saw was white or black – in other words, whether it was easier or harder for us to see one race as good or bad; whether it was instinctive for us to see one race as good or bad or whether it was necessary to wait an instant until reason (in this case, compliance with the instruction) kicked in.

I was deeply dismayed that my test showed a “moderate bias” against the black faces. I can only resort to the courage of my convictions: all people hold biases, including racial biases. In fact, Harvard’s Project Implicit reports that “members of stigmatized groups (Black people, gay people, older people) tend to have more positive implicit attitudes toward their groups than do people who are not in the group, but that there is still a moderate preference for the more socially valued group.”

In other words, African-Americans are biased against African-Americans, but less so than white Americans are. Gay people are biased against gay people, but less so than heterosexuals are. And so on.

Just by the way – if Project Implicit uses the word “moderate” consistently, then my level of bias against African-Americans is actually in the same range as the level of bias against African-Americans held by African-Americans themselves. In my case, that’s going to have to pass for good news.

*          *          *

If all people bear racial biases, then police officers bear them. If the Harvard findings hold true, then police officers generally hold biases against African-American civilians, although African-American police officers’ biases will be more moderate.

Maybe it’s too much to ask for police unions and other law enforcement advocates to acknowledge this, but the acknowledgement could be extremely useful. Instead, we get a flat, unqualified denial that police officers bear racial prejudices from people like Patrick Lynch, the president of the New York City police union.

I’ve seen no scientifically valid study of any bias reduction strategy – in other words, although I’ve asserted that reason is an antidote to unconscious bias, I have no proof of it. Still, I can’t imagine that it would hurt anything for police officers to undergo training focused on the existence and meaning of implicit racial biases. It was certainly sobering for me to learn that I tested “moderately biased”; I suspect it would be sobering for officers to learn their test results. It has to be a good thing to make unconscious bias a topic of conversation among police officers – for that matter, among people generally.

Perhaps my view of the universality of bias leads me to put inordinate faith in the human capacity for reason – which, of course, is every bit as much an evolutionary adaptation as human tribalism. But I am by nature an optimist, and faith in the human capacity for reason is the bedrock foundation of my optimism.

Unfortunately, there are situations where there is no time for reason, both in the social lives of people generally, and in the professional lives of police officers in particular. A police officer confronted with a situation in which a person may or may not be armed, and may or may not be hostile, must react based on instinct – there is no time for discussion or deliberation. The officer must assess the threat – to the officer and to others in the area – and must formulate a response to the threat, in an instant, without reflection on the possibility that unconscious bias might skew the assessment and the response.

This line of thought is going to be hard for some to accept. It’s hard for me to accept. The implication of this line of thinking is that police officers may not always be fully culpable even for racially biased shootings. If all people bear unconscious racial biases, including police officers; and if those biases tend to be against African-Americans, even among African-American police officers; and if police officers must assess and respond to threats based more on instinct than on reason, then demonizing every police officer who makes the wrong call becomes difficult.

I don’t describe this problem to introduce a complete and satisfactory solution to the problem; I don’t have one. I do think that we need both more acknowledgement of our own prejudices and more patience for the prejudices of others. We need to continue to expand the social and political discussion of unconscious bias and its pervasive consequences. Police officers in particular should be trained to understand what unconscious bias is and how it affects their judgments and actions.

And we need to be more careful in how we select our police officers. Tomorrow I’m going to post a discussion of one way that New York City fails in this respect.


December 11, 2016 – I noted in this post that I had not yet come across scientific validation of my hypothesis that reason is our rescue from implicit racial bias. The “Gray Matter” feature in today’s New York Times reports a study providing such validation: scientific evidence that the bias that appears in quick, instinctive decision-making can be eliminated by deliberation.

One Comment
  1. 110fraser permalink

    As usual, very, very intelligent and perceptive.


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