Rethinking implicit bias in wake of McKinney incident

Implicit bias is a trending term of art in discussions of race relations. Attention to the concept has followed events in Ferguson, Staten Island and now McKinney, Texas. In plain words, implicit bias is an unconscious prejudice, an involuntary attitude or stereotype.

According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, implicit biases have several important features – notably that everyone has these hidden biases, and they are “not accessible through introspection.” Fortunately, we don’t need to rely on introspection. Researchers at Harvard have conveniently provided online access to their instrument, the Implicit Association Test, or IAT.

There is no predictable mechanism for developing an “implicit” bias, and the effect of such hidden attitudes on behavior is even more uncertain. At least with an explicit bias, you can figure out where it came from, and you know where you stand. We hate Nazis. We hate terrorists. We hate liver. Has the fact that it is no longer acceptable to say “we hate black people” come to mean that our prejudice has somehow gone underground, buried in the fertile soil of our unconscious?

The history of psychology is littered with notions about unconscious motivations.

Freud set the ball rolling with his dream research. Jung gave us collective unconsciousness. Adler offered up fictive goals and the inferiority complex. Perhaps it is in the nature of psychologists (speaking as a psychologist) to hold a fascination for the unseen, mutable forces that shape our personalities – all those things that are “not accessible through introspection.”

It’s facile to argue that when a police officer shoots an unarmed citizen, implicit bias might have been at play. In some sense, it lets the officer off the hook. “He couldn’t help himself,” we say, “his unconscious prejudices got the better of him.” Got the better of his training, and experience, and the natural reluctance most of us feel for the act of killing another person? Maybe. Proponents would say that implicit bias operates in that millisecond when the decision is made to shoot or not shoot. Of course, no snap judgment is required when we arrest, convict, incarcerate and even execute minorities in outsized proportions.

One of the things that make an implicit bias “implicit” is that the bias may contradict a consciously expressed neutral or positive opinion. The implication is that our bias will lead us to behave in ways that are inconsistent with our beliefs. This is not a new idea. In the early 1970s, J.M. Darley and C.D. Batson investigated the connection between belief and behavior, specifically on the question of whether a seminary student, hurrying to make a meeting, would stop to help someone who appeared to be ill and in distress. This now-famous “Good Samaritan” experiment revealed a painful truth: Only 40 percent of the study participants paused to lend a hand. Some of the students even stepped over the “victim” in their hurry. The rightness of one’s beliefs does not predict that one will act accordingly. Behavior is the real test of character.

Implicit bias is a handy explanation for the persistent racism in a post-racial society.

Are we in a post-racial society? On a positive note, millennials talk a pretty good game when surveyed on the topic of racial equality. But we see some fraying at the edges, as when college students here and there get caught up in racially charged misconduct. Chanting about how n*****rs can’t join the club is not implicit anything – it’s good old racism, plain and simple. When foolish young drunkards sing such songs, it is despicable. When the police and other government employees share racist tweets, texts and emails, it is frightening, appalling and borderline criminal.

There is ample evidence for sub- and unconscious motivations, but how does implicit bias affect our behavior? It is difficult to say. How do we account for the counter-intuitive finding that many blacks have an implicit bias against blacks? As Theodore Johnson explained in a recent article in The Atlantic, “The politics of respectability is really a coping mechanism. It affirms the inferiority and unattractiveness of black culture. And it contributes to the formation of implicit biases that lead black people to prefer white people over their own.” In other words, attempting to mirror the false respectability of the ruling class is the road to self-loathing.

It is a normal function of the human psyche to strive, to achieve, to outwit, to survive. These goals are tied closely to group preferences, biases, prejudices and outright racism. This country and all of its exceptionalism were built on the backs of slaves and through the subjugation of native cultures. We remain a deeply racist society, implicit or explicit. As Ta-Nehisi Coates says, in making the case for reparations, “Until America reckons with the moral debt it has accrued – and the practical damage it has done . . . it will fail to live up to its own ideals.” Action is what matters, not attitudes.

It’s all about where you are on the hierarchy, relative to others. People of color in the U.S. have long been relegated to a lower rung. There’s nothing implicit about institutional racism, and there’s a danger in letting people off the hook because, well, they searched their souls and didn’t find a bigot there. If “implicit bias” research reveals anything, it shows that we are all more likely prejudiced than not. Unfortunately, that’s not very helpful news.

Tom Cadwallader, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of criminal justice at N.C. Central University.

Find your biases

Researchers at Harvard have created the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, to measure attitudes toward or beliefs about certain topics. Find it at nando.com/harvardtest