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How to combat implicit bias

Change has to begin with the individual

Conventional wisdom once held that a person couldn’t racially discriminate if he or she had no overt racist feelings. Even psychologists pictured bias this way.

Not anymore.

“White supremacy and segregation are the great grandparents of implicit bias,” said Eva Paterson, the president of Equal Justice Society, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit that combats structural and unconscious bias. “From implicit bias you can [draw] a direct line … to the use of white supremacy in our country that [carries the] notion that black people are inferior. And I think most of us consciously have repudiated that, but I think that is still in our unconscious.”

Project Implicit, an organization of academic researchers in the field, has developed tests to measure different unconscious biases — gender, sexuality and religion — and race. That last test requires participants to pair pictures of black and white faces with a valuation, such as “good” or “bad.” The more strongly participants associate whiteness with positive qualities and blackness with negative qualities, the more quickly they will pair a white face with good and black face with bad, and vice versa.

Years of data now support the claim that implicit biases permeate our society, social scientists say. They predict our behavior even more than measures of our explicit beliefs and they afflict people to varying degrees.

One can, in fact, racially discriminate despite holding no overt racist feelings. It happens daily.

One study, for example, required participants to judge the performance of a college basketball player solely by listening to a radio broadcast of his game. The player was described as black to some, white to others. Those who believed the player was black graded him higher in athletic ability and basketball skill but lower in hustle and intelligence. Those believing him to be white graded the opposite.

We can mitigate the effects of implicit racial biases, though. Success hinges on a person’s willingness to work at it. External pressure yields disappointing returns.

Experts encourage individuals and organizations seeking to reduce bias to undergo training. NFL folk repeat the mantra the film doesn’t lie. Maybe not. But brains do.

One strategy asks people to monitor their own and others’ stereotypical portrayals of racial groups and label them as stereotypical. If one sees a black man and figures him to be violent, for example, one should brand the reaction stereotypical. Then, evaluate how the portrayal occurred. Last, the stereotypical portrayal should be replaced with a nonstereotypical one. Instead of judging the man to be violent, for example, deem him smart. Scientists call this “stereotype replacement.”

Dedication to implementing these sorts of strategies over four to eight weeks reduces implicit bias, as measured by the Implicit Association Test, while increasing both a person’s recognition of the role discrimination plays in our society and enthusiasm for interracial contact.

Anthony Greenwald, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, said that evaluators must appreciate “their mind can work in ways that go beyond what they consciously want it to do and that it’s in their interests to understand that and take control of it in order to do their job better.”

Mark W. Bennett, a federal district court judge in Iowa, appreciates the power of implicit biases. During jury selection, he plays a 30-second black-and-white video that shows the head and shoulders of a dark-skinned black man as text appears sequentially in a column:

“Michael Conrad.

“Male. Age 28.

“Armed Robbery.

“Assault and battery.



“Apprehended August 1994 by Police Lieutenant Joseph Cruthers.”

He then stops the tape and asks prospective jurors what they think. They all respond similarly, saying how the pictured black man is evil.

He then restarts the video to reveal the last line:

“Shown here.”

The man is the arresting officer, not the criminal. In all of his years doing this, Bennett said just one person asked why you would assume the person in the picture is associated with that rap sheet.

This video starts a conversation about implicit bias that he deems necessary because, among other reasons, bias infringes upon a person’s right to a fair trial. Jurors “misconceive evidence in a light unfavorable to minorities,” Bennett said. He tells prospective jurors that everyone, including him, holds biases.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at Andscape and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.