Wednesday, February 6, 2019
In recent years, the term “implicit bias” has entered public discussions in a number of arenas. In criminal justice circles, the concept enjoys growing recognition as a way of explaining conduct and decision making in the justice system. From police and prosecutors to judges, juries, and other actors in the system, implicit biases impact all areas of government and society. In the 2016 Presidential Debate, Hillary Clinton invoked this concept to help account for police killing of minority suspects, explaining that police may sometimes act in ways that are motivated by unseen forces. Despite the popularity and growing acceptance of this concept, less is known about what implicit bias teaches implicitly, including about the depths of oppression in society.
The main idea of implicit bias is that people harbor certain, often negative, attitudes or stereotypes about others, which can influence behavior. All people harbor biases, albeit in different degrees. The implicit aspect refers to the notion that some attitudes are not consciously held by an individual, but instead arise through subconscious impulses that result from conditioning. The conditioning can be so forceful that an individual with self-professed allegiances to racial equality might be swayed to act in contrast to these ideals. In Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, implicit bias was undoubtedly an ingredient that may have cost her the election. Of course, some denounced her womanhood explicitly, but even among 2016 voters who fancied themselves as egalitarian, she lost votes simply because she is a woman. Some in the country believed deep down that only a man can lead the country, and for these people, neither Clinton nor any other woman could have ever measured up to the task.
Implicit bias manifests in multiple forms. In policing, for example, conditioning to the notion that blacks are prone to crime and violence may ultimately play a role in determining whom police stop, question, arrest, or charge with a crime. The process is riddled with discretionary decision making on behalf of police and prosecutors, which provide all sorts of spaces for discrimination to dwell. Understanding implicit bias in this context helps to illustrate how a system—guided by ideals of procedural justice—could be so skewed against certain segments of society. Implicit bias teaches that even if the vast majority of police might consciously disavow racism, their behavior may be influenced in ways that betray their own understanding.
Implicit bias derives from deeply engrained ideas. At the individual level, this may not seem like much to bother about, but when the individuals aggregate, it can manifest as systematic oppression. In the police setting, the point is evident: there are police with explicit racist attitudes, who also hold implicit biases, as do the rest of the officers on the force. Taken wholly, the skewing amounts to more than merely individual conduct, but practically produces two systems of justice: one for whites and one for others. A quick glance at drug offences shows some of the contradiction; despite that racial groups use illegal drugs in close proportion to their size of the population, indigent ethnic minorities bear the brunt of prosecution and punishment. Some of these outcomes are driven by police who are guided by their own implicit biases.
Students of implicit bias theory recognize it as more than merely a conceptual counterpart of explicit bias. After all, a central premise of implicit bias is that individuals are conditioned to certain beliefs and attitudes. Implicit bias is not created ex ni hilo, but instead embodies the tacit expression of preexisting impressions. That is, the stereotypical thinking is already there for the taking. Understood this way, the notion of implicit bias appears as a tempered way of explaining why otherwise good people behave in despicable ways. It acts to excuse culpability by asserting the subconscious mind’s influence on a person’s behavior.
The point to emphasize here is not whether implicit bias strikes a more conciliatory tone or provides a pass for discriminatory behavior. Rather, it’s the fact of implicit bias that’s telling. This phenomenon asserts that individuals are inundated with explicit, indelible impressions, reiterated and reinforced, which ultimately and unwittingly taint the consciousness. Implicit biases build from this baseline of oppression, the cache of explicit representations that have been individually internalized. How millions of children across the country are impressed by the television “reality” show, COPS, illustrates the possibilities. Even though the episodes empirically feature a disproportionate number of minority suspects, the syndicated airings of black and brown bodies being scuffled, pummeled, and cuffed, embeds a particular message. At minimum, the images emblazon the psyche with the notion that blacks are suspects and whites are white knights and upholders of the law.
Such explicit biases influence society at all levels of being. The messaging in a show like COPS not only conditions whites to harbor certain beliefs about crime and punishment, but also leaves deep impressions on minorities too. Viewers internalize the episodes to their own detriment and absorb skewed ideas about color and criminality. What’s implicit about implicit bias, then, is that the concept depends on impressions wrought by a world of discrimination. Accounting these realities reveals the problem of invidious discrimination to be far more ominous than the sum of all implicit discrimination. Rather, these biases owe their very existence to greater oppressive forces. This unseen baseline of implicit bias provides a fuller account of modern discrimination. More critically, the influence of implicit bias in other areas like employment, education, health care, and housing, give a sense of the systemic nature of the problem.
-- Professor SpearIt, Professor of Law, Thurgood Marshall School of Law