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Implicit bias in the presidential debate

john a. powell, director, Othering & Belonging Institute | September 27, 2016
In the most-watched Presidential debate in history, Clinton was asked to discuss the role of implicit bias in policing ( Photo: Chuck Patch/flickr/cc)

In the most-watched Presidential debate in history, Clinton was asked to discuss the role of implicit bias in policing (Photo by Chuck Patch/Flickr)

The presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Monday night was the most watched presidential debate in American history. Race was a prominent theme of the debate, as it has been the whole campaign. At one point, moderator Lester Holt asked Secretary Clinton if she “believed that police are implicitly biased against black people” and Clinton responded, “Implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.”

Clinton is not the only prominent public official to recognize that implicit bias is a challenge for our nation. Last year, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy recognized the way in which “unconscious prejudice” contributes to inequality in a landmark decision involving the Fair Housing Act. And FBI Director Comey also publicly acknowledged the overwhelming research demonstrating the presence of widespread unconscious biases, and the way in which these biases may manifest in policing.

It bodes well that these scientific findings are making their way into our public discourse. However, their meanings and implications need to be carefully understood. Clinton was right that implicit bias is an issue that impacts all Americans, but does this mean that Americans are all secretly racist? Not at all.

Bias is not simply another word for racism. Bias represents an association between things. Everyone forms associations, a process that is simply part of being human. Even animals form such associations (think of Pavlov’s dog).

“Implicit” bias refers to associations that are not fully conscious. We could not survive if all our decisions were completely subject to the conscious mind. Because the mind processes so much information, the brain has evolved to look for short cuts. This is done by habituating many of the brain’s functions, letting the unconscious process large quantities of information through lumping data together in a streamlined, rapid fashion. While the conscious mind is slow and more deliberate, the unconscious is big and very fast.

Racial bias is not innate. The associations of the unconscious mind are largely formed by our environment, society, and culture. We are exposed to many images a day, by some accounts as many as 5,000. Certain images become paired in our unconscious mind. When two images appear repeatedly and frequently, the unconscious mind will connect them. These connections are largely environmental and do not need to be connected in actual fact. The unconscious does not make such distinctions. And these connections are built up over time, a process that happens largely without our conscious awareness, and without our conscious knowledge that we are using them to influence our reactions and behavior.

Through movies, music, news, and other cultural and social sources, our society has paired images of black men with drugs and guns. It does not matter to the unconscious that black people are factually no more likely to use drugs or guns then their white counterparts. Remember, facts are not necessary for implicit bias. The mere presence of cultural stereotypes between blackness and criminality will suffice. The unconscious will reach for the paired associations with the same ease that a commuter turns the corner upon reaching her or his street. Research by social scientist Jennifer Eberhardt from Stanford has shown that when people are exposed to a black face they can more easily and quickly identify a gun than a non-crime related image, even without their conscious awareness (Dr. Eberhardt was awarded a Macarthur genius grant for her research in this area).

These are not just individual issues, therefore our response should not be about individuals. What’s critical in the conversation around policing and implicit bias, as well as all Americans and implicit bias, is to understand that while implicit bias is not the same as racism, the results of implicit bias can still produce deeply racialized outcomes. Even if the conscious mind rejects racism, the unconscious may still hold biases. And these biases are even stronger when we are under stress.

Results based on these biases can undermine our conscious desire for fairness, but they are not insurmountable. There are things we can do to lessen bias, and knowledge and training both help. In the case of police, recognizing the role of implicit bias and providing sustained training to override those biases could save lives. Who could object to saving lives through such training?

Neuroscience is clear: Bias is part of being human. Racialized consequences of harmful implicit biases are not. And the content and strength of particular biases are socially constructed. Understanding the role of implicit bias in our national psyche is something that does affect all Americans and having public conversations about implicit bias, including from the platform of our presidential debate, is both powerful and promising.

For more information about implicit bias, see the Perception Institute’s work on the Science of Equality, or visit Harvard’s Project Implicit.

Comments to “Implicit bias in the presidential debate

  1. As usual, a thoroughly rational, thoughtful, graceful articulation of what’s behind the news story that has significant implications for how we treat one another and how we may shift it meaningfully. Thank you once again, John Powell.

  2. From CNN: “One chain from September 2015 starts with an email from Democratic power broker Andy Manatos, who suggests, “A good amount of exposure of Hillary holding, feeding and playing with her adorable grandchild would greatly help the public understand her.”

    Hillary is so PHONY. Nothing we see or hear from her is real. It’s all staged, scripted and salted to toss into America’s bleeding wound. GO AWAY Hillary. No more. She’s the ultimate con artist.

  3. Our company, Metrics2Results Inc, believes that implicit bias and its ramifications (positive or negative) reflect on the success and sustainability of every company, institution or association we participate in. The unconscious beliefs and filters we possess have a direct affect on our interactions with others that may differ from ourselves. The key is gaining a better understanding of those implicit biases, the root causes, and determining the impact they may have on our behavior and actions towards others. That understanding will allow us to make conscious decisions about future behaviors and actions. With the increasingly rapid acceleration of our demographics, it is important to any organization’s success to attract talent, customers and enter unfamiliar markets. Implicit biases could be an obstacle that reduces this success.

  4. Prof. powell, thank you for focusing us on solving one of our greatest social problems that our Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWII and American Democracy have failed to solve to this day.

    Neuroscientists appear to have concluded that we are hardwired toward making Us/Them distinctions that our current presidential debates prove daily. And the worst problem is that our current political, religious and cultural leaders appear to be totally unable to make progress with defining and implementing solutions when time is running out as global warming, violence and inequalities increasingly overwhelm our civilization.

    I implore you and your university colleagues to create and implement solutions with the greatest sense of urgency because our newest and all future generations depend on your immediate success so that they shall have an acceptable long-term quality of life.

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