New Study: Implicit Racial Bias Is Real - Wait, why do we need a study?

We’ve all seen the headlines: Researchers Say Eating Too Many Twinkies Can Harm Your Health!  Um… yeah, no kidding. How about this one: New Study Suggests a Link Between Drugs and Crime!  Really, you don’t say. I believe the headline for this article is just as ridiculous. To explain why requires me to be dangerously un-PC; right up my alley. There will no doubt be some who label me a bigot and racist: So be it. If you're one of those people, at least read the whole article before you send the hate; there is a silver lining at the end. 

*Note this blog is available on the podcast as well if you'd rather listen than read.

Implicit bias, racial or otherwise, is a real and immutable fact of life...

Implicit racial bias occurs when we subconsciously make decisions about each other based, to whatever degree, on the color of each others’ skin. And guess what; we all do it! How this claim is controversial is beyond me. Every single one of us sees each other differently because WE"RE DIFFERENT! Many of us choose, consciously, to treat each other fairly, equitably; but this doesn’t mean we aren’t subconsciously reacting to each other based on outward appearances, including skin color. 

I don’t pretend to understand the complexity of biology or especially the inner workings (or any workings) of the human brain, but we are animals at our core. We cannot and will never completely escape the natural, hard wired instincts we all have. To believe we are above such things is arrogant and stupid IMHO ("In My Humble Opinion" for all you old farts). 

As a former police officer, people often ask me what they can do to keep themselves and their families safe, to sniff out danger before it materializes. How do I get out of that gas station before the robber pulls a gun?! The simplest and most useful answer I can give is, “trust your gut.” 

Obviously I’m not suggesting our gastrointestinal tracts can think; they can’t. What I’m telling them to do is trust their instincts. We don’t consciously process every bit of information coming into our brains because of sensory gating. Our brain, thankfully, allows us to effectively ignore much of the “noise” around us so we can focus on what we think is important in that moment. This doesn't mean, however, that other stimuli are completely ignored. In fact, one reason people often get a really bad feeling just before something bad happens is that their brain is receiving stimuli that suggest there is a looming threat, even if they're not consciously aware of it. 

Try to visualize this example as you read it:  

You’re at your local gas station filling up a 64 oz mug of Coke (or whatever floats your boat). You're not really mentally present as you ponder your crappy day at work, why you hate your boss, and how much you need a vacation. It’s a big mug, so your spacing off for a while, but your peripheral vision is picking up on something. You don’t notice it consciously, but to your right, near the Twinkie section, the guy in the grey jacket is telegraphing that he’s about to rob the joint.

He’s pacing slightly, his hands are hidden near his waist, and he’s clearly not looking for Twinkies (he must have read that research article ;). Something about his posture, maybe it’s just the sharpness of his eyes as they dart around the store, says he’s hunting. This information is getting trapped in the “sensory gate” because you’re not focused on it, but your subconscious begins sending you the something doesn’t feel right signal. You feel butterflies in your stomach... weird. 

You ignore your gut and stare into the fizz, still dreaming of a distant tropical getaway, when you realize everyone around you is hitting the floor. The robber, luckily for you, is just there for cigarettes and cash and leaves everyone's lives, although shaken, largely intact.  After the suspect's getaway and police arrive, your adrenaline subsides and your brain starts to think clearly again. Only then do you realize you saw it coming. You knew something wasn't right because of your implicit bias (survival instincts) against men in jackets aggressively pacing around convenience stores not looking to buy anything.

STOP! What does the suspect look like in your mind? Is he white, black, hispanic, covered in tattoos, sporting a mullet, dreads, or maybe he's bald or wearing a hat or ski mask? What does this tell you about your assumptions and biases? Maybe it tells you nothing, maybe it tells you everything. 

Don’t feel bad about whatever your discover, acknowledge it

We shouldn’t ignore our instincts because we’re afraid of being prejudiced or racist. We should acknowledge them, determine if the “bad feeling” is warranted (based on facts/evidence), and act appropriately. We should be checking our bias, making sure we’re not making assumptions about people that aren’t fair.

It is a balancing act to be sure; not too much "stereotype", not too much "gut" denial.  A lack of balance here is very bad: on one hand you're blindly ignoring valid survival instincts at your own peril; on the other, you're blindly accepting false prejudices based on those instincts. Neither of those paths is fair to your fellow man and woman. 

I’m not excusing unjust treatment of any societal group by the police; that would be immoral and disgusting. I’m only pointing out the fact that we will never get rid of “implicit bias” because it is something we all have and always will. If this is true, then the only way to truly change the way the police interact with any given group is to change the characteristics of the group. For example, police officers shoot and kill black men at higher rates than they do white men, per capita. But if we ever want those rates to be equal, these societal groups, including their cultures (yes, I said it, this has to do with culture), must also be equal. 

When you hear about a shooting on the news, what do you assume the perpetrator will look like? Young black men in America are responsible for a hugely disproportionate percentage (relative to their population size) of violent crimes and gun violence. So is it wrong for your imaginary suspect to be black? No, it’s not; it simply reflects the reality of gun violence in America. What we are completely missing in this debate is that issues like America's gang problem, black on black crime, and black violent crime rates play an important role in our implicit biases. We are focusing on whether or not a bias exists, as if it's existence proves something is wrong. Well it does exists, and something is wrong, but the problem is not the bias, rather the reality it is based upon. 

Statistics are not the whole story

The statistics alone are enough to make any rational person more likely to believe a young black man might be armed than one of another race. Add to that the backdrop of a crime-ridden inner-city neighborhood full of gangs, shootings, drugs and violence and this becomes even more likely. But for cops, this is not a statistical (and therefore theoretical) discussion, especially for officers working in large cities with serious gang problems. Police officers are the ones collecting the data points that provide the statisticians something to analyze. They're responding to the constant shooting deaths and dealing with the ingrained distrust, disrespect and hatred for the police. They are the ones pulling guns off young black boys (because gangs like to use minors as their shooters) too young to legally drive a car. Cops don’t need a statistician to tell them who is more likely to have a gun and use it against them in the inner city. They've seen, survived, prevented and responded to gun violence at the hands of more young black men than men of any other race, not because they want it to be that way, but because it is that way. The "biases" were are seeing in statistics reflect this reality. 

Research indicates cops are more likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed whites (there is some research that points the other way as well). If this is true, it may be a natural consequence of real problems in our black (especially inner city) communities. Other studies show that black officers are more likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than white officers, which indicates this trend is not about racism, but implicit biases, including one's skin color. If “systematic racism” was driving the data, white officers would be in the lead on this statistic, but they’re not.

I can already feel the hate mail, the “racist white motherf#$@!@“ comments, etc. Please, read the entire article first. I’m not saying police officers are always right; they’re not. Cops, more so than anyone else, must be diligent in checking their bias regularly to prevent true racism and hatred from taking over. What I’m saying is we all have implicit biases and we'll never get rid of them. It is part of the human experience and not unique to any one profession or any one segment of society. More importantly, it is the result of real and valid differences between those segments of our society. 

we are not all equal, and that sucks

Don't get me wrong, I believe every life is priceless and equally valuable. I just wish we all grew up in nice neighborhoods, with good schools, with involved mothers AND fathers, without drug addictions, mental health issues, poverty and the threat of violence. Obviously, that's not the world we live in. Until it is, police officers, like their civilian counterparts, will continue to treat each segment of our society differently, based upon their actual and perceived differences. In communities struggling with violent crime, rampant gun violence, and hatred of the police, officers will continue to use deadly force more often. In communities that support and respect police officers, the opposite will be true. 

This is not a message without hope!

In fact, it's quite the opposite. If changing police treatment of our society requires society to change, then it's not up to someone else to affect that change, it's up to you. The only way to change the subconscious reactions police officers have when interacting with people like you is to change the experiences those reactions are based on. You can't force another human being to ignore their survival instincts, but you can change what those instincts tell them. If your community is hateful and uncooperative toward the police, be outspoken about your support and appreciation for them. This is a bottom up approach, and only requires you and I to take responsibility for our own actions, which is all we ever had control over in the first place. When enough people in your group prove they have changed, so will the treatment of your group by everyone else, including the police. 

To summarize: 

1. Implicit bias exists: we are all different

2. We cannot control our innate, subconscious responses/feelings toward other people

3. Biases are based on real and perceived characteristics of other people and groups

4. If 1-3 are true, the bias is not the problem, it is the negative characteristics of the group that must change

5. It is up to you and I to change the status quo of our own groups

Point #5 deserves a few closing comments because this concept doesn't just apply to black Americans; it applies to all of us. We are all being subjected to the biases of others. It's not wrong and you can't be mad about it because you're guilty of the same (if you're human). All we can do is change the bias, one person at a time.

White people can show they care about minorities by paying attention to how they're treated and standing up for them when injustices are seen. Cops can prove they aren't racist by putting in the extra effort, taking the time to get to know their community members on a personal level, and helping whenever and wherever they can. Maybe it means stopping at a young man's house to see how he did on a math test, hopping out of the car to play some pickup basketball, or taking a few more seconds to explain why someone's family member is under arrest. Every little bit helps. 

We all know the negative stereotypes that go along with the groups we fit into so I won't belabor the point by listing off any more. The point is, whoever you are, if you don't like the implicit biases being applied to you and those like you, change yourself; the bias will follow. 


Do Good || Be Strong || Fear Nothing