Is prej­u­dice just a po­lice prob­lem?

Our view: New re­search shows just how deeply rooted are our un­con­scious bi­ases

Baltimore Sun - - MAYLAND VOICES - Ex­pected

Mid­way through the first pres­i­den­tial de­bate this year, mod­er­a­tor Lester Holt asked Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton whether she thought all po­lice officers are “bi­ased against African-Amer­i­cans.” The an­swer she gave was thought­ful — and im­me­di­ately pil­lo­ried by her crit­ics.

“Im­plicit bias is a prob­lem for ev­ery­one, not just po­lice,” she said. “I think, un­for­tu­nately, too many of us in our great coun­try jump to con­clu­sions about each other, and there­fore, I think we need all of us to be ask­ing hard ques­tions about, ‘why am I feel­ing this way?’ ”

The right-wing me­dia went bal­lis­tic, sug­gest­ing that Ms. Clin­ton had called the en­tire na­tion racist. But in re­al­ity, she was point­ing out some­thing psy­chol­o­gists have long known, which is that vir­tu­ally all adults har­bor im­plicit bi­ases of one sort or an­other about peo­ple they en­counter, even it they’re not con­sciously aware of them.

In fact, her re­mark came at the same time as a new study of im­plicit bias among early ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sion­als show­ing how pow­er­ful those un­con­scious per­cep­tions and value judg­ments can be in in­flu­enc­ing peo­ple’s per­cep­tions and ac­tions. The study, re­leased last month by a team of Yale Univer­sity re­searchers led by child psy­chol­o­gist Wal­ter S. Gil­liam, found that as early as preschool, im­plicit bi­ases lead teach­ers and school staff to dis­ci­pline black chil­dren, es­pe­cially black boys, far more harshly than whites and that the dis­parate treat­ment has se­ri­ous long-term con­se­quences for these young peo­ple.

To reach their find­ings, the re­searchers asked about 130 preschool teach­ers to watch short videos of chil­dren in class­rooms and told them to look for signs of “chal­leng­ing be­hav­ior” — tantrums, fight­ing, rude­ness, etc. What they didn’t say was that all the chil­dren were ac­tors and that the clips didn’t ac­tu­ally show any “chal­leng­ing be­hav­ior.” Then they used a so­phis­ti­cated eye-track­ing tech­nol­ogy to iden­tify where the teach­ers were look­ing as they scanned for signs of trou­ble. And it turned out that what the teach­ers were look­ing at most of­ten were the black chil­dren on the screen, es­pe­cially the black boys.

Mr. Gil­liam and his team sur­mised from those re­sults that the teach­ers scru­ti­nized the black boys and girls more closely be­cause they them to be more trou­ble­some — an im­plicit bias that shows how deeply rooted racial stereo­types are. A sec­ond ex­per­i­ment asked teach­ers to rec­om­mend dis­ci­plinary ac­tion af­ter read­ing what they were told were vi­gnettes of stu­dents mis­be­hav­ing in class. Some of the fic­tional young­sters were given stereo­typ­i­cally black names, such as “De­Shawn” or “La­toya,” while oth­ers were given stereo­typ­i­cally white names, such as “Jake” and “Emily.” Again, the stu­dents iden­ti­fied as black were con­sis­tently dis­ci­plined more harshly. The Yale re­searchers found that even black teach­ers showed im­plicit bi­ases to­ward African-Amer­i­can chil­dren, though it af­fected their de­ci­sions some­what dif­fer­ently.

In an in­ter­view, Mr. Gil­liam said the re­search showed that “im­plicit bi­ases do not be­gin with black men and po­lice. They be­gin with black preschool­ers and their teach­ers, if not ear­lier. Im­plicit bias is like the wind: You can’t see it, but you can sure see its ef­fects.” He says the brain cre­ates men­tal short­cuts that al­low us to reach de­ci­sions more quickly by or­ga­niz­ing the world in broad gen­er­al­iza­tions. But when we take what we think we know and ap­ply it to ev­ery­one we see, then we stop treat­ing peo­ple as in­di­vid­u­als and start re­act­ing to them as stereo­types, which can do real harm to black chil­dren who stud­ies show are sus­pended or ex­pelled from school at far higher rates than whites. More­over, most of the dam­age is done un­con­sciously.

The Yale re­search sug­gests that preschool teach­ers can over­come bi­ases through bet­ter train­ing, and the same surely is also true for po­lice, who rou­tinely are called on to make de­ci­sions that have life-or-death con­se­quences. They too need to be aware of their own bi­ases in or­der to do their jobs in a way that doesn’t alien­ate the com­mu­ni­ties they are sworn to serve and pro­tect. Rec­og­niz­ing un­con­scious bias isn’t the same as call­ing ev­ery­one racist. If preschool teach­ers can be bi­ased, any­one can. The sooner we face up to that re­al­ity as a na­tion, the stronger and more united we will be as a peo­ple.

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