The following editorial appeared in The Baltimore Sun.
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 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.
Gilliam and his team surmised from those results that the teachers scrutinized the black boys and girls more closely because they expected 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, 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.