At JCSU, Combatting Implicit Bias

The first step in fighting unconscious bias? Consciousness


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Greg Lacour

I hope you can read the story on the screen above. If you can’t, here’s a brief recap: A father and son get in a car wreck. The father dies. The son is seriously injured and transported to a hospital, where the surgeon exclaims, “Oh, my God, it’s my son!”

It’s one of the more common mental exercises presented at seminars and workshops to illustrate implicit, or unconscious, bias, the natural tendency to reflexively generalize about people based on gender, race, class, and other factors. I have to admit, sheepishly, that I hadn’t encountered it before last week, when it was presented to about 60 people in an auditorium at Johnson C. Smith University. I have to admit, even more sheepishly, that my immediate thought process went something like this:

Ah, OK. This is one of those brain twister questions, like “Brothers and sisters I have none, but this man’s father is my father’s son.” So let’s see. The dad died, so the surgeon can’t … oh.

The surgeon is, of course, the son’s mother. It took me five seconds or so to realize that, followed by an uncomfortable minute or so sitting with that realization. That discomfort is part of the point, which is that we all make such assumptions at one time or another, and that they can do harm, and the only way to begin to combat unconscious bias is, paradoxically, to be conscious of it.

The session at JCSU was organized by Race Matters for Juvenile Justice, a group founded in Charlotte in 2010 to reduce the disparity in case outcomes in juvenile court—in other words, the tendency of the system to mete out harsher sentences to black and Latino offenders than white ones. That remains the organization’s focus, although it’s gradually moving into the community at large, hosting twice-yearly regional conferences on race issues and regular workshops on combating racism by examining its history in the United States.

Unconscious racism, if that’s what it is, has a way of infecting everything it touches. A 2011 study of Texas seventh-graders found that black students had a 31 percent higher likelihood of being disciplined over rules violations at school than their white peers. Another study, conducted in part by Harvard’s Department of Economics, showed that job applicants with “white-sounding” names such as “Greg Baker” or “Emily Walsh” were not only called back at nearly twice the rate of applicants with names like “Lakisha Washington” and “Jamal Jones,” but low-quality applicants with “white” names were still called back at higher rates than highly qualified applicants with “black” names. And so on.

None of this is surprising. But the discussion, led by Mecklenburg County Clerk of Superior Court Elisa Chinn-Gary, took an unexpected turn about halfway through. Chinn-Gary began showing disconcerting “then and now” slides. Then, a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1962 Mississippi. Now, a KKK rally in 2017 Texas. Then, a gathering of white people bearing Nazi flags, date unspecified but clearly decades ago. Now, the Unite the Right fiasco in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“So we’ve come a long way, right?” asked Chinn-Gary, rhetorically. Her point wasn’t just “the more things change …” It was that social progress and decline can happen simultaneously, and one social tribe can embrace the devolution because of another’s progress. “When there’s a period of racial progress and equality,” she asked, “can there not be progress for inequality?” Of course there can, which exposes a problem with the idea that “we’ve come a long way.” It depends on which “we” we’re talking about. It seems beside the point to talk about implicit bias when explicit racism has made such a comeback in the last couple of years. But recognizing unconscious bias might be the first step toward killing racism in its cradle.

For people willing to accept the fact of their own bias, anyway. I didn’t like how I felt after the car accident story, when I had to confront my initial assumption that “surgeon” meant, by definition, a man. The discomfort is the precondition for curing the disease. How many of us are willing to live with it? “The first thing is awareness,” said District Court Judge Lou Trosch, who took part in the discussion. “This is a habit that with intentional action we can break … It’s also you. It’s also me.”

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