Holvino: Unconscious Bias

Jul 18, 2017

Implicit or unconscious bias is increasingly used to explain and address racist behavior in this country, like the disproportionate use of deadly physical force against Blacks by the police. In Vermont, Act 147 establishes deadlines for completing fair and impartial policing initiatives, and the Legislature is seeking funds to implement its own training on implicit bias.

But, conscious or not, bias is not the same as racism. Bias is an individual psychological process, while racism is an institutional power dynamic.

So, for example, the bias of a black teenager who fears for his life and runs from a white officer is not the same as the bias of an armed policeman who shoots a black teenager. In such cases, the power to use deadly force - and a system that acquits police who use it - makes a life and death difference in how unconscious bias plays out.

Implicit or unconscious bias refers to positive or negative attitudes we have towards people of a particular group without our full awareness. The term is useful in that it recognizes that we all have biases and that these biases influence how we interact with each other. However, the term is problematic when it leads to the erroneous conclusion that if we could just get rid of bias we could then eliminate racism.

As a woman of color, I’m concerned that the focus on unconscious bias hinders rather than helps us in the quest for racial justice. It’s extremely difficult to get rid of biases, and there’s very little evidence to support the belief that de-biasing training changes behavior to any great extent, especially under conditions of perceived or real threat. So, instead of trying to eliminate bias, it might be wiser to invest more in teaching officers to de-escalate conflict situations without using firearms, which in turn would reduce the power they have to act on their biases.

In Vermont, Black drivers are four times more likely than white drivers to be searched after being stopped, even though white drivers are more frequently found to be carrying contraband. The underlying bias is clear, but it’s addressing the power imbalance, with its potential to be lethal, that’s most urgently needed.