Fifty years after the peak of the civil rights movement, we live in an important time with respect to the problem of racism. When most people think of racism they conjure up images of “whites only” signs, fire hoses, attack dogs, and lynchings. Our understanding of racism is typically shaped by individual acts of bigotry. And since those kinds of things are by and large awful memories or the stuff of movies and documentaries, racism must be dead.
But racism in the US is very much alive. It lives on in large part through implicit bias and social systems that are designed to marginalize people of color. I’ll discuss implicit bias now and tackle systemic racism at another time.
African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities face the consequences of implicit bias regularly. The African American female physician who responds to an airline medical emergency and is turned away by the flight attendant, the Muslim-appearing man who is singled out for additional screening at the airport or the black male with baggy pants to whom white women give an extra wide berth on the city street.
Implicit bias is pervasive in our society. Few of us, even minorities, are immune from it. There are multiple on-line tests that can shed light on implicit bias and racism. The most well known is called “Project Implicit”, designed by researchers at Harvard and other universities.
Consider taking a test. Your results will likely both surprise and unnerve you. Mine sure did.
When police officers, who are as bias-laden as the rest of us, are confronted with chaotic and potentially dangerous circumstances, the results for black men can be deadly. In addition to the recent widely publicized anecdotal shootings of unarmed black men, there have been numerous studies over the past few decades documenting that minority suspects are more likely to be shot by police than white suspects.
Researchers from Washington State University have attempted to better understand how police officers with known implicit bias associating African American suspects with higher threat levels would react in a laboratory environment. The results were surprising. In their study of a mock violent domestic disturbance, police officers were actually more hesitant (on average they waited longer) to shoot black suspects than white suspects.
Although it is not yet known why this difference was seen and what it means, participants in the research gain an opportunity to learn more about their tendencies and police departments have begun to use the experience in training.