If you are one of those who opt for a “tall” from Starbucks over a “medium” from the Gulf station near your house, you suffer from implicit bias.
Congratulations—you’re not alone. And there’s nothing wrong with it; in fact, it informs almost all the choices we make in life, many of them more important than where we get our hot beverages.
But in last Tuesday evening’s vice-presidential debate, Republican Mike Pence criticized Hillary Clinton for claiming that everyone experiences implicit bias. He suggested a black police officer who shoots a black civilian could not logically experience such bias and that as we keep harping on it, we demean our law enforcement community by accusing them of racism.
It’s not racism, it’s bias. And while we can work to eliminate the former, the latter is with us for the duration. As Emily Badger said in the Times yesterday, [i]mplicit bias is the mind’s way of making uncontrolled and automatic associations between two concepts very quickly. In many forms, implicit bias is a healthy human adaptation — it’s among the mental tools that help you mindlessly navigate your commute each morning.
Mike Pence wants us to stop talking about it, but there is little doubt that implicit bias exists, and it rears its ugliness regardless of how we feel. We may, for instance, express our revulsion at the persecution of Muslims in the U.S., but we are not immune to statements from people like Trump, Pence, “stop-and-frisk” Giuliani, and the like. We hear them. We deny them. But we do hear them, and on an unconscious level, they resonate. If they do so with us—and drive us to Starbucks for coffee or the shoreline for seafood—wouldn’t they also resonate with the police, black officers as well as white?
One expert claims we cannot “unlearn” implicit bias, but by learning more about it, we can redirect it, even block it. Mike Pence’s suggestion that we stop talking about altogether is just another seat-of-the-pants approach to a problem for which there exists a body of scientific research. Of course because Pence and science are not simpatico, he’d rather not mention it. But Pence, despite pandering to the police, does them no favors by adopting such a know-nothing approach; in fact, he impedes any chance of improving the situation. And we have a situation, one which seems to worsen every day.
Either we admit it or we perpetuate it.