SIEGEL: We all have implicit bias — and that’s OK

Acknowledging the presence of implicit bias is necessary to confront and reduce it

In the vice presidential debate on Oct. 4, Mike Pence spoke on the topic of race relations and policing in a rather unconventional way, deeming the science of implicit bias to play no real role in the tragedies that have riddled our country over the past few years. Pence claimed people have incorrectly used these tragedies as a means to “accuse law enforcement of — of implicit bias or institutional racism. And that really has got to stop.” This call to stop the discussion of implicit bias in the conversation on policing and racial disparities is quite ignorant, as it flies in the face of scientific discovery. The term implicit bias is starting to be used synonymously with racism, rewriting its true meaning into a political context. We all have implicit bias, and it is not necessarily something we can just get rid of, so we must recognize its implications as we carry on and try to address their consequences.

The research on implicit bias’ role in terms of racial relations is still a work in progress. It would be a shame, though, “if implicit bias became politically unmentionable right at the moment when science was trying to uncover the answer.” Studying how implicit bias affects our actions helps us to better understand “the mind’s way of making uncontrolled and automatic associations between two concepts.” It’s not just white police officers that have implicit bias; it’s all of us. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers tested the effect of race on shoot-or-don’t-shoot decisions. The implications of this study were sobering: white participants decided to shoot the target more quickly if he was black than if he was white, while they decided to “not shoot” an unarmed target more quickly if he were white. Interestingly enough, black participants also demonstrated this implicit bias against black targets. So, when people ask, “It was a black cop who was involved, so how can it be racist?” they are speaking out of frank negligence to science. The facts do not lie: “to live and grow up in our culture, then, is to ‘take in’ these cultural messages and biases and do so largely unconsciously.” We all harbor these biases, unknowingly allowing them to influence our decisions and actions and shape our interactions with others in day-to-day life.

When Pence urged us to stop talking about implicit bias in the context of racial relations and police brutality, he — knowingly or unknowingly — made a suggestion that would ultimately hurt our efforts to curtail racism and mend the gaps of inequality in our world. With a disregard for implicit bias comes a great loss of vocabulary “that allows us to confront racial disparities without focusing on the character of individual people.” Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, affirms this idea: “You’re removing the language that allows you to talk about the mechanism of inequality… If you take away that language, what that means is inequality gets stronger and justice gets weaker. It really gets that serious.” To continue the conversation is to recognize our implicit biases and their tendency to compete with our core values at a subconscious level, and therefore understand that we are not impervious to the internalization of such thoughts.

Implicit bias is a huge factor in the face of racial disparities and bigotry. Unconscious prejudice is a real problem in our nation, thus we cannot allow this implicit bias to become a political perception. The public needs to pay attention to the scientific discourse on implicit bias so we may begin to carefully understand and absorb the implications of such biases.

Lucy Siegel is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

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