A Way to Move Past Implicit Bias

6 minute read

We love data in America with a passion I’ve seen firsthand. As part of a team of scholars from the New School, Duke Center for Social Equity, and Insight Center for Community Economic Development who study inequality, I’ve also seen an abundance of groundbreaking data on racial and wealth disparities. While recent acts of police brutality and racial terrorism may lead many to despair about the disparities in our communities, our data also points to promising approaches that could enable more people – both back and white – to live their lives to their fullest potential.

As detailed in our recent report, Umbrellas Don’t Make It Rain: Why Studying and Working Hard Isn’t Enough for Black Americans, black families face significant obstacles to economic achievement in this country. Centuries of social and political choices, from slavery to Jim Crow to subprime lending, stymie black families in their efforts to achieve economic advancement through just working and studying hard. Blacks with a college degree have two-thirds the wealth of whites who are high-school dropouts and blacks with full time jobs have about half the wealth of whites who are unemployed. Black Americans are half as likely as their white counterparts to be given job opportunities and are selectively targeted for mass incarceration and “poverty violations” such as driving with a suspended license and failure to provide proof of insurance.

In this context, the recent video that surfaced of a McKinney police officer (which shows him dragging a black girl by her hair and pulling his weapon when two young men ran to her defense) became for me just one more demonstration of how power is not only withheld from but also enforced against people of color. This incident, now overshadowed by the staggering violence in South Carolina, is among a multitude of troubling indications that, contrary to claims of “color-blindness” (especially among Millennials), we as a society are not becoming more progressive on the issue of race.

However, I do believe – in part because of what I’ve seen from the data my team analyzed – that a deeper look at Officer Casebolt as an example can help us better understand why we as a society are stuck and potentially open up pathways toward a more equitable future.

Unlike his actions at the pool party, you’ve probably read less about what Casebolt’s day was like before the events recorded on video. Before the incident took place, Casebolt had responded to a suicide call where a black man shot himself in the head in front of his wife and children. After this incident, he responded to another call where a teenage girl was threatening to jump from the roof of her parent’s home. Why does any of that matter? Because this backstory suggests that Officer Casebolt’s behavior might have been a result of both internalized racism and external emotional trauma.

While it’s impossible to know what was in Casebolt’s mind, it’s a fact that while many white Americans are ideologically opposed to racist prejudice, experts say that may not prevent them from displaying racist behavior. NYU psychology professor David Amodio, who researches prejudice, explains that while white participants in his studies “might write down on a questionnaire that they are positive in their attitudes towards black people,” you can see the influence of their implicit prejudices in a variety of behavioral measures. These biases can be very difficult for even the most well-intentioned to control, and in Casebolt’s case, were likely even more challenging to keep in check after a traumatic day on duty.

Some might ask: so what? As a trustee of the state, Casebolt had a sacrosanct obligation to “protect and serve” all people, regardless of whether he was having a tough day. At the same time, given how pervasive implicit bias is in the United States, we miss an opportunity if we focus on Casebolt solely as an anomaly to be fired and forgotten. Instead, we should view him as both a creator and victim of multiple overlapping systems that deprive most people of the opportunity to express their humanity.

As Brigid Schulte’s brilliant analysis shows, in a society in which people are increasingly overwhelmed and have decreasing leisure, we have less capacity to feel and be human. At the same time, research suggests that having insufficient financial resources decreases our ability to connect with those who are outside our immediate circle of community. If alienation and stress lead to the manifestation of implicit bias, then we should expect empathic connection and joy to be effective antidotes. The data bear this out. Specifically, “the active consideration of other’s mental states and subjective experience” is a powerful means to combat intergroup bias, as well as “loving-kindness” meditation, a Buddhist practice in which people focus on developing warm and friendly feelings toward others.

In the context of policing, Casebolt’s example highlights the importance of prioritizing emotional welfare and positive coping strategies in our efforts to address entrenched racism. Last year the Wall Street Journal reported on efforts to help police officers cope with job-related stress and emotional trauma. As one expert put it, “the culture of policing historically has been that cops…engage in the worst bloody things and when they are done, they’re supposed to be fine, to go home and have a beer.” What if Officer Casebolt had access to more resources and support? It is certainly possible that he might have responded more appropriately to the Texas teens’ pool party.

To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that making more room to be human at work or finding ways to keep financial stress from compromising our empathy ought take the place of direct action and organizing for ending mass incarceration, implementing aggressive job and income supports, and scrapping tax policies that redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top. What I am arguing is that both sets of concerns need to be on the table when we talk about how to address the structural inequalities that our data so starkly reveal. In particular, while both conscious and unconscious biases have created significant obstacles for black families to live their lives to their fullest potential, each requires a more creative and responsive strategy in order to pursue our shared hopes for a better future.

Vishnu Sridharan is a former member of New America’s Asset Building Program who has worked on international and domestic anti-poverty platforms for the past decade. He is a member of the Experts of Color Network at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.

This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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