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This post is part of the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign. As an innocence organization, we work to combat systemic racism because we know that there are numerous barriers between Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and justice that exist solely because of racism. This campaign aims to highlight some of those barriers. Today’s topic is implicit bias:

When someone says “peanut butter,” you likely think “jelly.” When you picture a politician, it is probably a White man in a suit. Your brain makes these associates from repeatedly pairing peanut butter with jelly and repeatedly seeing White men in suits working in politics. Your brain understands that these things go together because it has seen them together so many times. You know that peanut butter does not always go with jelly, and you know that politicians are not always White men, but your brain makes the association nonetheless because those are the images it knows.

Aside from the implication that only White men can be politicians, these associations are not incredibly harmful for your brain to make, but other, more extreme associations are incredibly harmful and have severe implications if acted upon.

Consider this common association: hearing the word “criminal” or “violent” and producing the image of a Black man. You know that not all criminals are Black men, but because your brain has repeatedly made this association through images of mostly Black men being the perpetrators of crime in mainstream media, your subconscious cannot help but pair the two together. What if you have this association while serving on the jury for a case against a Black male defendant? What if you are a police officer and have this association while pulling over a Black male? This is implicit bias in action.

What is implicit bias?

“Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner,” according to Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. “These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.”

You may consciously hold biases about certain groups (these are explicit biases), but because they are conscious, you are easily able to withhold them if you choose to. Implicit biases are sometimes so ingrained in your subconscious that you don’t even know you have them, and more dangerously, you don’t know when you are acting on them.

“Even people with the best intentions are influenced by these hidden attitudes, behaving in ways that can create disparities in hiring practicesstudent evaluationslaw enforcementcriminal proceedings — pretty much anywhere people are making decisions that affect others,” according to PBS News Hour’s interview with social psychologist Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington.

How are implicit biases formed?

Like explicit biases, implicit biases are formed in a myriad of ways: your frames of reference, how you were raised, where you grew up, your level of exposure to a certain group, and your level of education about a certain group are just some examples of formation. But one of the most seamless ways implicit biases sneak into your subconscious is through mainstream media.

It is no secret that mainstream television, movies, podcasts, and books lack racial diversity. In many cases, when there is a BIPOC present, they are underdeveloped characters with limited contribution to the story. It stands to reason that if all of the media you consume lacks real representations of BIPOC, your brain will revert to the stereotypes it knows.

Before you continue reading, watch this video of actor Brandon Kyle Goodman explaining how implicit biases are formed through the absorption of White supremacy present in mainstream media.

The formation of implicit biases can also be explained by your brain’s tendency to group people. A New York Times study found that implicit bias can be attributed to how human’s are wired to think in terms of “us versus them.” Therefore, if you are White, your brain may be implicitly telling you that you are against BIPOC.

How prevalent are racist implicit biases?

Greenwald pioneered implicit bias research and the creation of implicit bias tests. One of these tests asks the participant to associate pleasant words with African American names and unpleasant words with European American names and visa versa. The time it takes you to associate the pleasant words with European names versus African names is how the test measures your implicit biases.

While tests like these have received some scrutiny for their validity, according to Greenwald, the results show widespread implicit bias that White races are viewed as superior. The bias shows up in 70 to 75 percent of people who take the test with White and Asian people having the bias more than mixed-race and Black people. Greenwald described his own experience taking the test to PBS News Hour.

“For me, giving the same response to pleasant words and African American names took an eternity,” he said. “But when it was the European American names and pleasant words with one hand, and the African American names and the unpleasant words with the other hand, that was something I could zip through. And that was a surprise to me. I would have described myself at that point as someone who is lacking in biases or prejudices of a racial nature. I probably had some biases that I would confess to, but I actually didn’t think I had that one.”

Implicit biases can be so strong that, in some instances, you can have them against a group that you belong to. Jacob Elder, a second-year law student at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law, experienced this in high school. Elder is a Black man who was raised in a White family in Helena, Montana. Growing up, Elder watched shows like “Cops” that ingrained the image of Black men as violent criminals in his mind. Living in a predominantly White town, these stereotypes were never challenged. When his family took a trip to South Carolina and went to a grocery store in a predominately Black community, Elder remembers feeling scared.

“As a Black kid in high school, I was terrified,” Elder said. “I thought those guys were going to rob me. I thought they were going to do something. Years after that, I got to thinking about why I was so terrified. The only answer I could come up with was the fact that Black people being portrayed in the media as thugs and as criminals. … If I wasn’t free from it (implicit bias) as a Black man, I think that could be the case here. 

Do not use implicit bias to excuse explicit bias:

When discussing implicit bias, particularly in the criminal justice system, it is imperative that it is not used as an excuse for conscious racism or explicit bias. You may have seen activists and social justice organizations call for implicit bias training in police departments. It is not only important that these trainings occur, but they are arguably critical to ensure the safety of BIPOC and promote fair and effective policing. However, there must be an acknowledgement that some police officers are overtly and purposely racist and that their actions are not the product of the subconscious absorption racism but rather pure racism. The idea that implicit bias is to blame whenever a police officer acts in a racist manner limits necessary accountability.

In fact, a series of studies conducted by the Department of Psychology at Yale University found that “perpetrators of discrimination are held less accountable and often seen as less worthy of punishment when their behavior is attributed to implicit rather than to explicit bias.”

Check back tomorrow as we continue to unpack bias-motivated policing.

Before you continue reading, watch this video of Dr. Cheryl Ingram breaking down the differences between implicit and explicit bias.

How is implicit bias a barrier to innocence for BIPOC?

Everyone has implicit biases. Everyone includes those who make decisions about someone’s innocence—people who make criminal allegations, police officers, judges, prosecutors, expert witnesses, and juries.

Action Steps:

  1. Take an implicit bias test.
  2. Practice rational deliberation. In other words, think before you react. A New York Times study found that when reacting swiftly, people are more likely to be harsher towards those who are not in their group and lenient to those who are but that when people take a moment to rationally deliberate about an appropriate response, they are largely unbiased.
  3. Share your knowledge about implicit bias with someone who know who works in the criminal justice system.
  4. Watch this Ted Talk below titled “How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias.” While the speaker mostly focuses on gender bias, the same principles apply to racial bias.

Thank you for participating in the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign. Tomorrow’s topic is bias-motivated policing.