Being a ‘Good Person’ Won’t Undo Your Implicit Biases

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To become a champion of racial equity and social justice takes more effort than one might think. As a culture, we laud individuals with good character, attributing such virtue as a necessary component to ending the inequities that afflict society. We rely on our intuitive wisdom that tells us, “If you want to make a difference in this world, be a good person!”

And although this is admirable and has its merits, social psychology has demonstrated that being a good person is not nearly enough to make real progress toward justice. “So why is it that being a good person in insufficient?” you might ask. The answer is simple: We all carry implicit biases. When considering how to address the racial disparities that plague the juvenile justice system, wrestling with our own implicit biases has to be part of the equation.

Implicit racial bias is not racism, or the belief that one or more races are superior in comparison to another. Implicit biases are in essence automatic associations in the brain. The brain has the ability to make connections between different concepts, allowing us to sort through the myriad of information we absorb on a daily basis.

This is why we intuitively know that fire equals danger, and why we associate peanut butter with jelly. Unfortunately, one kind of automatic association that our brains tend to learn, and then rely on, is racial stereotypes. In our daily lives we are constantly bombarded by subtle and not-so-subtle stereotypes. Without realizing that it’s happening, our brains absorb these racialized associations, using them to guide our social interactions.

Many Americans of all genders and racial identities associate blackness with criminality, whiteness with innocence, women with weakness and men with leadership, among many other stereotypes. These shortcuts can be activated in the brain whenever these stereotypes are “primed,” or triggered.

Research shows that stereotypes can be primed simply by seeing stereotype-consistent words (e.g., lazy, criminal), or seeing a member of a stereotyped group. We do not have to believe in these stereotypes for them to be awakened subconsciously. In fact, we can consciously object to them. However, conscious objection to stereotypes does not stop us from using them unconsciously, to interpret the people, things and situations around us.

For example, when there is a report of an active shooter, many of us will automatically conjure up images of a white male. We may not realize we are relying on an implicit bias until we have paused to think through our assumption, or received evidence to the contrary. Without self-reflection or objective-fact finding, our biases can control our perceptions.

Now imagine how implicit bias might work when we are faced with situations that involve black youth. Do we associate them with violence, culpability or recidivism, without considering the facts, their level of adolescent development or interrogating the real nature of our own conjectures? Studies have shown that implicit bias can disrupt the integrity of decisions made by teachers, principals and law enforcement officials in regards to black youth, and is a contributor to the disproportionate rate of black representation in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Defenders of justice have gravitated toward implicit bias trainings as a means to temper the influence of these negative automatic associations. And although there are limitations to the effectiveness of trainings, they are indeed important. Trainings bring about awareness and provide the tools to understand what implicit bias is, the risk factors that trigger its effects and offer recommended practices to limit its influence in our decision-making.

This can have a real impact on the decision-making processes used to decide if a juvenile should be arrested or expelled from school. But beyond trainings, there is much more that can be done to prevent us from relying on implicit bias. Specifically, we must turn our attention to the actual policies that guide the behavior of those who work or interact with youth.

Social psychology has documented a number of factors that put individuals at risk of relying on implicit biases to make decisions. Unbeknownst to us, these risks are often contained within the policies we lean on to make determinations about youth every day. One major risk factor is having broad discretion to make choices. Another is ambiguity, or when a rule or situation is open to multiple interpretations.

Studies reveal that when guidelines for appropriate behavior or social expectations are unclear, people are more likely to make decisions with racially biased outcomes. Policies can initiate circumstances where these risk factors affect those tasked with carrying out the mission and goals of an institution. For example, a policy can give discretion to identify and punish juvenile misconduct, but the factors that count as misconduct might be left ambiguous.

Language such as “major disruption,” or “real and present danger,” left without concrete guidelines for interpretation, can lead to the practice of discretion in unfair and inconsistent ways. The more discretion and ambiguity overlap within a policy, the more one is at risk of having implicit bias confound one’s decisions in the practice of the policy. The less discretion and ambiguity are present in a policy, the less risk that one will rely on implicit bias. Thus, policies can raise or lower the risks that make one vulnerable to implicit bias.

How then might we take this information and strengthen the policies we use daily? This is challenging since the risk factors of discretion and ambiguity are often common features of policies. The goal then is to constrain or remove them when feasible, and when doing so will promote equity.

Social psychology research also demonstrates that accountability measures can inhibit risk factors by placing limits on how far actors can utilize discretion or interpret ambiguous content in policies. Accountability is the obligation to accept responsibility for one’s actions (or the actions of others). A system of accountability that prevents biased decisions before they occur, and requires decision-makers to thoughtfully explain their decisions, has some ability to limit the influence of implicit bias. If we constrict risk factors within policies and strengthen accountability measures, it is possible to create a decrease in the racial disparities affecting youth in the juvenile justice system.

We are all susceptible to implicit biases; however, we do not have to act on them. The first step is the acknowledgment that our intentions to be fair and good people are not enough. Implicit bias is not about character. If we are willing to learn about it and practice the tools to protect ourselves from its influence, we are off to a great start.

Implicit bias trainings can provide the support to do this. Organizations can find sound implicit bias trainings from reputable institutes such as the Center for Policing Equity. Additionally, efforts to thwart implicit bias can be taken even further and include reassessing the policies that guide our daily professional practices. This involves identifying and addressing the risk factors of discretion and ambiguity in written policies that may lead to racial disparities.

Moreover, organizations can engage in programming and initiatives that actively support employees in challenging unconscious stereotypes that include interactions with diverse communities or the distribution of learning materials. If you don’t want to harm youth, and you want to be part of the solution and not the problem, this will include an understanding of our judgments and evaluations in radically different ways. Facing and fighting implicit bias is an honorable step in the right direction: to win the battle for racial social justice.

R. Nicole Johnson-Ahorlu is the director of juvenile justice and education at the Center for Policing Equity: She supports education and law enforcement partners in addressing the “school-to-prison pipeline” in their jurisdictions. This includes designing empirical studies to inform solutions for racially disparate outcomes for youth in education and the justice system. She has an M.A. in African studies and a Ph.D. in education, both from the University of California at Los Angeles.