Are you ready for this? Y’all are a little bit racist. And probably sexist, ableist, and classist. Everyone is. Sadly, we’re all socialized that way. In fact, there’s an entire sub-literature in sociology and psychology that addresses what are termed “in-group” and “out-group” relations. We gravitate, socialize, and judge others based on our primary in-group relations (friends & family) – the people we define us “us.” This social group identification occurs at the same time as we often infer negative judgments about people who are not “us” – people who are “them.” The first step in changing this is recognizing that you have a problem. Only then can we begin to make progress.
What Is Implicit Bias?
“Implicit bias” is what academics refer to as the subconscious beliefs, feelings, and understandings that influence our perceptions when we encounter people of different races, economic status, gender and so on. It’s a term that has even become fashionable beyond academic circles with members of the law enforcement community, as national attention has been captivated by images of police encounters with black men in particular, given the tidal wave of high-profile killings of unarmed African American men.
Are the Police Racist? Can A Black Cop Be Biased Against Their Own Racial Group?
Neill Franklin is a black man. But he’ll admit that after decades of working at the Baltimore Police Department and Maryland State Police, he harbored a strong bias against young black men. Franklin, now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which opposes the war on drugs, explained, “When I’d see a young black male in a particular neighborhood, or his pants were sagging a little bit, or he walked a certain way … my first thoughts were, ‘Oh, I wonder if he’s selling drugs'” (Lopez).
As the media has increased its scrutiny of police killings of black men, some of the cases have involved black police officers. In the case of Freddie Gray, in Baltimore, for example, three of the six police officers charged for Gray’s death are black. This has led to some questions about whether racial bias is really at play — can a black cop be racist against his own racial group? (Lopez)
But social psychologists and criminal justice experts say this question fundamentally misunderstands how institutional racism affects everyone, regardless of race. Racial bias isn’t necessarily about how a person views himself in terms of race, but how he views others in terms of race, particularly in different roles throughout his everyday life. And systemic racism, which has been part of the US since its founding, can corrupt anyone’s view of minorities in America (Lopez).
In the case of police, all cops are dealing with enormous cultural and systemic forces that build racial bias against minority groups. Even if a black cop doesn’t view himself as racist, the way policing is done in the US is racially skewed — by, for example, targeting high-crime neighborhoods that are predominantly black. And these policing tactics can actually create and accentuate personal, subconscious bias by increasing the likelihood that officers will relate blackness with criminality or danger — leading to what psychologists call “implicit bias” against black Americans. Combined, this means the system as a whole as well as individual officers, even black ones, by and large act in ways that are deeply racially skewed (Lopez).
“The culture of policing is one that’s so strong that it can overwhelm individual racial differences,” L. Song Richardson, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, said. “People are cops first, and they’re their race second” (Lopez).
Racially Biased Law Enforcement
A lot of US police work is inherently racially biased. Cops are told to patrol predominantly poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods that are so segregated that most of the residents are black. And since police are mostly present in these neighborhoods, most of the arrests and actions they take end up impacting a disproportionate numbers of black people.
“When departments concentrate enforcement efforts, for example, in high-crime areas, those areas are likely to be areas with disproportionate numbers of minority residents,” David Sklansky, a law professor at Stanford Law School, said. “That means minority residents of the community are getting policed more intensely than people that live in other neighborhoods that have smaller proportion of minority residents and lower crime rates.”
The problem is police aren’t just deployed in predominantly black neighborhoods; they’re also encouraged to arrest and ticket as many people as possible while on the job. Until 2014, a federal grant program financially incentivized local police departments to make as many arrests as possible for drug crimes. Many police departments also use numbers of arrests as a measure for evaluating individual police officers for raises and promotions. Coupled with deployment in certain areas, these incentives effectively encourage cops to arrest minority residents in large numbers.
“Our criminal justice system and different aspects of our criminal justice system are racist in application,” Franklin, the retired police major, said. “Even if there was no intent in the design for racism, we’ve gotten to a place where it’s the result of our policies.”
Take, for instance, policing in Chicago. This map from Project Know, a drug addiction resource center, shows drug arrests were concentrated in the Windy City’s low-income neighborhoods, which are mostly black, between January and October 2014:
The disproportionate enforcement in black neighborhoods helps explain broader disparities across the US justice system. For example, black Americans are much more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, even though they’re not significantly more likely to use or sell drugs. By many estimates, white and African Americans use marijuana at roughly the same rate, yet African Americans are 4X more likely to be arrested for its use and possession.
Franklin, echoing findings from a Sentencing Project report from earlier this year, said the reason for higher drug arrests among black people is linked to how people in poorer, urban areas use and sell drugs, which makes it easier for police officers to catch them in the act. “Drug selling and use among whites tends to be more indoors, among friends, word of mouth, and there’s generally no violence associated,” Franklin said. “But overall, the drug selling and dealing in black communities tends to be in outdoor areas, because of the urban design and the [economic] competition that’s involved in a community with blight, poverty, and a lack of jobs.”
Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, said this type of racially disparate enforcement is what caused so many problems in Ferguson, Missouri, where a scathing Justice Department investigation uncovered a pattern of racial bias in the local police force following the police shooting of Michael Brown.
By instructing local police (and now more recently federal prosecutors) to crack down on marijuana-related crimes, governing authorities are putting their full weight behind a key aspect of what, in terms of practice, is a racist drug policy.
In Ferguson, cops were pressured by their city government to raise as much revenue as possible by ticketing residents. Since police were most active in neighborhoods that are predominantly black, these residents were targeted at hugely disproportionate rates: Ferguson is about 67 percent African-American, but from 2012 to 2014, 85 percent of people stopped, 90 percent of people who received a citation, and 93 percent of people arrested were black. “It’s not necessarily what’s happening with one police officer,” Parker said. “There are structural reasons for this happening.”
What’s worse, Sklansky said this type of disproportionate enforcement can create “a vicious cycle” in which black residents are fearful of police, making them more likely to display discomfort around cops, which in turn makes officers more likely to perceive black residents as suspicious. “Part of the way police patrol is to look for people who look like they’re acting suspicious,” Sklansky said. “So even a police officer who tries not to be racist can wind up giving more of his attention and having more of his suspicion directed to members of minority groups than to white citizens.”
Cops (and many of us too) are Conditioned to Discriminate – Implicit Bias
Of course, racism can and often does show up at the individual level. Some of this may be explicit — like in North Miami Beach, Florida, where police officers used mug shots of black people as target practice. But as researchers have shown, very often racism culminates at the implicit level, where people’s subconscious biases guide their choices even when they’re not fully aware of it. In this case, people’s thought and actions may be conditioned by “implicit bias.” The term refers to what happens when, despite our best intentions and without awareness, racial stereotypes and assumptions creep into our minds and affect our actions. Jenée Desmond-Harris explained. “Thirty years of neurology and cognitive psychology studies show that it (implicit bias) influences the way we see and treat others, even when we’re absolutely determined to be, and believe we are being, fair and objective.”
Research on Implicit Bias
A review of the research on implicit bias, conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and California State University Northridge, found police officers possess this type of subconscious bias, although it’s less pronounced than the general public’s bias in use-of-force simulations.
Josh Correll, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, tested these biases through a video game simulation in which people were tasked with quickly identifying whether virtual suspects possessed a weapon and should, as a result, be shot. The results: subjects of all races were quicker to shoot black suspects compared with white ones.
Correll explained to Vox’s Jenée Desmond-Harris, “We think this represents an awareness of a cultural stereotype — not that our participants believe necessarily that black men are more dangerous than white men, but by virtue of movies they watch, music they listen to, etc., they’re getting the idea that black male goes with violent. The group and the idea are linked together in their minds whether they agree with that stereotype or not.”
It is also possible that being a police officer and integrating into the culture of the job could make a cop, even a black one, racist. Adam Waytz, who is a social psychologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg of School of Management, calls attention to the concept of “de-individuation,” which says that people lose their sense of self-awareness while in groups. This changes the self-identity of all police officers, regardless of race. So black cops may think of themselves as members of the police department rather than members of a certain race while on duty, making it easier for them to act in ways that discriminate against members of their own race.
“When you’re talking about police interactions, in many ways the color blue becomes more important than black and white,” Parker of the ACLU said. “People identify more with their role as a police officer and all of the cultural things that entails more than their race.”
But the very idea of this, no matter how well-established by empirical research, is still controversial. People don’t like to think they could be racist; they prefer to divide the world into a binary of “racist” or “not racist,” with themselves in the latter category. But that makes it a lot harder to address the effects of implicit bias, which impact everything from hiring to police conduct.
In the case of police officers, they are perhaps more likely, due to the nature of their job, to be over the course of time conditioned toward implicit bias. So for example, when cops are thrown into situations every day in which black people are viewed as criminal suspects, they begin to see race as an indicator of crime and danger.
“Just by virtue of watching the news every night you learn the unconscious bias, because you will always see young black men being connected to criminality,” Richardson of the UC Irvine School of Law said. “Police officers are engaging in proactive policing in urban neighborhoods that may be majority nonwhite. And as a result, they’re constantly practicing the association of nonwhite with crime.”
But it can get even more complicated, Richardson said, because stops of innocent people can still reinforce implicit bias. “If [a cop] were to frisk someone and find no evidence of criminal activity, what he’s likely to say to himself is, ‘Oh, well, this guy’s guilty, he just got away with it this time,’ thereby strengthening the association and affecting his memory of the event later,” she said. “In that messed-up way, he actually strengthens his unconscious bias.”
San Bernardino Police Department Officer Darren Sims drives his patrol car at sunrise on the graveyard shift.
No Perfect Solutions
The bottom line is when we tell people about implicit bias, what they hear very often is an accusation of racism that they feel the need to deflect. Acknowledging on some level that we all potentially operate according to these frames that condition our behavior would go a long way in helping to address the issue and solve problems. Given how deeply ingrained racism has been in America throughout history, none of these problems will likely go away in the foreseeable future. But there are things police departments can do to diminish the effects of racial biases.
Awareness can go a long way by forcing police officers to consider and try to control their own biases. Waytz pointed to research that found National Basketball Association referees became less racially biased once their propensity to call more fouls on black players were exposed by previous studies and widespread media coverage. This indicates, Waytz said, that racial bias can be diminished through awareness.
But awareness can also backfire. Richardson of the UC Irvine School of Law pointed to what’s called “stereotype threat,” which can lead people to act out in dangerous ways if they’re nervous about reinforcing stereotypes attributed to a group they belong to. Preliminary results from unpublished studies, she said, have found that if a cop is aware of the stereotype that cops are racist, he may get nervous about reinforcing that stereotype during encounters with black suspects — and that increased anxiety may make him more likely to use force.
As another step, Richardson suggested that police officers may be able to diminish their own implicit biases by taking greater steps to engage and interact with the community in ways that aren’t inherently confrontational. If police are exposed to the daily lives of black residents in a very personal way, they may come to realize — particularly at a subconscious level — that they shouldn’t associate blackness with crime or danger.
Training could also help diminish some racial biases. But Richardson emphasizes that this training shouldn’t just focus on split-second decisions about whether to use force, but rather more slow-taking decisions about whether a police officer should make a stop that could lead to a use-of-force scenario. For example, in the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, better training may have pushed former police officer Darren Wilson to not stop Brown for a petty crime like jaywalking — and, as a result, avoid the escalating circumstances that led Wilson to shoot Brown to death.
“The time frame that I want to look at is how that interaction began in the first place,” Richardson explained. “So if they’re about to stop and frisk someone, maybe they should slow down first and ask themselves, ‘Would I find this behavior suspicious if the person were a young white man instead of a young black man?'”
Creating more diverse police forces can also help police departments build trust, according to Sklansky of Stanford University. “There’s less likely to be an us-and-them attitude between police and the community,” he said. “A diverse department can still have problems keeping the trust or even gaining in the first place the trust of minority communities, but it’s likely to have fewer problems than a department that’s monolithically white or doesn’t reflect the demographics of the community.”
More broadly, new policies and reforms could help address the problems that lead to systemically skewed enforcement. Policies could be reformed to put less emphasis on arrests for petty crimes, which could help diminish some of the day-to-day harassment black communities experience at the hands of police. And businesses and lawmakers could do more to invest in impoverished neighborhoods to address the socioeconomic issues that make certain places more prone to crime.
But while all of these ideas could all lead to improvements, they most likely won’t eliminate all racial biases in police departments.
“Nothing solves racism completely,” Sklansky said. “Racism, in general, is a deeply entrenched problem in all societies, including America’s. We’ve made enormous strides in the United States in confronting that problem in some ways but not in others.”
Jennifer L. Eberhardt is a social psychologist and associate professor at Stanford University and a 2014 MacArthur fellow. She studies the mechanisms, effects of racial biases in criminal justice. Eberhardt’s research investigates the subtle, complex, largely unconscious yet deeply ingrained ways that individuals racially code and categorize people and the far-reaching consequences of stereotypic associations between race and crime. She is particularly interested in how race influences visual processing – our perception of objects and physical spaces, how objects and physical spaces influence how we think about race, and how race changes how we see people – and how such perception may influence institutions such as the criminal justice system. While her work was originally focused to the laboratory, where she worked with brain-scanning machines, it has evolved to encompass police precincts, where she now advises police officers about the different ways their mental processing and thinking conditions their policing practice, which can put them (and fellow citizens) in dangerous territory.
According to Eberhardt, “most people know that African Americans are associated with crime and that they’re stereotyped as criminal — in fact, it’s one of the strongest stereotypes of blacks in American society.” “My work focuses on how that association might matter at different points in the criminal justice system and how this association can then affect us in surprising ways.” These perceptions matter, because people can transfer those associations from people to objects and places.
Eberhardt’s research demonstrated that when white people were shown flashing images of black faces, they were able to visually recognize the fuzzy outline of a gun more quickly than peers who were exposed to white faces. Later, when she reversed the experiment, she discovered that the association between blacks and crime moved the other way. In this instance, she exposed subjects to crime-related objects, which were quickly followed by a longer-lasting screen showing a black face and a white face. At this point, subjects were asked to identify where a dot flashed on a blank screen. Their reactions were documented to be quicker when the dot appeared on the side of the screen where the black face was shown. The same findings were documented when police officers were given the test and shown crime-related words such as “capture” or “pursue” instead of images of weapons.
Her documentation of these visual perceptions suggests that they may infect the judicial system with bias. As her studies have statistically demonstrated, having stereotypically black facial features correlates with tougher jury verdicts, longer prison terms, more death sentences and erroneous identifications by police.
There are a number of different Implicit Association Tests (IATs) available online, which test for implicit bias. You might try this one from Harvard.
Parts of this article are excerpted from a 2015 Vox article, “How Systemic Racism Entangles All Police Officers — Even Black Cops,” by German Lopez. Last accessed Feb 2016.
“A Black Police Officer’s Fight Against the NYPD,” by Saki Kinafo. Last accessed Jan 2018.
Do you find you sometimes harbor bias towards different racial and ethnic groups due to cultural stereotypes, where you understand some people to be more dangerous than others?
If you can go so far as to “own” your own bias, what do you attribute to be the source of the bias? Is it the result of your own direct experience or cultural representations?
What do you think about policing patterns in general, either from the perspective of what you see represented in the media or from your own experiences on the street?
What do you think about the idea of people being biased toward members of their own racial group?