The American Dilemma Of Implicit Bias:
Everyone Is A Little Bit Racist
by Michael A. Maynard
March 10, 2015

The racially charged incidents between black males and law enforcement over the past year have made the FBI Director wonder “Is Everyone A Little Bit Racist”?

Sunday, March 8th, 2015, marked the 50th year after black protestors, led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, were attacked in Selma, Alabama by policemen brandishing billy clubs. An estimated 40,000 people gathered to walk over the bridge where one of the seminal events of civil rights movement occurred.

The day before, in Madison, Wisconsin, another young unarmed black man, 19 years old, was killed by a police officer. Tony Robinson was killed by Officer Matt Kenny, a 12 year police veteran after Robinson allegedly attacked Kenny, who was responding to a reported residential dispute incident at a residence. Kenny had a prior incident in 2007 where he killed a man which was described as a “Suicide By Officer” occurrence. Officer Kenny did receive a blow to the head in the skirmish with Robinson.

It was just one more incident in the series of young black males being killed by police or would-be law enforcement personnel.

Trayvon Martin being shot and killed, by police officer wannabe George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, for walking down the street at night wearing a hoodie.

Michael Brown shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri for stealing from a convenience store.

Eric Garner being killed in a choke hold by 2 New York City police officers for selling loose cigarettes.

By the police who are employed to protect all citizens. If you can’t trust the police, who can you trust? Is everyone racist?

Everyone’s a little bit racist
Doesn’t mean we go
Around committing hate crimes.
Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.

“Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” from the play “Avenue Q”
Written and composed by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx

I’m surprised that FBI Director James Comey’s recent speech on racial bias in law enforcement did not draw more attention. He quoted from the Broadway play “Avenue Q” song, “Everyone Is A Little Bit Racist”. For a white political/law enforcement official to make this admission in light of the events of the past year and past Presidential campaigns is remarkable.

What Director Comey is referring to are the cognitive biases we all have. When we meet someone new, our first instinct is to judge the other person as “like me or not like me”. How we come to make that judgement may be instinctual or learned. I’m tall, so I prefer others who are tall. I’m smart, so I prefer others who are smart.  There are at least 58 cognitive biases. In too many people, the most widespread cognitive bias involves skin color.

There is no question that the role of today’s police officer, especially in an urban environment, is very complex. The day of the brogan wearing officer with a big nightstick walking the beat is gone. What he or she does is the embodiment of the quintessential definition of a high stress job. An officer doesn’t know what the next call will bring and has to be ever alert to spot signs of potential trouble. Being a police officer is 5th in the list of 10 most stressful jobs, after being a firefighter and having various roles in the military.

Policing in an urban environment is even more stressful. A National Institute of Justice (NIJ) – Research In Action 1990 study found a vast difference in rural vs. urban policing:

Index offense rates, including homicide, are higher for urban areas than for rural areas.

The gap between rural and urban crime is greater for violent crime than for property crime.

The rank order of offenses for property crime is roughly similar for urban and rural areas. That is, larceny is the most common crime and motor vehicle theft the least common crime in both areas.

The greatest difference between rural and urban crime is robbery, which occurs almost 54 times more often per 100,000 citizens in urban areas.

The rank order for violent crime is thrown off by the large rural-urban difference in robbery.

The urban rate is much higher for crimes with the most similar rates across areas, such as rape.

This NIJ also factors other major differences in urban policing, such as gangs and gang warfare, increased substance abuse, and incidents of violence.

The nature of rural interactions means that crimes such as homicide, rape, and assault are more likely to occur among acquaintances than is true in urban areas. This, combined with the greater distrust of government, may also mean that the police are less likely to be called when these crimes occur. Given these factors, both investigating and preventing violent interpersonal crimes in rural areas may require different strategies than in urban areas.

To be successful, the urban police officer requires having psychological and sociological skills, as well crime solving and marksmanship. Even though the officer works on shift duty, in case of emergencies, the officer is on 24X7X365. But the repetition and accumulation of the daily events, including the crimes, deaths, and violence, and those who cause these events,  take a toll on the psyche. What develops is a psychological condition known as implicit bias. We all have implicit biases, as FBI Director Comey alluded.

The first step in understanding how implicit racial bias works is to understand the general concept of implicit bias, which can shape the way we think about lots of different qualities: age, gender, nationality, even height.

You can think of it generally as “thoughts about people you didn’t know you had.”….

First, since our thoughts often determine our actions, implicit bias can lead to discriminatory behaviors (more on those below). Second, it is impossible to detect without taking a test. In other words, you can’t sit down and do introspection about your biases, and you can’t just decide not to let them affect your attitudes and actions. Implicit bias lives deep in your subconscious, and it is largely separate from the biases you know you have….

As Cynthia Lee, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, has explained, “the social science research demonstrates that one does not have to be a racist with a capital R, or one who intentionally discriminates on the basis of race, to harbor implicit racial biases.”

In all areas touched by implicit bias, including race, we tend to hold biases that favor the group that we belong to (what researchers call our “ingroup”). But research has shown that we can also hold implicit biases against our ingroup. So yes, white Americans generally have implicit biases against other races, but racial minorities can hold implicit biases against themselves, too. These results are rarely reflective of conscious attitudes.

When many people form a group, the sum of the individual biases can create  institutional bias.

Institutional bias involves discriminatory practices that occur at the institutional level of analysis, operating on mechanisms that go beyond individual-level prejudice and discrimination. It would be easy to conclude erroneously that negative discrimination toward an outgroup could be eliminated if individuals’ negative associations, stereotypes, and prejudices toward that outgroup were eliminated, but even in ideal settings where individuals hold no stereotypes or prejudices toward a group, discrimination may still occur. That scenario describes institutional bias at its most insidious, where blame for unequal treatment can be found in no individual, at least not very easily.

The National Bureau Of Economic Research conducted a study about the effects of basic institutional bias in hiring practices.

The 50 percent gap in callback rates is statistically very significant, Bertrand and Mullainathan note in Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination (NBER Working Paper No. 9873). It indicates that a white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience. Race, the authors add, also affects the reward to having a better resume. Whites with higher quality resumes received 30 percent more callbacks than whites with lower quality resumes. But the positive impact of a better resume for those with Africa-American names was much smaller.

While one may have expected that improved credentials may alleviate employers’ fear that African-American applicants are deficient in some unobservable skills, this is not the case in our data,” the authors write. “Discrimination therefore appears to bite twice, making it harder not only for African-Americans to find a job but also to improve their employability.”

From a policy standpoint, this aspect of the findings suggests that training programs alone may not be enough to alleviate the barriers raised by discrimination, the authors write. “If African-Americans recognize how employers reward their skills, they may be rationally more reluctant than whites to even participate in these programs.”

If you have implicitly biased executives making implicitly biased employment decisions, the institution develops an implicitly biased workforce and culture. Over time, this creates institutional bias. Add all the individual and institutional biases together and what develops is a cumulative reinforcing bias – collective bias.

It is the overall collective bias that is implicit in the problem of racial bias that exists throughout the United States.

Sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s seminal 1942 work, The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem And Modern Democracy”, discusses the issue of collective racial bias:

While on the one hand, to such a moralistic and rationalistic being as the ordinary American, the Negro problem and his own confused and contradictory attitudes toward it must be disturbing; on the other hand, the very mass of unsettled problems in his heterogeneous and changing culture, and the inherited liberalistic trust that things will ultimately take care of themselves and get settled in one way or another, enable the ordinary American to live on happily, with recognized contradictions around him and within him, in a kind of bright fatalism which is unmatched in the rest of the Western world. This fatalism also belongs to the national ethos.

The American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American. It is there that the interracial tension has its focus. It is there that the decisive struggle goes on. This is the central viewpoint of this treatise. Though our study includes economic, social, and political race relations, at bottom our problem is the moral dilemma of the American — the conflict between his moral valuations on various levels of consciousness and generality. “The American Dilemma,” referred to in the title of this book, is the ever-raging conflict between, on the one hand, the valuations preserved on the general plane which we shall call the “American Creed,” where the American thinks, talks, and acts under the influence of high national and Christian precepts, and, on the other hand, the valuations on specific planes of individual and group living, where personal and local interests; economic, social, and sexual jealousies; considerations of community prestige and conformity ; group prejudice against particular persons or types of people; and all sorts of miscellaneous wants, impulses, and habits dominate his outlook.

When you have the prevalence of individual implicit, institutional and collective biases intersecting, you have the racial policing problems that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri. The death of Michael Brown and the following mishandling of events by the local law enforcement and political figures have become a classic modern case of “The American Dilemma”.

The link to photos from the Michael Brown killing site that were presented to the grand jury, courtesy of Mother Jones magazine.

Those local officials and people involved in the Michael Brown case and the overall problem in Ferguson, Missouri are prototypes for implicit individual, institutional and collective bias.

Officer Darren Wilson was the officer involved in the Michael Brown killing.

Officer Darren Wilson had his white supporters In Ferguson.

District Attorney Bob McCulloch, whose department led a grand jury whitewash of  Officer Darren Wilson’s actions in the Michael Brown killing

From the police department led by Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson

Who oversaw how the Ferguson police handled the black protestors of the Michael Brown killing.

As the recent Department of Justice report about policing in Ferguson, Missouri affirms.

Which Ferguson mayor James Knowles dismisses and takes no responsibility.

What they’ve shown is that it has happened. Now, how often has that happened? I don’t know. Their assertion is it happens regularly. Based on what? I’m not sure yet,” said Mayor James Knowles III, during an interview Friday. “Do they have a statistic that tells me that they’ve examined every arrest that we’ve made for the past four years and that half, or all, or 10 percent, or 5 percent are unconstitutional or without cause? They do not have that. They have not examined at that level that I know of at this point.”

He also maintains that there is “no proof” of gross civil rights violations.

Especially when city revenues are at stake:

The City budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved. City officials routinely urge Chief Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement. In March 2010, for instance , the City Finance Director wrote to Chief Jackson that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax short fall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”

Similarly, in March 2013, the Finance Director wrote to the City Manager: “Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.”

The importance of focusing on revenue generation is communicated to FPD officers. Ferguson police officers from all ranks told us that revenue generation is stressed heavily within the police department, and that the message comes from City leadership. The evidence we reviewed supports this perception.

This is the racial makeup of the Ferguson police force.

Ferguson Police Racial Makeup

Ferguson Police Racial Makeup

That had this arrest record.

Ferguson Police Department Arrest Rations

Ferguson Police Department Arrest Rations

In a town with this racial makeup.

2014 Ferguson, Missouri Demographics

2014 Ferguson, Missouri Demographics

In St. Louis County, Missouri.

In the state of Missouri.

State of Missouri Racial Demographics

State of Missouri Racial Demographics

The real first dilemma is what to do about Ferguson police department. With the massive implicit, institutional and collective racial biases shown within the force and its actions, there appears to be no way to ameliorate the situation satisfactorily, other than to fire the police chief and all the officers, and start over. The only way to reverse collective bias is to get rid of it collectively. In an environment where the bias is that pervasive and the situation immediately critical, there just isn’t the time to reverse the institutional collective bias one person at a time.

But to do only that, while keeping the mayor and district attorney in office, will not solve the problem. The Department of Justice needs to take over all these functions until suitable replacements can be found, trained, and put into active duty. However, the overall environment in which these events have occurred cannot be changed so easily, as shown in the statistics above. That will take generations of peaceful racial interaction and sound governance.

Good luck with that.

It has been 5 generations since the events of Selma, Alabama. The inherent, institutional and collective racial bias has changed little in too many places throughout the United States, since the beatings on the bridge.

“The American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American. It is there that the interracial tension has its focus. It is there that the decisive struggle goes on.”

Kris Kristofferson’s song, “Jesus Was A Capricorn” , may have best stated the perniciousness of implicit bias:

Eggheads cursin’, rednecks cussin’
Hippies for their hair
Others laugh at straights who laugh at
Freaks who laugh at square

Some folks hate the Whites
Who hate the Blacks who hate the Klan
Most of us hate anything that
We don’t understand

‘Cause everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on
Prove they can be better than at any time they please
Someone doin’ somethin’ dirty, decent folks can frown on
But you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me

Kristofferson, Kris

Published by
Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

If you would like to see if you have implicit biases, here is a test from Harvard University you can take.

Update – February 11, 2015: From our friends at Freakout Nation:

Chief Tom Jackson’s resignation comes just one day after the Ferguson City Council unanimously approved a resolution to part ways with City Manager John Shaw following the recent report of racial bias at the department and courts.

Copyright © February 2015, Michael A. Maynard, Stow, Massachusetts.

Please feel free to leave comments below. Also, if you’ve found this article interesting and informative, please pass it along to others, especially those with a lot of inherent biases.

For more of my articles, visit my WordPress site:

 Update – February 11, 2015: From VICE News:

Following some of the most significant protests in recent American history, you’d think Missouri’s priorities would be rebuilding frayed ties within its communities and addressing its policing problem.

Instead, the overwhelmingly Republican state legislature thinks that, SWAT teams aside, there aren’t enough guns out there.
On Thursday, Missouri lawmakers addressed this concern by overriding an earlier veto from Governor Jay Nixon and voting into place a law that massively expands gun rights in the state: it lowers the legal age to obtain a concealed weapons permit from 21 to 19, allows residents with such a permit to openly carry guns, and teachers to bring them to school. The new open carry policy will apply even in cities and towns that have laws against it.

Technically, that means that when the new gun regulations take effect next month, anyone with a concealed weapons permit could legally show up at the next Missouri protest with a gun displayed on their hip.

Just what Missouri needs, more guns.

UPDATE –  March 12, 2015: From The Los Angeles Times:

Two St. Louis County police officers were shot outside the Ferguson Police Department during another night of protests in the troubled Missouri city, police confirmed early Thursday.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said two officers were hospitalized after the shooting, which occurred shortly after midnight during demonstrations that followed the resignation of the Ferguson police chief Wednesday.

“These police officers were standing there, and they were shot–just because they were police officers,” Belmar told reporters.

An officer from the St. Louis County Police Department, 41 years old and a 14-year veteran, was shot in the shoulder, and an officer from the Webster Groves Police Department, 32, was shot in the face, he said.

 Warning: The following video contains violence and adult language. It is from the two officers being shot in Ferguson.

Columnist/Journalist/Writer/Book Editor Co-Founder/CEO of Azimuth Partners, high tech consulting firm for 30+ years. Former columnist for the Washington Post/Newsweek syndicate.Development and Copy Editor for 4 commercially published books.

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