Reflections on Implicit Bias and the Crisis of Race in America

By Chris Bridges

Hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets in the war against racism. In some circles, there is discussion of implicit bias and its role in how we dismantle the structural and systemic discrimination that our country was founded on.

I am an African American male, a civil rights lawyer, with a background in organizing work (before Obama made it cool) and an implicit bias trainer. When thinking about the intersection of explicit racism, structural & institutional racism, and implicit bias, I believe I am well situated to see and acknowledge how most (if not all) the parts make the whole. Indeed I have some expertise  in being the victim of explicit and structural racism and engaging in deep reflection over ongoing strategies for combatting it. .

The refusal to acknowledge or help others acknowledge the role implicit bias plays (particularly among white people) can contribute directly to explicit and systemic racism and its continuance. For example, consider the many white people who are centering themselves in this #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd movement as a means to feel better about their complicity in a society that allowed one officer to force an unarmed Black man prone on the ground and murder him with a knee crushing his neck, while three others stood idly by and watched.

Any objective lay person can identify the grave injustice of this moment, yet many of our sympathetic white counterparts  cannot identify moments where they themselves are guilty of racially biased micro-aggressions, decision making, socially diminutive opinion sharing over folks with lesser heard voices, and a plethora of other biased actions and decision making in which they engage in their daily comings and goings.

Consider some of the white allies who are centering themselves in this moment through an outpouring of outrage and “what can we do” and “we’re down for the cause” when Black folks who have been catching hell for forever, have been complaining about it for forever, and are still experiencing it daily, have largely gone ignored until this new but fleeting moment. It is beyond sad that we only see this level of activation from many white allies in extreme moments such as a Black man being killed on video and in a manner that even self-acknowledged racist like several pundits on Fox TV say “I can’t refute that this was an unjust killing.” When even Fox News shares your outrage, that means the situation is really, really jacked up!

Still, most folks are not aware of the unfair standards that must be met just to value Black life. All folks (including Black folks) struggle with this on a spectrum or to varying degrees. Minimizing implicit bias at the behest of highlighting explicit racism does not eradicate racism, it just paints a glossy target for everyone to focus their stone throwing at, while hiding their other hand.

Implicit bias remediation is a tool, not a cure all. It helps our “allies” better understand the way in which they may simultaneously be fortifying structural racism despite showing up to the marches alongside people of color and chanting for justice.

Some choose to debate whether addressing implicit biases is important when so much explicit bias exists.  If you want to focus on explicit bias, then do that! But there are people who have been working in community for decades on these issues of explicit bias and still understand the importance of changing the hearts and minds of the folks we live, eat, breathe, and social distance with for collective mobilization, strategic engagement. Building in greater understanding of implicit bias can help with that impact.

Personally, I find it unwise to think that after 400 years of repeatedly demanding accountability for overt acts or racism, countless Black lynchings, and other abusive acts against Black people and communities of color, that somehow yelling louder about an explicit racist incident will  bring widespread structural change to fortified system of oppression that hears our screams and gracefully bows at our jeers.  A broader approach may be useful when considering a diverse cohort of stakeholders, allies, specific interest groups, unbothered lay people, and clearly defined enemies—all hold keys to various parts of our institutions and the mechanisms that move them.

As such, there must be more to being an ally than just showing up at marches, collective calls for targeted actions, and accountability in response to specific evil and overt acts. There needs to be recognition of the daily harm that’s occurring, even when unconscious and/or unintentional, and effective strategies for reducing that harm. A harm that, even amongst recognized allies and advocates, insidiously manifests itself in our prisons, our schools, our political offices, our doctors’ offices, our apartment complexes, our courts, our car dealerships, EVERYWHERE.

David Duke, the head of the KKK, has stated he does not think he is racist. Many less controversial individuals argue they are not racist because they personally would never physically lynch a Black person or person of color. But lynching takes forms other than a physical assault.

Where explicit racism and overtly racist acts can and should connote “terrorism”; the intentional and unintentional allowance of implicit biases to go unchecked can connote “sleeper cells” requiring only the right activation or provocation to also do great harm.

Unquestionably, explicit racism and overtly racist acts demanded great focus and immediate response. However, thinking they are the only enemies at the gate could pose a grave miscalculation in winning the war.  Helping broad groups of people better understand the ways our implicit biases impact our thoughts and actions in every day life and not just when we are caught doing something wrong, may help counter the more veiled acts of biases individuals think they disclaim when offering a token criticism of the offender(s) of the day, by showing up to marches, or by stating they would never put their knee on the neck of a Black person.

Implicit bias training can give potential allies of different backgrounds a growing number of tools to recognize ways in which they may be contributing to the harm of other groups. Its study can lend additional strategies for intentional collaboration with different groups and not just those in our comfortable echo chambers. I for one welcome all the tools and options available to aide me in bringing down this structurally fortified racist system, by any means necessary!