Justice Watch: Do We Actually Know What Implicit Bias Means?


The notion of implicit bias has been discussed, sometimes at length here on these pages.  One of the better discussions came from the 2015 talk by Michael Roosevelt in San Francisco that the Vanguard covered.

Still, the concept is new, so when the issue came up last night during the Vice-Presidential Debate, I think Mike Pence got it wrong.  He said, “They also hear the bad mouthing, the bad mouthing that comes from people that seize upon tragedy in the wake of police action shootings as — as a reason to — to use a broad brush to accuse law enforcement of — of implicit bias or institutional racism. And that really has got to stop.”

He then uses the example of the African-American police officer who shot Keith Scott in Charlotte to, I think, dismiss the notion of implicit bias.

Mr. Pence stated, “Hillary Clinton actually referred to that moment as an example of implicit bias in the police force, where — where she used — when she was asked in the debate a week ago whether there was implicit bias in law enforcement, her only answer was that there’s implicit bias in everyone in the United States.”

Tim Kaine’s response unfortunately did not explain implicit bias any better, although, ironically, I think he implicitly got to the issue.

He used the example of Philando Castile, who was killed in St. Paul, Minnesota.  He said, “But when folks went and explored this situation, what they found is that Philando Castile, who was a — they called him Mr. Rogers with Dreadlocks in the school that he worked. The kids loved him. But he had been stopped by police 40 or 50 times before that fatal incident. And if you look at sentencing in this country, African Americans and Latinos get sentenced for the same crimes at very different rates.”

I think we need to understand better what implicit bias is, in order to have a more informed discussion.

First, everyone has implicit bias.  Everyone.  People often use the race of the officer as a means to argue against racism in the police, but that isn’t necessarily true.  First, we are not talking about “racism” or what we might call “explicit bias” which, according to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), “reflects the attitudes or beliefs that one endorses at a conscious level.”

It is not that we don’t see explicit bias in the police.  Look no further than the text messages out of San Francisco to see that.

But implicit bias is different.  NCSC defines it as “the bias in judgment and/or behavior that results from subtle cognitive processes (e.g., implicit attitudes and implicit stereotypes) that often operate at a level below conscious awareness and without intentional control.”

Citing psychological research, “The underlying implicit attitudes and stereotypes responsible for implicit bias are those beliefs or simple associations that a person makes between an object and its evaluation that ‘…are automatically activated by the mere presence (actual or symbolic) of the attitude object.’”

Here I think Michael Roosevelt’s explanation makes a lot of sense.

“The fact of the matter is that we’re all hardwired in our unconscious minds, that we are not aware of, that we have those unexpressed in a verbal way, but they get expressed in other kinds of ways.”

Mr. Roosevelt explained that the brain is really primed to make a lot of quick decisions based on a lot of information. “So the research shows, the people that study the brain, it shows that we tend to categorize. This is a normal process.”

“We have a preference for people based on group identity,” he continued. “This is a fundamental process. That we look at something and we place it in a category.  Our ability to categorize,” he said, “is really indispensable. We can’t do without it.”

We have to find these shortcuts and a way to describe our social reality. Mr. Roosevelt cited three categories that we immediately identify – race, age, and gender.

Race, he said, is really important for something called schemas. He explained schemas in this way: “Our brains encode information about groups of people into our memories along with favorable or unfavorable impressions and values. These are called constructs.”

Michael Roosevelt likened our brains to computers in the sense that they are programmed. This programming, he explained, comes from all our experiences – the media, culture, background, family – and “it informs the information that goes into our brains.” This encoded information “becomes part of the associations that we make.”

So what is wrong with Mike Pence’s discussion on implicit bias?  Just because an officer is African American doesn’t mean that his brain doesn’t process an idea that a black man is inherently more dangerous or risky to deal with than a white man.

Or, as Michael Roosevelt puts it, based on experimental research with regard to willingness and quickness of shooting, “There’s something about the brain that says black man, danger. It triggers an immediate response.” Mr. Pence makes the assumption that, being black himself, the individual would overcome some implicit bias, but that’s not necessarily the case.

The fact is, we all have implicit bias, as Mr. Roosevelt explains, and that’s how our brains help make sense of the world.

Mr. Kaine offered the story of Philando Castile.  He’s kind of the poster child for the presence of racial profiling and implicit bias.  Mr. Castile had a long list of traffic-related stops, but no history of violence offenses or felony arrests. Was Castile targeted by police? Or was he just a careless or unlucky driver?

NPR News reported, “An NPR analysis of those records shows that the 32-year-old cafeteria worker who was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in a St. Paul, Minn., suburb, was stopped by police 46 times and racked up more than $6,000 in fines. Another curious statistic: Of all of the stops, only six of them were things a police officer would notice from outside a car — things like speeding or having a broken muffler.”

That certainly raises a red flag.

“What Mr. Castile symbolizes for a lot of us working in public defense is that driving offenses are typically just crimes of poverty,” Erik Sandvick, a public defender in Ramsey County (which includes St. Paul and its suburbs), told NPR.

NPR also quoted Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University and the author of Crook County.  Her book documents Chicago’s criminal justice system problems. She said that “Castile was the ‘classic case’ of what criminologists have called ‘net widening,’ or the move by local authorities to criminalize more and more aspects of regular life.”

“It is in particular a way that people of color and the poor are victimized on a daily basis,” Professor Gonzalez Van Cleve said.

Unfortunately, Tim Kaine – either because of the venue or because of his own lack of knowledge while implying implicit bias – never tied the two together.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. South of Davis

    David wrote:

    > if you look at sentencing in this country, African-Americans and

    > Latinos get sentenced for the same crimes at very different rates.”

    Since two people can never commit the “EXACT same crime” this is a false statement.

    On paper 35mph in a 25mph may be the same for two people but one guy may have done it at 3 am and the other guy may have had kids jumping out of the way at 3 pm.

    On paper assault and robbery are the same if one guy pushes a lady and grabs her purse and another guy beats a guy with a bat and takes his wallet.

  2. Cindy_Pickett

    It is impossible to compare the “exact same crime” in the real world. This is where experiments come in to play. It is very easy to present two identical versions of a case to subjects and simply change the race of the alleged perpetrator. When you do this, you see that the Blacks and Latinos are assigned more blame and greater punishment. You also find in these studies that implicit biases predict the severity of sentencing for these groups.

    1. Davis Progressive

      this is a good answer and explanation of the research that goes into this stuff.

      i guess people just don’t want to believe that police or everyone could operate out of implicit bias.  clearly pence doesn’t get how it works and i m not sure kaine does either

  3. Biddlin

    “On paper assault and robbery are the same if one guy pushes a lady and grabs her purse and another guy beats a guy with a bat and takes his wallet.”

    In the court of Biddlin, that’s the same crime.

  4. South of Davis

    David wrote:

    > Just because an officer is African American doesn’t mean

    > that his brain doesn’t process an idea that a black man is

    > inherently more dangerous or risky to deal with than

    > a white man.

    Would it be “Implicit Bias” (or just “Common Sense”) if a white officer “process an idea” that the white guy in the link below is “more dangerous or risky to deal with than  almost any black man”


    1. Cindy_Pickett

      The term “implicit bias” simply means that the bias exists outside of conscious awareness. Once the bias becomes conscious it’s an explicit bias. Whether the bias is rational or irrational or based on “common sense” is a separate issue.

      Most people have an implicit bias against snakes. Many would argue that this make sense. Snakes have posed a threat to humans throughout our evolutionary history.  However, most people are also implicitly ageist. We have an implicit bias against older people. Is this common sense? And regardless of whether it is or not, are we okay with allowing these implicit biases to affect our decisions about hiring older people or our judgments about their intelligence, competence, etc?

      1. South of Davis

        Cindy wrote:

        > we okay with allowing these implicit biases to

        > affect our decisions about hiring older people

        I have no idea if you have some implicit/outside of conscious awareness bias that affects YOUR “decisions about hiring older people”, but I (and everyone else I know) will tend to hire an older person with with experience over a young person that we need to train (and who will spend hours facebooking on his phone)…

        1. Davis Progressive

          i’m convinced you’re simply trying to get a rise out of people with this – either that or you have utterly no idea what you’re talking about but spout off anyway.

        2. South of Davis

          DP wrote:

          > i’m convinced you’re simply trying to

          > get a rise out of people with this

          I’m convinced that people have made up “implicit bias” when they don’t like to deal with reality.

          It is sad that black and brown kids goof off more than white and asian kids and get kicked out of class more often.  This happens pretty much across the board with white, super liberal white and even black teachers.  Black and brown adults also break the law more often than white and asian adults and are arrested and shot more often.  This happens pretty much across the board with white, super liberal white and even black cops.  It is hard to try and deal with the breakdown of the family, lack of role models and immigration issues that cause so many problems in black and brown families and much easier to say that most white people are racist and super liberal white people and people of color in authority just have “implicit bias” (any videos of people of color goofing off in class speeding or beating up liquor store owners are probably fake.

          YouTube probably just takes down the hundreds of videos like this that show white and asian flash mobs robbing stores:


      2. hpierce

        Cindy… it depends… if an employer needs someone to “plug in and go”, in an area that they have proven expertise in, they wouldn’t  hesitate to hire an older worker… I actually got an unsolicited job offer not long after I “retired”… if there were two candidates, very similar background/skills but who needed training to perform the job before they were effective, yeah, I’d tend to go with a 25 year old than a 65 year old… that’s not “ageist”… just common sense…

    1. South of Davis

      Tia linked to an NPR article that said:

      > according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education,

      > black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from preschool

      > than white children.

      I’m wondering if Tia and DP think that white and asian preschool kids are goofing off just as much (or more) than the black kids and it is just “implicit bias” that causes the (overwhelmingly female and liberal) preschool teachers to suspend them while letting the white and asian kids get away with bad behavior.

      P.S. I know that rich and powerful kids get away with a lot more than other kids (no one want to suspend the kid who’s Dad just gave $50K to the school or the kid who’s Dad is a powerful politician).  I also know that most rich people and powerful politicians are white and I know that this is the reason that some (not that many white kids have rich and powerful parents) white kids get special treatment.

      P.P.S. I laughed when I read about two kids at a DC private school were caught smoking pot years ago and just one was kicked out (Al Gore’s kid didn’t get kicked out of the school)…

  5. Tia Will


    I am wondering if you missed the part of the discussion of how the study was done. It was the eye movements of the teachers that were tracked as they watched the students. What was found was that all of the teachers’s eyes spent more time tracking the black boys than any other students. One will not see what one is not looking for. In fact, in this set of studies, there was no bad behavior at all on the part of any student, and yet still, all of the teachers watched the black boys more of the time than any other student.

    A brief anecdote from my checkered past. During high school geometry ( unlike any math related subject since) I just got it. The teacher could put one example on the board, and I was good. I didn’t have to listen to the rest of the discussion or ask any questions. I just got it. This unfortunately led to boredom on my part. I became extremely adept at shooting rubber bands at my friends in the class. It took the teacher a very, very long time to figure out that it was me. Why ?  Because I was a good little girl, getting good grades in his class and he simply wasn’t watching me. When he finally did figure it out and asked me politely to stop, I did as asked…..because after all, I was a “good girl”. Just bored.

    This is one of the major points about implicit bias. It is independent of the actual behavior of the individual of interest. We do not know that we are engaging our bias in making our judgement. But we are all the same.

  6. tribeUSA

    Perhaps what is being called ‘implicit bias’ would be more accurately called ‘unconscious bias’. What is held ‘implicitly’ in discussions such as in the threads above is that unconscious bias manifests itself in a predominant mode with respect to race (debatable; I would contend that the flux of any persons unconscious biases are activated simultaneously in many myriad ways by many myriad aspects of the world around us and of people; race being one of numerous aspects, and conflated and eclipsed by aspects such as dress (clothing), grooming/neatness, deportment, demeanor etc. etc. etc.).

    Seems to me that one of the chief factors that muddle clarity of thought with regard to many current social issues is the sloppy and inaccurate use of language; including the modifier ‘implicit’ in the term ‘implicit bias’, when in fact ‘unconscious bias’ is a more accurate term for the phenomena. Clear thinking and reasoning is greatly aided by accurate use of language!

    1. wdf1

      The transcript to the podcast I reference above has this to say about ‘implicit’ vs. ‘unconscious’:

      I have pushed the word “implicit” in part because the word “unconscious” in our culture has a certain meaning. First of all, it is psychoanalytic. But more than that, it has the implication that the unconscious is this incredibly motivated, smart process that is constantly trying to do things that are in my interest and shove away the deep dark secrets of my childhood that I don’t wish to remember. And the science has not produced good evidence for that. The science tells us that the word “unconscious” really should be used to refer to ordinary things, things that are irrelevant, nothing that’s dynamic and necessary. Someday maybe we’ll get evidence for that, but right now it’s that I saw something in a store that had a certain feature, a pattern. And I see it again, and I like it more because it’s familiar. So the word “implicit” came to be used by us almost in an effort to try to demystify what the old unconscious might have meant. It’s a failing project.  source


    2. Tia Will

      For those interested in a quick summary article on the uses of implicit bias, you might want to check out Emily Badger’s piece in the NYT Upshot section today.

  7. Tia Will


    Clear thinking and reasoning is greatly aided by accurate use of language!”

    This is a really good point.

    I agree that the choice of words is very important. I believe that many people are using the terms “implicit bias” and “unconscious bias” as synonyms.

    However, I also think that we must allow for some flexibility in choice of terms. For example, your preference for the choice of the word “unconscious” in my meaning set as a doctor is an impossibility, not a greater accuracy since “unconscious” in my lexicon means not being “conscious” at all, which would clearly prelude any biased action.

    Moving to a completely non controversial issue, one person’s “lavender” may be what my brain interprets as “mauve”. My partner and I while shopping will frequently have to point out the specific object rather than just saying “the blue one” since our definitions of color frequently vary significantly. He will call something blue that I perceive as teal. My color perceptions are almost invariable more specific than his. That does not mean that either or us are right or wrong, just that we need to be very clear about our terms when making a decision of any significance. This became really important when we were deciding on colors for the remodel of our house !

    I think that a good approach would be to make sure, when addressing this issue, that we make clear to others what we mean by the term we are using.

  8. South of Davis

    Tia wrote:

    > My partner and I while shopping will frequently have to point out the

    > specific object rather than just saying “the blue one” since our definitions

    > of color frequently vary significantly. He will call something blue that

    > I perceive as teal.

    No straight man has ever called anything “teal”.  It is interesting that when my roommate came out of the closet years ago and I let him know that I was not surprised (and didn’t care) he asked “why” I thought he was gay.  I told him that (unlike every other straight guy) he would not notice (or have his eyes track) when a super hot female walked in to the room or ran by.  In the rare case he did notice he would say something like “I would never pair a “mauve” jog bra with “teal” running shorts like that girl”…

    I have read dozens of studies over the years about a “gender bias” in schools where teachers pay more attention to “boys” of all races.  I’m not an elementary school teacher and I personally don’t know any straight male elementary school teacher and my kids have never had a straight male elementary school teacher, but maybe it is just normal for women and gay guys to pay more attention to men and boys that way straight guys and gay woman pay more attention to women and girls.


    P.S. Tia and DP have not told me if they think that white and asian preschool kids are goofing off just as much (or more) than the black kids and it is just “implicit bias” that causes the (overwhelmingly female and liberal) preschool teachers to suspend them while letting the white and asian kids get away with bad behavior.

  9. Tia Will


    Tia and DP have not told me if they think that white and asian preschool kids are goofing off just as much (or more) than the black kids”

    I have not told you because I do not pretend to know. What I do believe is that what is needed is more research. I do know from one account that the teachers involved in one of these studies, when confronted with the data about where their gaze had been directed throughout the study were very surprised that they had been focusing so much attention on the black boys as opposed to the other children. This awareness ( or lack thereof) speaks to me about the importance of an ongoing attempt to acknowledge and understand our own biases so as to be able to self monitor and mitigate as needed.

  10. Jwood

    I think the best information on implicit bias in the literature is the book Blind Spot (Benaji, Greenwald, 2013). Pretty compelling stuff if you take the time to read it.

  11. Cindy_Pickett

    As an aside, most of Greenwald and Banaji’s work was done with Brian Nosek (currently a professor at the University of Virginia) who grew up right here in Davis.

  12. Frankly

    Implicit bias is largely a lie in the context of how it is being used by the hopelessly liberal-biased social science field, the political left and the left media in their desperation to hold-on the other much bigger lie that they are all heroes of the oppressed and victimized.

    It is a natural “progression” of the political correctness movement as that movement loses steam and denigrates by consuming its college campus academic liberal hosts.   The little monsters are out of control now aren’t they?

    “We need something new folks!   I got it, let’s tell people we can read their minds and intents and just label them racist for being an unfortunate member of an non-liberal group not on the victim watch-list!”  (key the sound of clapping at the NAACP, DNC and ACLU conferences and the “news” rooms at ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and MSNBC).

    This from a great article that explains to a large degree the otherwise inexplicable rise of Donald Trump…

    Social scientists, media pundits, and policy professionals may tilt liberal or conservative and may differ in their party preferences, but they are united in their dependence upon intellectual authority, derived from empirical science and its methodology, in their understanding of politics and economics. At the same time, historicism or (critical theory) has established itself as the closest thing to a public philosophy when it comes to understanding history, society, and culture. Applied to elections, the empirical method required that politics be understood in terms of measurable and quantifiable aggregates. This proved compatible with the positivist understanding of law and interest group liberalism. Critical post-modern theory established personal autonomy and group diversity as central to what is morally defensible in terms of public policy. As a result, political partisanship and analysis has focused on race, class, gender, and other such demographics, to provide the kind of information that has become central to the shaping and predicting of elections and to legitimize dividing the electorate into categories that came to be understood in moral terms. Consequently, political campaigns have made a science of dividing the electorate into groups and reassembling them as voting blocs committed to specific policies and issues denominated by the demographic categories themselves. This strategy requires the systematic mobilization of animosity to ensure participation by identifying and magnifying what it is that must be opposed. Appeals to the electorate are strategically controlled by the experts. Which issues are allowed to be raised seems to be more important than the manner in which they are packaged and sold to the electorate.

    Understood in this way, what is central to politics and elections is the elevation of the status of personal and group identity to something approaching a new kind of civil religion. Individual social behavior, once dependent on traditional morality and understood in terms of traditional virtues and vices, has become almost indefensible when judged in light of the authority established by positivism and historicism. Public figures [everyone] have come to be judged not as morally culpable individuals, but by the moral standing established by their group identity. Character is almost unrecognizable and no longer serves as the means by which the people can determine the qualifications for public office of those they do not know personally. As a result, it is difficult to establish the kind of public trust that made it possible to connect public and private behavior, or civil society and government. When coupled with the politicization of civil society and its institutions, the distinction between the public and the private or the personal and the political has almost disappeared. Anything and everything can become politicized, but things can only be understood and made intelligible—or made politically meaningful—when viewed through the lens of social science and post-modern cultural theory. In short, the public and private character of American politics has been placed in the hands of the academic intellectuals.

    So the political class liberals have cooped “science” to reverse subjugate their political and ideological rivals… sort of brow-beat them with their own liberal-claimed, perfectly-vetted academic works into just accepting that they, those non-liberals and non liberal-victim class, are brutes ignoring all other evidence that these people can be morally superior in many ways.   For example, look at the level of affordable housing in conservative neighborhoods and liberal neighborhoods.  Note that the majority of conservatives support Stop and Frisk as do blacks and Hispanics… but not liberals.  Look at the fact that conservatives donate more and more often create business that creates jobs and hires the best and brightest no matter what their victim group affiliation.

    For the most part racism, as it is correctly defined, will be materially gone when all people over 70 are dead.   Other than this problem with the aged views on race, the primary racial bias we must deal with today is that of the political left exploiting certain minority groups as a victim class for their own career and profiteering pursuits.

  13. tribeUSA

    Frankly–good article. For many years it has seemed to me that the fixation on race, ethnicity, sexual identity, etc. and the rise of identity politics by the progressives is a program that is being manipulated from behind the scenes (controlled media, funded activists, funded academics, politicians who want a job and career advancement)  by moneyed interests that benefit from the splintering of the American ‘tribe’ into various bickering factions that compete and quarrel with each other at the social and political levels. One of the benefits of such a program, from those behind the scenes that fund and steer it, is distraction from the bottom-line fact that in the USA, the rich continue to grow richer– the fact that the poor have been growing poorer, social mobility has been decreasing,  and that the quality of life for most of the population is slowly being degraded on an inter-generational timescale, is largely irrelevant to those at the top of the heap whose interests are chiefy in securing and consolidating their own wealth and power.  There are a series of other related benefits to the powers-that-be that I don’t have time to write about now (maybe a future thread).

    It has always seemed to me that it would be a good idea for sociology and related fields of study in universities and colleges would hire comparable numbers of both liberal professors and conservative professors; as defined by the sociological views they publicly profess (it is long been impossible to get hired in such programs of study if you profess conservative views; not only will you not be hired but likely will be blackballed for any future prospects of an academic job). Imagine the vigorous intellectual debates (should often get firey and dramatic!) that could result; in the end perhaps some wheat could be harvested from the huge amount of chaff (because of the current intolerance for any views outside a very narrow and typically PC band, much or most of academic sociological research has devolved into propagandizing and rationalization of dogma).

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