The Sickness of Racism (pt. 2) "Implicit/Explicit Bias"
Updated: Jan 15, 2019
“Here are my deployment papers. I am going to have to miss class for a bit,” said Kenny (that’s what we’ll call him), a former student of mine while I was teaching at the University of Central Missouri (UCM).
I took his National Guard papers, which showed the dates and times he needed to report to his commanding officer.
“My unit is gearing up at the armory at 3am and then we are heading to Ferguson,” he said matter-of-factly.
Ferguson was in a state of civil unrest after (former) Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for killing Michael Brown. Kenny was 18 or 19 at the time, and I remember being heartbroken to see him sent to another part of Missouri, as if being shipped out to some war zone in another country. Think about it: he gave me deployment papers!
Since UCM is between Kansas City and St. Louis, several of my students were also from the St. Louis area, including Ferguson. While Kenny, a white student, was on one side of the protest line as a National Guard solider, I had black students who went to Ferguson to demonstrate on the other side of the line. Each student came back to class a few days later with stories to share, each one showing pictures and videos on their phones of the marches, vigils, and protests.
“I saw a protestor reach behind his back and I almost drew my gun on him,” Kenny told me at class. “But then he pulled out a water bottle and threw it at me. I’m glad I didn’t have to shoot him.”
This was a moment when the realization of systemic racism hit me square in the face.
Here I was a grad student teaching public speaking to young adults, who were only five to six years younger than myself, and they were being pitted against each other on opposite sides of protest lines: civilians versus law enforcement, black versus white. Kenny’s instinct to “draw and shoot” isn’t just some knee-jerk safety reaction. It’s the same implicit, racial bias that taught Darren Wilson to shoot Michael Brown when he felt “threatened for his life”. Decades of racial segregation and over-policing in disinvested communities has created these racial biases in law enforcement.
As evidence, Joshua Correll, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, developed an implicit bias paradigm known as "the police officer's dilemma" test, which utilizes a first-person-shooter video game.
“Participants are presented with images of young men, white and black, holding either guns or innocuous objects such as cellphones or soda cans. The goal is to shoot armed targets but not unarmed targets. The researchers found that participants shoot armed targets more often and more quickly if they're black rather than white, and refrain from shooting more often when the target is white. The most common mistakes are shooting an unarmed black target and failing to shoot an armed white target (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002)” American Psychological Association.
Let me be clear: I am not saying all cops are racist, even though there is clear evidence of explicit/conscious bias too. What I am arguing is that when we allow implicit/unconscious bias to fester in our communities (not just in law enforcement), unchecked and without remediation, then our white cops and citizens will continue to shoot unarmed black persons because their brain sees a gun/threat where there is none.
Implicit/explicit racial bias is just the tip of the systemic racism problem we have in America. I could dive deeper into how systemic racism feeds the engorged belly of mass incarceration, or how it starves medical and infant health access for children of color, or how it feasts on communities of color with rising housing costs and gentrification, or how it under-nourishes the education system in urban areas… but these topics will have to wait for another time.
Today, ask yourself how has implicit/explicit racial bias impacted your life? Perhaps you have been a victim of it, or even a perpetrator. At the end of the day, where faith is concerned, I have to believe that God can rejuvenate our hearts and rewire our minds to see through eyes of love and not prejudice. In fact, what if we took Christ’s charge to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” seriously, as it relates to the sin of racism?
“Repent,” which means to change the way we think—to make a 180° turn in our minds—is exactly what our country and its people need to do with regards to systemic racism and racial bias.