CSI’s Guide on Implicit Bias

(photo by _DJ_)

We, as a nation, are proud of the civil rights gains we have made. And we oppose race discrimination. So why is Trayvon Martin dead? Why are Black children three and a half times more likely to be disciplined in school? Why are 34% of White Americans who shoot Black Americans and assert “Stand Your Ground” Legal protections acquitted of murder charges, while a mere three percent of Blacks are?

Consciously, we think race discrimination is wrong. But 98% of our brain function is subconscious. Implicit bias is subconscious. We react quickly and without conscious thought. Our brains create subconscious shortcuts so that we can react quickly when we need to. We are constantly bombarded by media images that prime our brains to make these shortcuts. And many of us live in communities and attend schools and churches where most everyone looks similar to us. For all these reasons, George Zimmerman stalked and killed an unarmed, skittles-toting Trayvon Martin, instead of offering him a ride home.

Maya spoke about implicit bias last week on MSNBC.

And Maya wrote about this phenomenon in an op-ed for Salon.

At the Center for Social Inclusion (CSI), we are lifting up research on implicit bias to show how race still matters in this country. We are also testing messages to help us all talk about race more constructively.  We must all work together to build a more perfect union by creating more opportunity for communities of color and White communities that need more opportunities.  We put together a quick guide for those of you who want to know more about implicit bias. This guide showcases important work by many different groups and researchers.


What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias refers to the way people unconsciously and sometimes unwillingly exhibit bias towards other individuals and groups. In the context of CSI’s work, we see how people unconsciously behave or have attitudes  that demonstrate racial stereotyping of people of color. Many of us are not aware of having implicit bias. For a terrific discussion, read this interview with Professor Rachel Godsil from the American Values Institute.

Implicit bias should not be confused with explicit forms of bias, or racism. Explicit bias, or overt racism, involves conscious and knowing discrimination towards other individuals and groups.

Implicit bias should free us from guilty feelings. We are not, individually, to blame. Understanding implicit bias is about knowing how our unconscious attitudes create different social and economic realities for historically stigmatized groups.

When does implicit bias occur?

Implicit bias can reveal itself in different ways, such as by the words we use to express our feelings and behavior towards people of color. Given that our implicit bias is hidden from us, researchers have developed various ways to test for it.

How can we test for implicit bias?

One of the most commonly used tests for implicit bias and racial preferences is the Implicit Association Test (IAT).  The IAT measures our associations of faces (like a Black or a White face) with words (like “good” or “bad”). There are many forms of implicit bias based on societal stereotypes (race, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc.) You can see for yourself whether you exhibit signs of implicit bias by taking the test.

Why is understanding implicit bias important?

While conscious bias and preferential treatment are mostly forbidden by law and culture, unconscious mechanisms are deeply embedded in various aspects of our lives.   Implicit bias studies have found an impact in many institutions and systems where fairness is critical, including healthcare, education and our criminal justice system.

Wait, so what is shooter bias?

In a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, police officers shot and killed Black suspects five times more than White suspects in the years 1976-1998 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2001). This statistic suggests that there is a difference in the way police officers perceive Black and White people. Americans see many more images of people of color being arrested.  At the same time, officers disproportionately police Black communities. These are behaviors and attitudes that exhibit a form of implicit bias. This becomes a vicious cycle, deepening the mental association of Black or Latino people with crime and violence. This association impacts decisions in highly emotional situations, like whether to shoot a possible suspect. The decision is a snap decision. The effect of racial stereotypes on decisions to shoot is now called shooter bias.

Several research studies have shown that shooter bias exists in reaction times and the rate in which Black and White possible suspects are shot.  Using a video game simulation, participants were instructed to make a decision to shoot an image of a person, if  the person was holding a weapon (e.g., a gun). “Shooting” meant pushing a button. Participants were told not to shoot a person holding everyday objects (e.g., wallet or cell phone). Several studies with college students and community members (people recruited from malls, community centers, etc.) showed that race was a significant factor in decisions to mistakenly shoot a Black person with a wallet or cell phone.

  • In one study, college students and community members were more likely to shoot an unarmed Black person than shoot an unarmed White person (Correll et al., 2002).
  • In another study with police officer participants, researchers found that although police officers were more accurate than community members and college students, police officers shot armed Black people more quickly than armed White people. (Correll et al. 2007).
  • Finally, several studies have shown that the people shoot Black people faster than Latinos, Asians and Whites.



Experts CSI Turns To:

- Dr. Phillip Goff, UCLADr. Phillip Goff is a psychologist doing critical research on shooter bias.

- Alexis McGill Johnson and Rachel Godsil, American Values InstituteAlexis McGill Johnson is the Executive Director of the American Values Institute and a CSI Board member.  Rachel Godsil is a professor of law at Seton Hall University School of Law and Research Director at the American Values Institute, which focuses on implicit bias.

- john powell, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society – john powell is Executive Director of the Haas Institute and a CSI Board member.  powell is an expert on race and racialization and has focused extensively on implicit racial bias.

- Dr. David Williams, Harvard University – Dr. Williams focuses on the social conditions underpinning racial health disparities.


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The Race to Democracy Blog is the news, analysis, and media center for the Center for Social Inclusion (CSI). CSI is a national policy strategy organization that works to transform structural inequity into structural fairness and inclusion. We work with community groups and national organizations to develop policy ideas, foster effective leadership, and develop communications tools for an opportunity-rich world in which we all will thrive.

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