Ending Implicit Bias

By Peter Heltzel 11-13-2014 | Series:
Peaceful protest in Manhattan's Union Square during the Trayvon Martin trial July 14, 2013, Marie Havens / Shutterstock.com

The other night in Central Park, three African-American young men were stopped by a police officer and asked if they had or were selling drugs. The answer was “No!” They were three students from Columbia University making their way from the East Side to the West. This tale unveils the problem of implicit bias in our society today.

The reason the three college students were stopped in Central Park was because they were “walking while being black.” Because of New York’s stop-and-frisk practice that targets black and brown young men, a growing number of African-American and Latino youth are being introduced into the New York state criminal justice system daily.

The statistics are staggering. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites in the U.S. prison system. One out of every 15 African Americans over 18 years old are incarcerated, while 1 out of every 106 white males of the same age are incarcerated. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that there are more African Americans in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1865. As Jim Wallis has argued, racism is America’s original sin.

We continue to see the resilience of racism through the implicit and explicit bias against African Americans in our criminal justice system. Bias is a positive or negative mental attitude toward a person, thing, or group that a person holds on an unconscious level. The implicit bias we have can cause us to have negative feelings (e.g., nervousness, anxiety, fear) and act a certain way toward people based on their race, ethnicity, age, or appearance. Implicit bias is a latent bias that has an unconscious positivity: Because you are black, someone will treat you poorly (e.g., like a criminal).

For example, one study showed that when police officers were directly asked “who looks like a criminal” they chose black faces over white ones. These automatic implicit biases can also cause police officers to misinterpret African Americans’ behavior as suspicious or aggressive. Thus, many law enforcement offers are trained in implicit bias that becomes explicit in brutal tactics. Unfortunately, implicit bias, or latent racism, often becomes explicit, or manifest racism. Thus, African Americans are racialized as ‘black’ in a system of representation that represents a white supremacist regime of truth. The implicit becomes explicit; the latent becomes manifest.

Once this resonance machine of racial bias begins, many African-American men descend into the darkness of the criminal justice system. Even a little bias in any part of the system can dramatically shift the course of legal proceedings and have a greater impact on the end result — arrest, incarceration, solitary confinement, and in some tragic instances, even death.

Given the power of implicit racism in our criminal justice system, faith communities must mobilize, affirming that all people are made in the “image of our Creator” (Col. 3:10). In New York City, Pastor Chantel Wright of Grace Congregational Church, Dr. Cornel West, Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary, and President Pamela Meanes of the National Bar Association have inaugurated a campaign to end stop and frisk in New York City. The call is for all New Yorkers to participate in an economic boycott this holiday season until the stop-and-frisk tactics have ended.

Wright made a clarion call: “We are asking every mother, grandmother, auntie, wife, cousin, friend or neighbor to join us. We are calling on every woman who has a heart for the young men of color who are being killed, jailed and casted away to stand up now. We are going to close our pocket books, and not shop this holiday season for the sake of those who have no voice.”

As faith leaders, we need to stand up and end the violence, working for a society where racial bias, implicit and explicit no longer exists. In Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, Mae Elise Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, and Soong-Chan Rah argue that instead of repressing our biases, we need to openly acknowledge them through confession and directly challenge them through repentance materialized in the struggle for justice. Let’s have the courage to confess the sin of racism and work to dismantle it in our churches, organizations, schools, banks, police departments, and criminal justice systems.

With courage and compassion, our lives can make a difference as we love and protect all people, made in the image of our Creator.

Peter Heltzel is Associate Professor of Theology at New York Theological Seminary.

Image: Peaceful protest in Manhattan's Union Square during the Trayvon Martin trial July 14, 2013, Marie Havens / Shutterstock.com

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