Everyone Suddenly Learned About Implicit Bias

I can’t say why it happened, so I’ll just be glad that it did. Over the last few weeks, it seems like everyone finally learned about implicit bias.

It started with a Vox article on the way implicit bias shapes policing:

Most of the racial prejudice Americans harbor today is subtle and manifests itself in stealthier ways than it did in the past. It shows up in how employers view potential hires, how salespeople choose to assist people at high-end stores, or how teachers dole out punishments to misbehaving students. Often subconscious, these race-based evaluations of character or intelligence have wide-ranging effects.

Extensive research on the subject shows that everyone carries this subconscious prejudice, known as implicit bias, no matter how well-meaning they might be. In the criminal justice system, this implicit bias may contribute to the many racial disparities in law enforcement. When it comes to police officers, implicit bias is a widespread concern, precisely because of how devastating its effects can be, with trade publications and federal programs taking steps to address it through training and awareness.

Then there was the San Francisco Public Defender’s announcement that his office will conduct a study to determine the extent to which racial discrimination has affected the trying and sentencing of African American San Franciscans. According to CBS San Francisco:

The study which, carried out by Public Defender’s Office and the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, will seek the invisible, “unconscious bias” that may come into play during arrests, prosecutions or plea deals.

And finally, on Wednesday the New York Times published a piece on Google’s efforts to promote diversity in its hiring practices. According to the Times:

Google’s diversity training workshops, which began last year and which more than half of Google’s nearly 49,000 employees have attended, are based on an emerging field of research in social psychology known as unconscious bias. These are the hidden, reflexive preferences that shape most people’s worldviews, and that can profoundly affect how welcoming and open a workplace is to different people and ideas.

This idea and the research around it are hardly new. (Nor, it’s worth noting, are the problems they describe.) So why the sudden surge in interest? We may never know.

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