Over the last 100 years, the United States has seen great change in the way Americans think about and treat African-Americans, at least, in theory.
According to a recent study, explicit actions and thoughts about race and gender inequality have diminished significantly since a similar study conducted in 1928. However, what psychologists have discovered is that the inadvertent, or uncontrollable actions of people towards other races and genders are still at the will of what experts call implicit bias.
Enter Michael Brownstein, Ph.D. He is a professor at John Jay College. At John Jay, he teaches an entire course on the subject of implicit biases and how they function psychologically and culturally.
“Implicit bias is the result of a particular way that we learn about our culture,” Brownstein said. “You can’t take the two apart.”
Brownstein defined implicit biases as uncontrolled, unfounded and inadvertent ways that people see the world.
“While most people honestly do have egalitarian views,” Brownstein said, “they still have implicit thoughts about black people that show through their actions.”
Implicit biases only began to be studied in the 90’s, which provides for a very small window, through which scientists can measure changes in implicit bias.
“Even while most Americans now oppose racism, their actions and implicit biases are still racist,” Brownstein said.
He referenced a study of police shooting tendencies, where students of the police academy are shown images of either white or black people, holding either a weapon or a cellphone and are told to make the decision whether or not to shoot.
The study found that officers were more likely to shoot an unarmed black person, than an armed white person in the trials.
“I think people have known that they have negative attitudes that conflict with what they say they believe for a long time but haven’t been able to measure them scientifically,” Brownstein said. “A more tractable question is whether we have seen a change in implicit bias in that last ten years since we have been able to measure them scientifically, and the answer is no.”
Of course, implicit biases can also be a good thing.
Implicit biases often dictate human action under intense stress, such as when someone performs a heroic act is asked why he or she did so. The hero often cannot explain his or her own actions, because they simply acted upon implicit biases that told them to step in and help the situation.
“Implicit biases are what enable us to tell the difference between a fake or forced smile, and a real one,” Brownstein said.
Because implicit biases are, for better or for worse, unconscious, they can be very difficult to test.
According to Brownstein, they must be tested by indirect means that test a person’s subconscious connections between negative words and race or science words and gender.
Project Implicit offers many of these sorts of tests online for users who want to test their own implicit biases.
Brownstein has made it part of his life’s work to engage in helping decrease implicit bias.
“We are still trying to figure it out,” he said, “but we know that education, motivation and knowing the right techniques are the building blocks.”