Implicit Bias Is Real. Don’t Be So Defensive.

Mike Pence heard an accusation of bigotry, not an acknowledgment of human nature.

Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence during the Vice Presidential Debate at Longwood University on Oct. 4, 2016 in Farmville, Virginia.
Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence during the vice presidential debate at Longwood University on Tuesday in Farmville, Virginia.

Andrew Gombert/Pool/Getty Images

Dear white people: We need to have a talk.

We need to discuss something that keeps coming up in this year’s presidential and vice presidential debates: implicit bias. On Tuesday night, Mike Pence took offense at the whole idea. He framed it as an attack on the integrity of police officers and white people in general. That’s a natural reaction, but it’s a mistake. And it perpetuates the problem.

Every day, in one city or another, black and brown parents sit their kids down and talk to them about bias. They explain that at some point, based on the color of your skin, you might be suspected of doing something wrong. Don’t go to certain places, don’t wear certain clothes, and don’t move in any way that might be construed as a threat. Play it safe.

White people don’t have to talk to our kids this way, because our color doesn’t attract suspicion. We need to have a different talk, not about suffering implicit bias but about practicing it.

Here’s the first ground rule: “Implicit bias” isn’t an accusation. It doesn’t mean you’re bad. It means you’re normal. Animals prejudge one another based on appearance. Human beings are naturally tribal. So implicit bias, as a disposition, isn’t something you learn. It’s something you learn to overcome.

Here’s the second rule: When somebody brings up implicit bias, don’t freak out. Don’t get defensive and shut down the discussion.

This has happened twice in the past nine days. It started in the first presidential debate, when moderator Lester Holt quoted remarks by Hillary Clinton and asked her: “Do you believe that police are implicitly biased against black people?” Clinton answered him this way:

Lester, I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police. I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other. And therefore, I think we need all of us to be asking hard questions about, you know, “Why am I feeling this way?” But when it comes to policing, since it can have literally fatal consequences, I have said in my first budget we would put money into that budget to help us deal with implicit bias by retraining a lot of our police officers.

Clinton’s statement triggered a backlash on the right. In National Review, David French accused her of ascribing “collective guilt.” On Fox News, Dan Gainor, vice president of the Media Research Center, chastised her for suggesting that “everyone is bigoted.” A Washington Times headline declared: “Hillary Clinton calls the entire nation racist.” From the Wall Street Journal to Hot Air to the Daily Caller, conservative journalists converged in a chorus of outrage.

In Tuesday’s debate, Pence joined that chorus. Responding to a question about “law enforcement and race relations,” he brought up Clinton’s comments about bias. Pence accused her of using:

… a broad brush to accuse law enforcement of implicit bias or institutional racism. And that really has got to stop. … When she was asked in the debate a week ago whether there was implicit bias in law enforcement, her only answer was that there’s implicit bias in everyone in the United States. … Enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly by making the accusation of implicit bias every time tragedy occurs.

There’s a lot of conflation in these reactions, so let’s step back and draw some distinctions. It’s completely fair to challenge specific claims of racism, police misconduct, and criminal guilt. I’ve done that in the cases of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. But Pence and many of his allies have gone further. They reject the whole idea of implicit bias. They equate it with “guilt,” “bigotry,” and “racism” writ large. And they find it absurd, to the point of self-refutation, that Clinton calls this bias “a problem for everyone.” How can all of us be bigots?

The answer is: We aren’t. For many years, there’s been an escalation of rhetoric on the left about prejudice. Movements to call out injustice are good for society. But like all movements, they can lead to overreach, and that’s what has happened. If you point out that the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative of Brown’s death doesn’t square with forensic and eyewitness evidence, you’re a racist. If you answer Clinton’s arguments about gun control by suggesting that “shouting” won’t solve the problem, you’re a sexist. If you hesitate to accept that marriage, an institution designed for male-female relations, should suddenly apply to same-sex couples, you’re a bigot. For many people on the left, hurling these epithets and watching them damage the enemy is exhilarating, just as calling someone a communist was for conservatives in the 1950s.

Racism, sexism, and homophobia are enduring problems. But imputing them loosely to large numbers of people, and dismissing those people with contempt, isn’t helpful. That’s why Clinton was wrong to say last month that half of Donald Trump’s supporters were a “basket of deplorables … racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.” Yes, you can interpret polls to justify her statement. But if you want to bring the country with you, you can’t speak that harshly about so many of your countrymen. If you call them “deplorable” or “irredeemable,” they’ll close their ears. And they’ll keep their eyes closed to their own behavior.

It’s perfectly natural that Pence and other conservatives rejected the “deplorables” charge. And in that context, it shouldn’t surprise us that they’ve responded similarly to “implicit bias.” But “implicit bias” is the opposite of “deplorable.” The whole point of the theory of implicit bias—the reason why it can fairly be attributed to everyone—is that it’s not an accusation of guilt or bigotry. It’s an acknowledgment of the human condition.

There’s way too much research on implicit bias to deny its existence. And there are way too many cases that illustrate it. In Tuesday’s debate, moderator Elaine Quijano mentioned Sen. Tim Scott, a black Republican who, as an elected official earlier in his career, “was stopped seven times by law enforcement in one year.” Other well-known figures, from former Attorney General Eric Holder to broadcaster Don Lemon to professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., have reported similar experiences. And then there are the men whose final moments many of us have witnessed, in all their horror, thanks to mobile phone videos. You can’t watch the deaths of Terence Crutcher, Eric Garner, and Philando Castile without being shaken. In most cases, what you see in the video, or in direct testimony after the tragedy, is the officer’s fear.

Fear isn’t hate, and bias isn’t bigotry. That’s what makes implicit bias a more useful way of understanding these situations. Project Implicit, a consortium of scholars who study bias, defines prejudice as approval of negative attitudes toward other groups. “Most people who show an implicit preference for one group … are not prejudiced by this definition,” the consortium points out. The Implicit Association Test—which you can take on the Project Implicit website—“shows biases that are not endorsed and that may even be contradictory to what one consciously believes.” For instance, “you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science.” Does that make you a bad person? No. Does it affect your behavior? Probably. Should you own up to your bias and try to overcome it? Absolutely.

Critics of the theory of implicit bias—among them, French, Peter Hasson of the Daily Caller, and Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute—make several good points. In any shooting, evidence particular to the case still matters. Statistics don’t automatically prove discrimination. Implicit bias research doesn’t necessarily justify changes to laws or legal standards. And as Mac Donald points out, police in some cities are less likely to shoot a black person than a white person in loosely comparable scenarios. (Two caveats: The research doesn’t address the rate at which police get into those scenarios with black and white people, respectively. And measuring police behavior against crime ratios rather than population ratios bakes in the effects of racial profiling.) But is that because those officers are immune to racial preconceptions? Or is it because they’ve become aware of them?

In the struggle to overcome bias, there’s no obstacle more entrenched or effective than the conceit that you’re exempt. You’re fair, you’re rational, you’re objective. Mac Donald cites data that show blacks are more likely than whites to commit homicide. She says these numbers “rebut the charge that racism, not crime, determines the incidence of police shootings.” French goes further. He complains that in the warped ideology of police critics, “Evidence, experience, and probabilities are completely irrelevant when it comes time to cleanse the mind of ‘bias.’ ” But the use of racial probabilities to rationalize the fatal shootings of retreating, unarmed men isn’t a refutation of bias. It’s a replication of it.

Skeptics of implicit bias aren’t necessarily wicked. They’re just human. “What Donald Trump and I are saying,” Pence pleaded Tuesday night, is, “Let’s not have the reflex of assuming the worst of men and women in law enforcement.” Agreed. But let’s also not have the reflex of pretending cops are angelically pure of what was born into the rest of us. Because too often, that’s how people get killed.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.