Implicit Bias at the Root of Brutality Epidemic

06/10/2015 03:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

After being bombarded with videos of police brutality attacking, and in more instances than anyone cares to admit, killing black and brown unarmed victims, many of us are left both disillusioned with those tasked to protect us, and shocked that long-told urban tales of bias, particularly against African-Americans, are apparently true.

The images of just a day ago, occurring not in the so-called urban jungle, but in a suburban settings much like where most of us reside are arguably more chilling. They are the images of a McKinney Texas police officer pointing his gun at teenagers, not wearing gang colors, but much like your children and mine, in bathing suits at a pool party. We then see that same policeman frantically bypassing nearby White individuals, focusing on a handful of African-American girls, shoving one's face into the ground, and later pinning her down with his knees to her neck and back, as if she was some hardened escaped murderer. This shocking clip is the latest flash point in race relations in this country, not unlike the clip of Eric Garner's desperate and vain plea for help, or the more disturbing clip of two St Louis police in a matter of 12 seconds unloading their guns and gunning down Kajieme Powell for allegedly stealing two soft drinks and a donut.

However, unlike the portrayals of police responding to allegations of men committing crimes, albeit petty ones that certainly did not justify police killings, the latest cellphone video involved a fourteen-year old girl. Perhaps demonstrative of both his fear and overzealousness, the video has the officer in such a frantic state he literally face-plants while arriving at the scene.

The obvious question comes to mind is how can police behave in such a fashion? While some may understandably believe police officers throughout our country are, or learn to become racist, I do not share painting all police with such a broad brush. The environment of violence coupled with the apparent unchecked power very young, and often immature, police possess, create a problematic but difficult to assess and accept phenomena.

You see, while I suspect some police, much like many in society, suffer from overt bias against African-Americans and other minorities, I refuse to believe all are infested with such maladies. What instead is at the root of our police brutality problem is virtually the same with the rest of society, but which neither police nor the rest of society is willing to accept--the power and influence of implicit bias.

To understand implicit bias, we need to understand the concept of schemas, or templates of knowledge that help us organize specific examples into broader categories. In other words, we need to appreciate that on an average day our minds are inundated with millions and millions of pieces of information. Given the limits of our brains with such massive amounts of data, our brains create shortcuts for all that information. As UCLA Professor Jerry Kang observed, when we see, for example, something with a flat seat, a back, and some legs, we recognize it as a "chair." Regardless of whether it is plush or wooden, with wheels or bolted down, we know what to do with an object that fits into the category of "chair".

We have these patterns of thinking, or schemas, not only for objects, but also human beings (e.g., "the elderly"). We accordingly assign people into various social categories, such as age, gender, race, and role. And just as we might have implicit cognitions that help us walk and drive, we have implicit social cognitions that guide our thinking about social categories, and groups of people.

As a result of this very natural phenomena of creating patterns of thinking to cope with all the data we receive regularly, we create shorthand categories for objects, behaviors, and people, which in turn helps us to react quickly and seamlessly to all the information our brains are constantly receiving. Sadly, in the case of racial minorities, and African-Americans in particular, society and police in these cases have unfortunately created shortcuts that associate danger with these groups. Police understandably therefore act according to those shortcuts, and often treat African-Americans and other minorities as threats or dangerous individuals. As a result, police enter environments with those groups with a sense a fear and act accordingly.

We in society need to accept this far more difficult and challenging notion of bias. It is easy for us to condemn the Klu Klux Klan when they protest for racial bigotry, but it is much more challenging for us to accept we may indeed have hidden biases. Consider for instance the reactions to two similar set of circumstances with two extremely different reactions:

While we could argue about the slightly different ways in which these citizens were carrying identical weapons, there is no denying the dramatically different police reactions to an extraordinarily similar set of settings, with one major and obvious difference--race.

Perhaps as a society we will never be able to accept forms of bias that are not overt. But unless we are prepared to reflect upon and hopefully expand our development and accordingly our thinking, the cycle of abuse and violence will likely not change anytime soon. And the implications of such development must be that if we accept that implicit bias exists, police must be educated to recognize it, and must engage in more enlightened and informed forms of policing? There also should be checks to the system--checks and balances are after all the hallmarks of our democratic structure--policies and structures must be in place, preferably through civilian review boards and the appointment of special prosecutors if the boards hold the cases merit it.

In the end, let us reflect and realize these issues are far more complex than merely demonizing one group or another. We must act in an informed and sophisticated fashion to help guide sound behavior in the future.