The Need to Increase Awareness of Implicit Bias

Proactive, transparent and engaged strategies are needed to tackle this deeply rooted issue.
September 11, 2018 AT 11:00 AM
The New York City Department of Education is providing implicit bias training and mandating participation. David Kidd
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.

Implicit bias is everywhere. From the workplace and health care settings to daily interactions at the supermarket and in our neighborhoods, there are numerous conscious and unconscious ways in which our own race and those of others affect behavior and decision-making. Implicit bias is even more stark when examining data in the criminal justice system.

In a TED Talk given by social worker Jessica Pryce in August 2018, she discusses how the disparities in the number of kids who are separated from their families between white and black families decreased significantly when decisions were made in blind assessments in Nassau County, New York. Prior to the blind assessment policy, white families were more likely to be given supports rather than having their children taken away.

The policy eliminated identifiable information like names, race, ethnicity and neighborhood data in the decision-making process and instead promoted consideration of circumstance, family strength, relevant history and parent ability to protect the child. In 2011, 57 percent of children going into foster care in the county were black and five years later that number dropped to 21 percent.

The data is striking, and blind assessments can likely work in a number of areas like human resources. However, it is difficult to have blind assessments in many other circumstances where human interaction and quick decisions are made. Policing is one such area where officers make high-stakes decisions in high-stress environments.

In 2017, the New York Police Department signed a $4.5 million contract with a company to provide training focused on implicit bias. The contract states that “police actions based on biases or stereotypes are unsafe, ineffective and unjust,” but that “officers can learn skills to reduce and manage their own biases.” It’s much too early to assess the effectiveness of this work and critics are worried about the lack of standards for, and track record of, such trainings.

The New York City Department of Education is also providing implicit bias training and mandating participation. High-profile cases of discrimination have led private companies to adopt trainings as well, like when two black men were recently arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks store.

The Harvard Business Review article, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” argues that despite diversity programs, trainings and new policies, results can be temporary or even counter-productive if the new systems don’t change behavior. Effective programs “spark engagement, increase contact among different groups, or draw on people’s strong desire to look good to others.”

Such outcomes remain elusive. Racial segregation is still common in everyday life. Polls have shown that as many as 40 percent of white Americans do not have any minority friends. A Brookings Institution report still shows strong segregation in metro areas. And a recent Boston Globe analysis of Boston Public Schools shows that segregation has actually worsened over the past two decades.

There are no easy solutions to a problem that is deeply rooted in individuals, teams and society, including the negative effects of media bias and growing income disparities. Awareness of biases and proactive, transparent and engaged strategies are places to start. As programs become more common, sharing data, creating standards for curriculum and measuring outcomes will be critical. Even 64 years after the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools were unconstitutional, we may still be closer to the beginning than the end of the campaign to combat segregation and create opportunities for diverse interactions.