Research performed through the Yale Child Study Center recently showed that preschool teachers are biased to expect bad behavior in black children more than in white children. As researcher Walter Gilliam put it: “What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs. Teachers looked more at the black children than the white children, and they looked specifically more at the African-American boy.”No wonder black children are 3.6 times more likely to be expelled than white children.
The study reveals the pervasiveness, effectiveness, and troubling consequences of implicit bias. In this case, the expectation of bad behavior in black boys led them to “find” that bad behavior precisely where they expected it, even though their actual behavior did not differ from that of the other children in the study. No wonder black children are 3.6 times more likely to be expelled than white children. The expectation, the bias, creates the reality, which leads to a vicious cycle of confirmation—with unintended but nonetheless unfortunate outcomes.
Those who unreflectively rely on stereotypes live in an “us versus them” (or “us versus not-us”) world, accepting uncritically the categories that have been created and handed down. Their prejudices emerge from and serve to confirm the way the social world has been categorized and narrated.
When enough people with similar prejudices and overlapping false narratives about the “us” and the “them,” have designed the architecture of an “us versus them world,” genuine differences are flattened out and those who have been designated the “not-us” often find themselves swimming upstream, on the out, or looking at the barrel of a gun that should never have been pointed at them.Prejudices, biases, self-delusions, and so on, take time, intentionality, and work to deal with as individuals.
To stop and think reflectively on inherited stereotypes takes time and energy. Such reflection raises the prospect of cognitive dissonance, when our natural assumptions, beliefs, and prejudices bump up against alternative evidence and counter-examples. The tension created by the input of new (often better) information causes an experience of cognitive dissonance, which will only be resolved by either ignoring the new information and retreating to the old stereotype, or by changing one’s perspective.
To be fair to the situations that police officers sometimes find themselves in, they don’t have the time and energy, in the heat of a potentially volatile moment, to do that critical work. There isn’t often time or energy for cognitive dissonance to play itself out.
That work must be done before
that moment. Prejudices, biases, self-delusions, and so on, take time, intentionality, and work to deal with as individuals. Imagine the kind of work it will take to change a flawed system.
Training Law Enforcement Against Prejudice
But that’s exactly what Tavris and Aronson suggest, as they point to the project of law professor Andrew McClurg, who proposes a plan for training law enforcement rookies which utilizes the research on cognitive dissonance and which calls on,
Their own self-concept as good guys fighting crime and violence. He proposes a program of integrity training in dealing with ethical dilemmas, in which cadets would be instilled with the values of telling the truth and doing the right thing as a central part of their emerging professional identity (199).
If an officer can be motivated to act on the basis of his or her “own self-concept” as a good person, then any action that would run counter to that (thereby raising cognitive dissonance), such as shooting an innocent person for no good reason, should be avoided at all costs.
As part of preparation for being a good officer, one should also seek to make untrue and false biases known and to correct them with better information and more adequate narratives.
Too Heavy a Burden
But, on its own, that proposal seems naïve, as it shifts too heavy a burden on the police officer. If implicit bias runs that deep in the subconscious, can we really expect that anti-racism and other bias-uncovering training can solve the systemic problem? Such efforts need to be accompanied by other more drastic and material measures, including stricter gun control legislation, a de-militarized police force, and the incorporation of mental health care and social workers in situations of crisis and potential conflict.
The system needs change. It needs to reckon with the innate human tendency to create stereotypes and our propensity to act on the basis of those (false but unchecked) stereotypes. And it needs to account for the tragic consequences that too often occur when prejudice is holding a gun.