Unconscious bias: Is racism still alive?

racismThis is a last of a three part series concerning the issue of whether racism is still alive in America, which the conversation was provoked by a rash of murders of, often times, innocent African-Americans taking place throughout the country.

In Part I of this series, we discussed the rising heroin epidemic in rural Nebraska and Iowa, and the fact that it’s not considered a “crime problem” but rather a “public health issue.” We also discussed how such dangerous, life threatening drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, and lottery gambling, are made legal, while African-Americans, mostly men, are incarcerated, often times for life, for consensual non-violent drug transactions.

In Part II, we discussed a drug called Opana, an opium like drug, which is legally produced by a company called Endo Pharmaceuticals and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Opana is similar in chemical structure to heroin. Time magazine stated that middle-aged Americans (read white folks) are more likely to die from an opioid overdose than they are from a car accident or a violent crime. In fact, the American Journal of Medicine stated that in 2010 more than 57 percent of drug-overdose deaths were caused by pharmaceuticals. Now that these “epidemics” are hitting white folks, Republican presidential candidates want to not only make them legal, but provide medically assisted addiction treatment and “decriminalize” drug addiction. Black folks have been demonized for decades as being “drug addicts” and drug abusers, and locked behind bars like animals; but now that it involves white America, drug addiction is a health problem and should be decriminalized. This is what is called “duplicity.” Duplicity means deceit, dishonesty, double-dealing, chicanery, trickery, etc. You get the picture. So, why do we have this duplicity or double-dealing?

I’m a lawyer by profession, and recently attended a continuing legal education training session during which a video of what is known as “unconscious Bias” was shown. I encourage all readers to go on YouTube and search for “What Would You Do? Bike Theft (White Guy, Black Guy, Pretty Girl).” The video is of three different people using a hacksaw, one after the other, to saw the chain off of a locked bicycle in a public park area. The video was staged – all done by actors. The first thief was a young 20-something white male, who was wearing “urban gear” – baggy pants and tee shirt, and baseball cap turned backwards. As (white) folks passed by the thief, they barely noticed him trying to cut the chain off of the bike with a hack saw. A couple of people stopped and asked him if it was his bike. When he replied, “Technically, no,” they just kept going. The second thief was a young 20-something Black male, wearing the same urban gear – same baggy pants and tee shirt, and baseball cap turned backwards. As people passed, almost everyone stopped to ask him what he was doing. They asked if it was his bike, and when he replied “Technically, no,” they called 911 to have him arrested. The third thief was a young 20-something white female, dressed similar to the two men. In her case, the passers-by actually asked her if she “needed help.” They didn’t ask her what she was doing, whether it was her bike – none of that.

So, what’s going on in each of these scenarios? The short answer is what is called “unconscious bias.” Unconscious bias is how the brain reacts to facts and circumstances, without even thinking about them. For example, if one were to see grizzly bear, rattle snake or rat, a person would probably react instinctively with fear and try to distance himself or herself from the danger, without even thinking about it. In a similar way, we’ve been trained in this society, and indeed throughout the world, to instinctively react when we see Black folks; and, in particular young males and females, between the ages of, say, 15 to 30. We’ve been so conditioned with the constant bombardment of negative images of young Black folks that we have an almost instinctive reaction of negativity and, at times, fear. A loud group of young Black folks will always get more negative attention than a similarly loud group of young white kids.

The situation is so bad, that many Black folks have the same perceptions of negativity and fear about young Black folks. We forget about all of the good, productive and industrious young Black folks. They’re invisible. We don’t even see them.

Instead, all we see are the negative images. Why?

Because these images have been hammered into our brains by the constant drum beat of negative images of crime, drugs and violence. To be sure, we have way, way too much crime, drugs and violence in our community – so we’re not making excuses. However, these images almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy if that is all we’re being fed.

A group of very alert and perceptive young folks were discussing the media phenomenon on KMOJ recently. They mentioned that 90 percent of the television, movies and music industry is controlled by a handful of large multi-national companies, whose objective is to make money, regardless of the damage its imagery may be doing to our young people. So, they feed our children and society an image of drug and sex-crazed images and lyrics that slip into our minds, thereby creating the negative stereotyping of Black folks in general, and young folks in particular. As the saying goes, sex and violence sells. It appeals to our lower nature – we try not to listen or look, but the sex and violence pulls us in and after a while, we don’t even think about it anymore, we just look, listen and indulge.

In a somewhat different, but similar vein of unconscious bias, the headline on a recent Minneapolis-St. Paul Spokesman Recorder article talked about how the Washburn Child Guidance Center, one of the largest mental health organizations for children in Minnesota, has no Black clinicians yet it’s most of our children feeding their business. How can that be? Has Washburn Child Guidance Center stopped to think about that? Probably not – at least not consciously. Washburn’s newest facility recently opened in near north Minneapolis, and one can reasonably assume that a substantial number of the children they will be seeing and treating are Black children. Yet, we have more than 50 Black psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, therapists and others who are trained, educated and experienced in dealing with Black children – none of whom are employed by Washburn. Why? I would submit unconscious bias is the cause.

In a book titled “The Hidden Brain,” social scientist Shankar Vedantam discusses how our hidden brain (i.e. unconscious brain) works for our benefit and detriment, without even consciously thinking. It works to our benefit in instantly analyzing threats of danger, like in the cases mentioned earlier about encountering a bear, rattle snake or rat. A young baby or child with no experience with a bear, snake or rat is likely to be harmed. But, because we’ve been socialized and trained to know certain animals as dangerous, our hidden, unconscious, brain allows us to react instinctively to avoid such dangers. This hidden, unconscious brain works to our detriment when we start to judge large groups of people, in this conversation Black folks, in a negative light, without thinking. It is no coincidence that in the liberal state of Minnesota, we have the highest Black/white racial disparities in the country in housing, employment and education. These disparities don’t “just happen.” They happen for a reason, but the reason is not always apparent – at least to some people. And, the reason that it’s not apparent is because none of us “think we’re biased.” Very few, if any, of us have ever heard a white person say that they’re prejudiced or racist. In fact, the opposite is often true. They spend their time trying to convince Black folks that they’re not racist or prejudice. And, the reality we need to come to accept, is that they truly believe that. What they, and we, often don’t understand is that the racism that is unconscious is no less damaging or deadly.

That’s why police officer after police officer is let off by white folks after killing Black folks. And, that’s why white folks didn’t understand when O.J. Simpson was “let off,” by a majority Black jury in Los Angeles. You see, unconscious bias works both ways. Instead of recognizing and understanding that these acts of violence are engendered by racism, we as a society blame the victim, because they were “doing something wrong” like the Black folks whose car was backfiring, which police thought was a gun, so they shot them more than 100 times … or Michael Brown, Trevon Martin, or Eric Garner – all thought to be doing something wrong, when all they were doing was being young … and Black.

We need to start recognizing and understanding unconscious bias – both Black folks and white folks alike. It does no good to blame white folks for being racist, even if they are, if they can’t see it and don’t understand it. We need to recognize that we’ve all been conditioned by our society and its systems like the law enforcement and court system, our educational institutions, employment systems and the media to see Black folks as deviant from main stream culture and society, and to therefore treat us differently. As Spike Lee said more than 25 years ago in the movie, “Do the Right Thing,” “Come on people, wake up.”

August 4, 2015
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