Hiding Behind Unconscious Bias


The recent admission by the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that law enforcement officers are racially biased has been rightfully described as “unusually candid.”  However, no-one has called James Comey’s remarks “original.”

Comey, like so many before him, is calling for “honest and open conversations” about race and law enforcement. It seems after every major racial eruption in America there is such a call. There have been many conversations about race and law enforcement over the decades and despite all the reports and studies, blacks are still being killed by police in unsettling numbers.

If anything, the speech by Comey to students at Georgetown University on Feb. 12 is a cautionary tale about using “unconscious bias” as convenient cover for horrible things committed by some individuals against black people.

Comey blames unconscious bias for the way some police officers behave and to explain why black men are arrested in greater numbers than white men in America. While there’s likely some truth to that statement, what Comey is not addressing is the power imbalance and racist discourse which play a pervasive role in what he calls the “difficult relationship” between the criminal justice system and blacks in America — one that is punctuated with the blood, bodies and incarceration of too many people.

The problem is not unique to the United States. According to the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI), black inmates in Canada account for 9.3 per cent of the federal prison population, though blacks represent only 2.9 per cent of the Canadian population.

blacks in jail

But incarceration rates are only part of the story.

Today’s contemporary violence against black people is rooted in the historical North American discourse that breeds fear of the ‘other’ and has manufactured the myth of the ‘dangerous black man’.

In an article in the Guardian Pulitzer Prize- winning author Isabel Wilkerson said the negative images and stereotypes of blacks that have fueled the belief of black inferiority have been around since the Jim Crow era of ‘separate but equal’.

“Many of those stereotypes persist to this day and have mutated with the times. Last century’s beast and savage have become this century’s gangbanger and thug, embedding a pre-written script for subconscious bias that primes many to accept what they were programmed to believe about black Americans, whether they are aware of it or not,” writes Wilkerson.

The public shaming of black men and ‘proof’ of their dangerousness to a fearful white populace dates back to the practice of public lynching. Today’s version is the parading of shackled black suspects before TV cameras or stopping and questioning a group of young black men on the street merely because they look ‘suspicious’.

implicit_association_imageThe public – blacks, whites and others – are left with only one impression: Black men are more dangerous than white men. It is no surprise that even African Americans who have taken the online Implicit Association Test for Race, have similar biases against blacks as whites. In the same IAT test on Race and Weapons, black people associated blacks with weapons at about the same rate as whites who took the test.

But unconscious bias should not be used to obfuscate or used as cover for egregious acts against people of colour. It is too convenient to say unconscious bias is the reason police officers interact differently with persons of colour, or why hiring managers find it difficult to see prospective employees “fitting” into certain organizations, or why blacks don’t get promoted at the same rate as whites despite having equal or superior competences.  You can almost hear the chorus ringing from boardrooms and back alleys: “Sorry, my unconscious bias made me do it.”

The latest lawsuit filed against the St. Louis suburbs of Ferguson and Jennings alleges the mass jailings and fines over minor offenses – such as driving without a seat belt or lack of proof of insurance –  is nothing short of a “municipal scheme designed to brutalize, to punish, and to profit.” The vast majority of the people jailed and fined are black. They are locked up for weeks in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. Supporters of the lawsuit say it is a case of willful bias and a violation of people’s civil rights.

As citizens living within a democracy each of us should have an expectation that our basic rights are protected by the institutions that are designed to serve and protect us. We should expect it in our workplaces or walking or driving on the streets.

In the U.S. and Canada it’s time for police leaders to call for the application of human rights principles by every cop on the beat. These principles should be embedded in all aspects of policing, including recruitment, training, promotion and service delivery as practiced through community-based policing. Police leaders should be asking for and enforcing stricter rules against the violation of the human rights of the people police officers have been entrusted to protect.

Police officers need to be reminded of the United Nations’ “Human Rights Standards and Practice for the Police”

  • Law enforcement officials shall at all times fulfill the duty imposed on them by law, by serving the community and by protecting all persons against illegal acts.
  • Law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.

Law enforcement agencies must also embark on a sustainable human rights organizational change process similar to one undertaken by the Toronto Police Service in partnership with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Talking about human rights violations by police officers may not get North American police leaders the news headlines when they admit the presence of unconscious bias but it may be the start of a truly open and honest conversation about how and why the criminal justice system sometimes abrogates the human rights of individuals.

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