Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2020-21 Project Fellows.
Our brains are association machines. They rely on our past experiences to predict the future. They take cognitive shortcuts to save time and energy and to help us make decisions based on incomplete or imperfect information. Often these connections are harmless, merely enabling us to drive home from work on autopilot or to solve a puzzle that’s similar to one we’ve tackled before.
When it comes to race, gender, and other core elements of our identity, the brain’s tendency to form associations can take a dark turn. Living in a society where White men fill the majority of leadership roles in business, government, media, academic institutions, and nonprofits, our brain develops an association between White men and leadership, often without our conscious knowledge. Similarly, the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of Black men causes an association between Black men and crime.
Because these associations rest beneath our conscious awareness, they’re known as implicit bias — distinct from explicit bias, the intentional decision to choose someone from one racial group or gender over another. The split-second, gut reaction that underpins implicit bias helps explain why police officers are quicker to fire on unarmed Black men than on people of other races.
For my Knight Science Journalism Project Fellowship this year, I’ve been studying how implicit bias contributes to the disproportionate punishment of Black students, and students with disabilities, in schools. During the 2015-16 academic year, Black high school students lost nearly five times as many days to suspension as their White peers, and disabled secondary students lost twice as much time as their non-disabled peers, according to the most recent analysis by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. Equity in education took on even more importance this year, as the pandemic divided school districts and students into haves and have nots regarding access to online and in-person schooling.
Implicit bias was first described in the mid-90s by psychologists including Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, authors of “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.” Since then, an explosion of research has documented the existence of implicit bias. A Google scholar search for the phrase “implicit bias” returns more than 35,000 results.
Teachers are more likely to describe the student as a troublemaker if the child has a stereotypically “Black” name, like Deshawn or Darnell, as opposed to a name like Greg or Jake.
Findings include that candidates using “White-sounding” names on a resume advance further in the hiring process. Given a record of a hypothetical student’s misbehaviors, teachers are more likely to describe the student as a troublemaker if the child has a stereotypically “Black” name, like Deshawn or Darnell, as opposed to a name like Greg or Jake. And in another research study, job candidates who were mothers received lower competence ratings and lower starting salaries than those who had no children.
Unfortunately, social psychology researchers have been less successful in demonstrating how to eliminate bias. Multiple experiments that aimed to reduce bias — whether through bias training or by encouraging people to take another’s perspective — resulted in inconclusive, weak, or short-lived changes.
In the real world, despite $8 billion a year being spent on diversity training, women and people of color still lag behind white men in advancement, pay, and leadership positions. (Famously, more S&P 500 chief executive officers are named Michael or James than all female CEOs put together.) Decades of education and bias training of police didn’t stop last summer’s killing of George Floyd or reverse the trend towards mass incarceration of Black and Brown Americans. And despite multiple health departments mandating bias training, racial disparities persist when it comes to diagnoses, prescription, and health care outcomes.
This doesn’t mean we should stop trying to level the playing field. But rather than continuing to throw research funds and education dollars at trainings that aren’t shown to work, academics and practitioners alike are increasingly abandoning the attempt to change that gut reaction at the heart of implicit bias.
Instead, school districts are training teachers on the impact of trauma on young nervous systems, encouraging them to connect with children across racial and gender divides, and empowering educators to find solutions that work better than suspension and expulsion.
This shift in focus holds promise for changing the systemic disparities by race and gender that have persisted for decades — centuries — when it comes to education, health, wealth, and other factors crucial to our well-being. It also makes sense, given that our nervous systems evolved over millennia to alert us to threat and send us into a fight-or-flight state when confronted with a predator or outsider to our social group.
In education, this means that instead of trying to root out implicit bias in teachers and administrations, the field is beginning to define the behaviors that lead to disparities — and identify ways to encourage or mandate more equitable practices. For a very simple example, take the common classroom practice of putting every student’s name on a popsicle stick, so the teacher can pull out the sticks when calling on children, to avoid subconsciously favoring white boys over girls or boys of color. The more that champions of diversity and equity can adopt these kinds of mechanisms to change people’s behavior, the more we’ll be working with the realities of our nervous systems — not against them.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning journalist covering race, gender, disability, science, parenting, education, and mental health, and author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – And What to Do About It.”