Book excerpt: “The End of Bias”

The science and practice of overcoming unconscious bias

August 22, 2022 6:00 am

Pallbearers lead a march down Selby Avenue after the funeral of Philando Castile at the Cathedral of St. Paul on July 14, 2016 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Castile was shot and killed on July 6, 2016 by police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from “The End of Bias” by Minnesota writer Jessica Nordell, who examines how we can eradicate unintentional bias. The paperback is now available. Order it from Magers & Quinn or other fine independent booksellers. This is part 1. Look for part 2 on Tuesday, which reveals how some law enforcement groups are successfully reducing bias. 

In 2003 and 2004, civil rights attorney Connie Rice spent eighteen months interviewing Los Angeles police officers. This was after the most wide-scale police corruption case in L.A. history had prompted broad department-wide reforms. Asked to help assess whether the reforms had made a difference in the LAPD, Rice interviewed more than eight hundred officers — male and female, of all races and ethnicities. They were candid about the shortcomings of reform, describing ongoing lack of accountability for illegal behavior, perverse incentives, and adversarial mindsets toward the community, among other persistent problems.

But officers also told Rice something that surprised her. They confided that they were afraid of Black men. “Look lady, I’m going to be honest with you. Black people scare me. I didn’t grow up around Black people,” she remembers them saying. “I grew up in Antelope Valley. We didn’t have any Blacks. And I don’t really know how to talk to them,” or “Lady, Black men scare me — and I need help.” Rice tried to keep her reaction to herself. She didn’t want to lose their trust by showing her shock. Inwardly, she said, “I was stunned.” Fear is not something police officers typically admit to; vulnerability is seen as a liability. But officers of all races were confessing to racialized fear.

Fear, of course, does not account for cases of intentional brutality. But the anxiety these cops professed is consistent with research  showing that the mere notion of Blackness conjures up the idea of crime in many people’s minds. Psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, who has spent decades studying how race influences perceptions and behavior, conducted a study in which she subliminally exposed people to Black and white men’s faces. She then showed them grainy, hard-to-make-out images of knives and guns. Those exposed to Black men’s faces picked out the weapons more readily than those exposed to white men’s faces. They didn’t just think of crime — they saw crime. Eberhardt also showed police officers a series of Black and white faces they were told might be faces of criminals and asked them whether each face looked criminal. Having a Black face is not a crime, as Eberhardt points out, yet her study found that the more stereotypically “Black” the face was rated in terms of facial features and skin tone, the more likely officers were to identify it as criminal.

Other research shows that many Americans judge Black men to be generally more threatening than white men. One study found that Black boys are seen as older and less innocent than white boys of the same age. People who are not Black consistently overestimate how physically large Black men are, perceiving them as taller, more muscular, and more capable of causing harm than white men of equivalent size. Black individuals, too, overestimate Black men’s size.

A name that sounds stereotypically Black can by itself elicit a distorted perception. In one study, non-Black participants were shown pictures of sixteen white male bodies from the neck down, altered to make skin tone ambiguous. Some participants were told the figures in the pictures had names that sounded stereotypically Black like Tyrone and DeShawn; others that the figures had names like Connor or Cody, which sound stereotypically white. Participants saw “Tyrone” and “DeShawn” as taller and heavier than the same bodies labeled “Connor” and “Cody.”

For white Americans, another study found, faces with darker skin tones even trigger more of a response in the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in detecting threats. Feelings like threat are significant because they closely predict how people will act. When researchers analyzed fifty-seven different studies of racial discrimination, they found that people’s emotions about different racial groups had twice as much effect on their behavior as their intellectual beliefs. Emotions can influence our behavior toward members of a group in ways as subtle as amount of eye contact or as consequential as use of police force.

As noted, perceived threat is a primary reason officers give for using force; the belief that one’s life is in imminent danger is, as of this writing, its precise legal justification. And Black men are disproportionately victims of force in the absence of actual danger. An analysis of nearly one thousand fatal shootings by on-duty police officers found that compared to white victims, Black victims were nearly twice as likely to be unarmed at the time they were shot. Another analysis found that Black suspects who were reported to be totally compliant with police orders were 21.3 percent more likely than white suspects to be on the receiving end of force — even when no arrests were made.

These statistics may be underreported: The records from which the studies are made generally come from police departments, who may be undercounting internal problematic behavior. This lived experience places an extraordinary and impossible burden upon Black Americans: to manage officers’ fears in order to protect their own lives. In his book “Chokehold,” law professor Paul Butler describes the burden as dispiriting, embarrassing, and relentless: “Every time you leave your home you are the star of a bizarre security theater.”

This fear of and desire to suppress people racialized as “Black” is not simply a phenomenon of police psychology or contemporary culture: Its long shadow extends back to American chattel slavery. From enslaved Africans’ earliest arrival on Western shores, white slave owners lived in a phantasmagoria of fear. South Carolina’s legal statutes, for instance, described the enslaved as “barbarous, wild, savage.” After the 1739 Stono Rebellion, terrified Carolinians quickly signed into law the Negro Act of 1740, which sought to crush potential threats by prohibiting enslaved people from learning to write, growing food, earning money, dressing nicely, moving abroad, or meeting in groups. Three years later, South Carolina passed another law requiring all white men under the age of sixty to bring a gun to church to guard against “the wicked attempts of Negroes.”

Contemporary research finds a continuing pattern of control and punishment: When Jennifer Eberhardt and colleagues analyzed contemporary sentencing, they found that in cases where a murder victim was white, defendants with “stereotypically Black” features, including skin color, hair color, and facial features, were more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death than defendants who appeared less “stereotypically Black.” This was after controlling for contributing factors, including the severity of the crime.

The Metropolitan Books trade paperback edition is available now.

Contemporary police training often compounds fear by emphasizing what can go wrong in an encounter. Officers are taught to notice “pre-attack indicators” such as anxiety and reduced mental processing in suspects, but many of these behaviors are the same responses a person exhibits when feeling threatened. Black individuals in particular are at risk of the phenomenon known as stereotype threat: concern about being stereotyped which can affect one’s actions and behavior.

They may be especially prone to appear anxious and therefore, in the eyes of police, suspicious. Furthermore, “warrior trainings,” increasingly popular after 9/11, teach officers that they are at war in a hostile world. In The Bulletproof Warrior, a seminar developed by former army ranger Dave Grossman, attendees watch videos of shoot-outs and are encouraged to see the world as divided into sheep and wolves. The sheep are the public, oblivious to evil; the wolves are the criminals, waiting to attack. (Police are sheepdogs, the sheep’s defense.) “Every single one of you is in the front line of a live ammo combat patrol every day of your life,” Grossman tells trainees. Hesitation is deadly, he says. Cops, like soldiers, must be unafraid to kill. Grossman himself has never served in combat. One of the officers who took The Bulletproof Warrior was Jeronimo Yanez, the 28-year-old St. Anthony, Minn., officer who killed Philando Castile in a fateful car stop and was acquitted by a jury.

When a former Minneapolis police sergeant watched the footage taken of Yanez immediately after the shooting, he saw a person rendered entirely nonfunctional. In policing, the level of awareness people bring to an incident is described by the Cooper Color Code. Civilians generally operate in the “green zone” — somewhat aware of one’s surroundings, but not on high alert. Police officers operate in the “yellow zone,” an elevated level of awareness in which they pay close attention to their environment. When officers learn that a firearm is present, they shift to the “red zone,” a state of high alert. In that situation an officer should stand back, give clear instructions, and begin to ask questions. Yanez, it seems, skipped the red zone entirely. Upon hearing that a firearm was present, he went directly to the “black zone,” a state of emotional dysregulation in which, as the sergeant explained, the brain “stops working.”

The murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 catalyzed a global movement to reimagine a public safety apparatus, one that  neither fears the public nor terrorizes the people it is hired to protect. Some suggested reforms are incremental, such as banning specific maneuvers, requiring police to live in the cities they serve, and  revamping their training. Other proposals are more wide-ranging, such as breaking the grip of police unions, which can insulate officers from accountability, rebuilding departments from scratch, and creating separate traffic enforcement agencies, so armed police no longer  conduct traffic stops. Had Yanez been unarmed — or removed from service entirely — Castile would likely still be alive.

Another set of voices have called for abolition of policing as we know it. As psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff points out, the debate between reform and abolition rests on the diagnosis of the problem — whether it is fundamentally a problem of policy and bureaucracy or of basic mission. Reformists aim their scope at policies; abolitionists point out that decades of reforms did not prevent George Floyd’s death. A new vision for public safety will require grappling in a meaningful way with the history of American policing as an institution — an institution that was historically tasked with suppressing and oppressing Black people specifically. The precise structure of a just public safety organization remains to be seen. But the essential changes it must incorporate may still be insufficient to tackle the slippery problem of unconscious bias.

The principles here can support these changes.

According to the cognitive perspective on how perceptions of race can influence minds and behaviors, it’s plausible that what happened on the night of July 6 was this: Yanez discerned a superficial similarity and, based on his race, misidentified Castile as a burglary suspect. As Yanez approached the car, he had the armed robbery in mind. His training heightened the expectation of danger, and seeing Castile’s face triggered stereotypes of criminality. By the time Yanez arrived at the driver side door, he was, perhaps, already feeling threatened. In that state of mind, he was even more likely to apply racial stereotypes.

The expectation of danger influenced how Yanez perceived Castile, even as Castile was likely trying to manage his own fear of Yanez. Castile’s awareness that he could be seen through a stereotyped lens may have emerged in his expressions. Thus, Yanez projected danger onto Castile’s body language (“appeared defensive”), eye contact (“staring straight ahead”), and tone (“subtle and uneasy”). When Castile mentioned he had a firearm, Yanez’s sense of threat converted into panic. Now in the black zone, he ceased seeing options for what to do next. He was unable to give clear directions or take in verbal information. His perception narrowed exclusively to what he perceived as the source of the threat: Castile’s moving hands. We know Yanez did not see Castile’s hand on a weapon. Yet Yanez, predicting violence, shot. 

Mind, body, history, institution: fused together to lethal effect. Castile was calmly reaching for his wallet. Yet Yanez was incoherent with terror. The threat was imaginary, but the fear was real. 

What do we do about that?

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Jessica Nordell
Jessica Nordell

Jessica Nordell is an award-winning author, science writer and speaker. Her first book, "The End of Bias: A Beginning," shortlisted for the 2022 Columbia Journalism/Lukas Prize for Excellence in Nonfiction, the 2022 NYPL Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the 2021 Royal Society Science Book Prize, is the culmination of fifteen years of reporting and writing on the subject of bias and discrimination and how to solve it, for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the New Republic.