Unrest in Ferguson, Mo., flared Monday after a grand jury decided not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Tensions between the predominantly black community and mostly white police force have been broiling for years, but have come to a significant head since Brown’s death on August 9.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for calm last Friday and announced new guidelines in a video message to help law enforcement maintain order during events in which citizens exercise their First Amendment rights. Holder acknowledged that the issues of “police practices, implicit bias and pervasive community distrust” are “real and significant,” according to CNN.
At the root of the racial divide in Ferguson is this issue of implicit bias—the unconscious positive or negative view one has of another person or group. And as Holder implied, policies and practices alone will not solve issues of unrest unless we find ways to defuse the biases in our heads. For example, critics have lambasted Ferguson police for imbuing an introverted, “us versus them” police culture which further divides social groups and breeds unconscious resentment and fear of “the other.” Study after study shows that no matter how hard we say we’re “colorblind” or “don’t see race,” our innate, deeply ingrained biases eventually rear their ugly little heads. And such biases persist in many aspects of life.
Social psychologists have been attempting to understand the origins of human prejudice for decades. One of their chief tools is the Implicit Association Test, developed in the late 1990s. The computerized examination, which measures people’s unconscious attitudes, has been used to elicit more than 4.5 million responses. And their biases are striking. For instance, over 80 percent of people measured show a negative implicit bias against the elderly. About 75 percent of white and Asian people show a preference for whites over blacks.
Other studies indicate that implicit biases can predict someone’s voting behavior, whether they themselves know how they’re going to vote or not. Such biases have also given rise to the “birther” movement, a collection of fringe theorists who propose that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and as a result, is not eligible for the presidency.
Race and gender biases have infected the sciences, too. A 1999 study found that academic psychologists were more partial to hiring males over females. And as of 2010, 51 percent of all practicing scientists and engineers were white men. White women accounted for only 18 percent, and black and Hispanic men and women each made up about four percent or less of these jobs. Other research has found that both men and women are equally as likely of committing gender bias and that solutions are hard to come by.
As the situation in Ferguson continues to unfold in the coming weeks, months or even years, it is important to keep one thing in mind: the answer to solving decades of brewing race and social justice issues may lie not in our public and national policies, but deep in our brains.