Why is common sense about bias so uncommon? Why do so many people consider Critical Race Theory so threatening? A Nancy Drew level of interest in racial bias should have put this subject in clear perspective at least a half century ago.
This story of racism in America is as horrific as the darkest periods of world history, and the reasoning for not wanting to admit this to children in public schooling is easy to understand. However, to not admit that this appalling travesty occurred is to set us up to repeat the mistakes of the past and to continue perpetuating the systemic racism of the present.
For thousands of generations our ancestors were preyed upon by large predators, butchered by warring tribes, poisoned by eating things that were unfamiliar, and killed by trekking in previously unexplored territory. Now, how do you suppose our biological evolution would deal with this? Well, we would need a brain capable of bringing the unfamiliar to our attention instantaneously, and surprise, surprise, that is exactly what we have.
Given what has been learned in the behavioral sciences about how our brains manage our perception, we should have long ago put to rest the argument that one must be a racist to make decisions that unintentionally have a racist result.
From birth, our brains categorize and stereotype automatically. We are chemically predisposed to jump to conclusions, precisely because for most of our species’ time on the planet, every aspect of unfamiliarity represented danger and our gray matter evolved so that we would jump to conclusions about matters of personal safety. That we still have adolescent arguments about whether we are racists, if we don’t have conscious feelings about race, is tragic and it needs to stop.
Comedian Bill Maher often talks about racism on HBO, and he claims he has it figured out, but he is clueless about how our minds perceive the unfamiliar. He is right that there has been progress in fighting racism, but he is wrong—dead wrong—about how unconscious bias works. A while back he had John McWhorter on the show. McWhorter, who is Black, said Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility is only useful as a means of leveling a table. McWhorter is a brilliant linguist, and my take is that he is used to being the smartest person in the room and he spends so much time using his frontal cortex (his executive brain function), that he thinks everyone else lives there too most of the time. But we don’t.
But make no mistake: Donald Trump’s open bigotry has awakened the old-fashioned kind of racism, the kind in which progress has been made, but for every few steps forward, we always lose some to the inevitable backlash that follows progressive actions. A significant number of incidents which qualify as having had a racist result are not a result of intentional racism: They just occur because when, we aren’t paying close attention, our limbic system automatically tags anyone or anything as belonging to the categories unfamiliar to us. Hatred and animosity are not necessary to treat people differently—it is only necessary to see them differently.
There have been profound technological changes in policing since I was a Dallas police officer in the 1960s. But what hasn’t changed is the interaction between police officers and citizens. As I make clear in Blue Bias, there has been a double standard in the policing of low-income minority communities since the first officer donned a uniform. Rosa Brooks’ recent book, Tangled Up in Blue, shows that the prevailing attitude of the officers who work in minority communities where “these people live” hasn’t changed since my experience as a police officer in Dallas fifty years ago.
We need to look no further than the racial animosity toward freed slaves to appreciate how a double standard for “those people” in policing began. There is no written edict to treat minorities differently—there doesn’t need to be. It is a learned tradition passed on from one officer to another. It should not be a secret that the residue of subconscious sentiments internalized by police officers during the backlash to Reconstruction and the subsequent reign of terror that lasted for generations are still in play. Training officers routinely tell rookies not to pay attention to all that advice they received in the police academy: “This is how we do it here.” I got this spiel in 1966 and it is still applicable today.
Having spent decades studying history, sociology, primatology, anthropology, psychology, human biology, and neuroscience, I can assert without reservation that until we apply human biology and neuroscience to policing, nothing is going to change. It is imperative, though, that not just police officers, but all citizens, have a thorough understanding of how evolution has made implicit bias inevitable because this is the only way we can ever overcome the liabilities of being human.
Thousands of generations of our ancestors lived and died in a hyper-dangerous world where strangers, the unfamiliar, and the unexpected in any sense triggered a fear response. Thus, our amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and thalamus evolved to cause us to jump to conclusions in the case of all possible threats.
When we encounter the unfamiliar, which includes all persons we meet whom we can’t relate to being one of us, all unfamiliar circumstances which involve change, uncertainty, and the unknown—our limbic system issues a warning in milliseconds before our frontal cortex (our executive brain function) is even aware of what we are facing. We should have learned this even before Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky reverse-engineered our thinking process. We are predisposed to intuit danger of any and every kind. Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow,undefined explains how it works. Describing System One, he observes that our subconscious, is automatic, our limbic alarm system at work; thinking slow, or System Two, is the work of the executive function of our frontal cortex.
In other words, our limbic system acts as a biological sentinel alarm that front-loads our life experience with warnings of potential physical harm or embarrassment in milliseconds, well before our frontal cortex (our executive brain function) is even aware of what is transpiring. [ii] We evolved with a hyper ability to jump to conclusions for safety’s sake. Beyond physical harm, the historical cost of social humiliation for eons was sometimes lethal. Abject racism aside, most people don’t want to be racially prejudiced, yet our brains have already done the subconscious sorting that categorizes people in an “us versus them” fashion.
In his book Why We Snap, neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields explains how neuroimaging shows clearly that racial prejudice and stereotyping are wired into our brains as a means of making sense of the world. Further neuroimaging shows that we do this early on, automatically, without an awareness that we have done so.[iii] Arguing about whether we have internalized racial biases is a complete waste of time. Simply put, categorizing and stereotyping are ingrained in human behavior.
Human biology is incredibly complex, but the fact is that we are biologically predisposed to be suspicious of strangers because we are exceptionally prone to favor that which is familiar. Numerous studies explain how as infants we become astute observers of the facial features of our relatives, with the ability to easily recognize individuals of our own racial groups, but we remain somewhat flummoxed when it comes to recognizing individuals of other races, which is where the common slang of they all look alike is shown to contain a kernel of truth. [iv]
In The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam puts this in perspective: “Our blindness to bias seems willful—until you remember that the central feature of unconscious bias is that it is unconscious.” [v] Our categorizing, in the sense of “us versus them,” is not something that we have conscious control over. Our brains have been doing this for us all our lives simply to make sense of what is before us.
Anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, biologists, and neuroscientists know this, but many of them are not aware that they know it until someone like myself, who has been obsessed with the subject for decades, explains it as I am doing here. We begin as infants, sorting and categorizing everything we see, hear, and touch to make sense of the world, and only death will stop us.
The reality of how implicit biases work is that we must assume if we have grown up in a culture in which racial bias is common that we have been influenced. We must address this by reminding ourselves when we encounter a situation where biases are common that we need to apply executive reasoning using our frontal cortex, rather than emotional reasoning using our limbic system.
Implicit biases are the inevitable result of a species evolving in an environment where being exceptionally wary of the unfamiliar was an urgent necessity and as a result, our world has been plagued by the ubiquity of racial bias for all recorded history. Officers must thoroughly understand how biases are the result of subconscious assumptions that we remain unaware that we have internalized, and this manifest reality makes our opinions about whether we harbor racial biases meaningless. Whenever I hear peace officers being critical of the Black Lives Matter Movement, all it does for me is to reveal someone deeply ignorant of the history of policing in America.
Charles D. Hayes is the author of Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing.
© Charles D. Hayes
undefined Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Random House, 2011), 27-28, 64-65, 81.
[ii] Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (New York: Penguin, 2017), 88.
[iii] R. Douglas Fields, Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain (New York: Dutton, 2015), 308, 309.
[iv] Shanker Vednantam, The Hidden Brain (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010), 72-73.
[v] Vednantam, The Hidden Brain, 22.