Overcoming Hidden Biases
Abe Markman, MSWNew York Society for Ethical CultureRecipient of the NYSEC 2010 Community Service Award
On the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, what gets little attention is an unintended consequence of the civil rights movement. The movement so transformed the way we thought about the relationship between blacks and whites that many people became ashamed to admit to having a bias toward blacks.
Shanker Vedantam in his book, The Hidden Brain
, indicates that biases are formed in the early months and years of our life and that this process takes place independently of the parents’ influence. He states that biases of children can develop no matter how hard parents try to shield their young ones from them.
I believe a major unfinished aspect of the civil rights movement is the need to face and overcome one’s own bias. We should realize that we need not be ashamed of biases formed years before we were able to keep them from our young impressionable brains. I have known that I have a deep bias toward blacks for about 60 years. When I say that, most people do not believe me because they know of my belief and activism in promoting civil and human rights.
I married Charlotte, an African-American woman, in 1953. We shared our biases with each other and we both had confidence that we could control them. Until recently, however, I wondered why I couldn’t get rid of my bias. My bias lies below the surface until I see a black face as an anchor on TV. In a split-second, I wonder why that face is black and not white. In another split-second, I recognize that my initial perception is counter to my conscious belief system and I dismiss it as unwanted.
In 2009 Charles M. Blow in his New York Times op-ed article referred to studies that concluded that “most whites have a hidden racial bias.” Blacks have biases toward whites, though not as frequently. Blow explained that “researchers were able to ameliorate whites’ racial bias by teaching them to distinguish black peoples’ faces from one another. Basically, seeing black people as individuals diminished white peoples’ discrimination. Imagine that.” After years of facing skepticism when I told people that my brain must be hard-wired with this negative attitude the social scientists referred to by Charles Blow tended to agree with me.
As a white man living as a member of a black family for the last 58 years, and in addition serving people of color as a social worker in inner cities, I can attest to having prejudice toward blacks and learning how to act without it. The key, I think, is to fully acknowledge it. Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Blink
discusses this phenomenon. He quotes a psychologist, Keith Payne, who wrote that, “When we make a split-second decision, we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe.” Gladwell goes on to write that when one of our own hidden biases flashes before us “we need to wait a beat before identifying the object in an unbiased way.”
There is now a method of training recently implemented by the New York Police Department that helps officers. Malcolm Gladwell quotes research that indicates that when an officer believes his life is in danger he becomes so frightened that he is no longer able to recognize body language. When facing a person of color, an officer thinks stereotypically and too often believes that the person is carrying a gun or a knife and is ready to kill him. In the training, the officers are taught to wait a split-second before determining whether or not to shoot. With repeated virtual training the officer is able to put his bias aside and recognize the person’s body language and act appropriately. NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly recently announced a sharp decline in shootings by police officers. I believe that we can presume that the bias training was an important factor in that reduction.
After white people assure themselves that they are not under the control of their bias they may feel free to be as critical of blacks as they feel is warranted. This could lead to much more honest and rewarding experiences.
So now you have it. I do hope you found my story worth thinking about and worth telling others about. Finally, I hope the day will come when we can tell our stories to each other not out of a sense of confession but out of a sense of satisfaction and a sense of victory over our demons.The above was from Abe Markman’s April platform at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. On May 1st, The Ethical Society of Boston held a panel called “Reframing the Conversation on Race: An Issue of Ethics and Humanity” where four community activists presented their perspectives on how we can change the social and political dynamics of race in America (see the full story here).