February 26, 2015, by Jules Holroyd

Implicit Race Bias and the Anatomy of Institutional Racism

I recently had the opportunity to speak at an event organised by The Monitoring Group and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, on Police Corruption, Spying, Racism and Accountability. At this conference, a range of participants from activist groups, academia, legal teams and victims of injustice spoke – often powerfully and movingly – on their experience of understanding the workings of injustice, and of endeavours to seek accountability in the face of police and Home Office obstruction, obfuscation and discrimination (videos from the conference can be found here).

I had been asked to participate in a panel on ‘the anatomy of institutional racism’ and speak to the possible role of implicit race bias in that context. As we know, various studies have produced the robust findings that implicit race biases are found in many individuals (in white and minority ethnicity communities). These implicit biases are fast acting, difficult to control and not readily detectable in our awareness: in other words, we may be acting in ways that are inflected with negative race bias, even if we don’t think we are. Particularly worrying are the findings that black males are more strongly associated with words connoting danger than white males (Correll et al, 2002), and in particular with terms associated with weapons (Glaser et al 2008). Perception too seems to be shaped by negative implicit associations: individuals are more likely to identify an ambiguous object as a dangerous weapon when in the hands of a black male than a white male (Payne 2001, Eberhart et al 2004). And, disturbingly, in simulations individuals more readily shot black males who were armed than white males who were armed (Glaser et al 2008).

We can well imagine – and indeed, perhaps some of us need not imagine – the impact that such biases might have if they had a role in policing practice. Given that these biases are pervasive, there is every reason to suppose that they will be present in at least some of those individuals policing our communities. It therefore seems imperative to find out the extent of such biases, and what sort of role such biases might be playing, in policing practice – and work to formulate strategies, attuned to the reality of policing practice, for combating them.

Thinking about implicit bias in the context of institutional racism seems particularly important, when we find recent research telling us that within police forces, many report that the mechanisms producing institutional racism remain obscure, and in particular that the idea of ‘unwitting prejudice’ contained within MacPherson’s definition of institutional racism is not well understood (Souhami 2014, Holdoway & O’Neill, 2006). Efforts to challenge institutional racism, described by this research, such as weeding out ‘bad apples’ with explicitly racist attitudes, or diversifying the police force, will be insufficient to the extent that implicit bias has a role in institutional racism. Implicit biases can be found even in explicitly non-prejudiced individuals, and in minority ethnicity groups as well as amongst whites.

Accordingly, I argued it was important a) to gather evidence about the presence, and kinds of implicit race bias within the police force; b) to identify specific contexts in which such biases might be perpetuating discriminatory and unjust treatment; c) to formulate strategies attuned to those contexts for combating implicit race biases.

Posted in BiasInstitutions