The brain also has been shown to react in a biased way towards people of color.
Studies have shown that specific areas of the brain, called amygdalae, activate when we feel fear, threat, anxiety and distrust. People with diagnosed phobias of spiders and snakes have significantly higher levels of amygdala activation when they view pictures of those fear triggers than when they view pictures of other predatory or ferocious creatures, such as tigers.
A pioneering study showed a measurable increase in the activation of the amygdala when Caucasian participants viewed African American male faces versus Caucasian male faces. The level of amygdala activation correlated with how subjects performed on the Race IAT. Nationwide, 70 to 87 percent of Caucasians in the United States demonstrate bias against African Americans on the Race IAT.
In addition, studies have found that people tend to automatically associate African Americans and crime, sometimes to dire consequences. According to studies like the “Shoot/No Shoot” test, created at the University of Chicago, they may even be willing to take severe action when the threat is an imagined reaction based on their implicit biases.
Implicit bias has an undeniable impact on our policies and decisions in the areas of criminal justice, employment, environmental justice, housing and more.
If we believe that certain people are more frightening and dangerous, then we may want to create policies to protect ourselves from them. If we believe that certain people are more threatening, then we may be less willing to protect them from unjust laws. If we believe certain people are more likely to commit crimes, then we may want to build more jails and fewer schools to serve that population.
The hard science redefines the conversation surrounding civil rights. When we talk about disproportionate minority contact (the disproportionate number of minority youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system), we must also talk about disproportionate amygdala activation. When we talk about disparate decision-making we must also talk about disparate medial Prefrontal Cortex activation.
Today’s civil rights leaders face a new challenge: to expose the subconscious and subtle forms of bias and fear that exist in us and of which we often are unaware.
If the law does not acknowledge the role of implicit bias and structural inequities, people challenging unfair policies or decisions have to prove the people responsible for them intentionally discriminated, which is a near impossible hurdle. Implicit bias is often how discrimination reveals itself today. If we can understand how our brains work, we finally may be able to figure out how to conquer these biases and work together toward a fair and just society.