Mona Tawatao is a Senior Attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty and a member of the Equal Justice Society board of directors.
On the train from O’Hare to downtown Chicago, my seat mate, eyeing the materials I was reading in preparation for the Mind Science conference at Northwestern Law School the next day (April 26) asked, “Mind Science Conference– what’s that about? Sounds interesting.”
I did my best to explain to this friendly, if somewhat nosy, stranger about implicit and unconscious bias and how despite our best intentions and motivations, our actions are governed largely by deeply-embedded schemas and stereotypes in our mind of which we are not even aware. And, when acted upon undetected and unchecked in the context of employment, health, education, the penal system, etc., these biases can lead to pervasive and lasting racial, gender and other types of inequities that are as damaging, if not more damaging, than those caused by intentional discrimination.
Needless to say, I quickly overwhelmed my fellow traveler and we moved onto “safer” topics.
What I came away with from the inspirational and, in many cases, mind-blowing presentations at the conference, however, was how important it is for us to seize every opportunity to educate, thoughtfully and effectively, judges, lawyers, decision-makers, and members of the public (including strangers on a train) about the latest developments in mind science and, with care, test and apply what we now know about mind science and bias in the cases and other forms of advocacy and professional training in which we are engaged so as to root out race and other forms of discrimination as it actually occurs and not based on false premises.
As a friend of and collaborator with the Equal Justice Society for 10 years and a board member for the past two, I have had the opportunity to follow closely the developments and advances in mind and cognitive science and their implications for anti-discrimination advocacy and work.
As presenter Professor Nilanjana Dasgupta informed the nearly 40 conference attendees, 20 years of mind science research has firmly established that many deeply held assumptions about how bias operates are simply wrong, three being: (1) that attitudes and beliefs are conscious and intentional; (2) that attitudes can change if individuals are open-minded and wish to be egalitarian; and (3) attitudes originate in our minds as opposed to being shaped by social norms and the preferences of others in one’s environment.
With these precepts as a foundation, the presenters moved us to the newer research and some potential and actual applications of the same in our legal and social justice work and advocacy. One line of research establishes that some measure of “debiasing” is possible, if done properly. Specifically, this research shows that changing one’s environment, including media, and changing or broadening one’s circle of contacts reduces implicit bias.
We learned that debiasing strategies that are concrete in nature are more effective as opposed to those that are merely platitudinous. For example, in seeking to prevent “shooter bias”, namely, the well-documented phenomenon that causes many law enforcement officers (and members of the general public, for that matter) to see a cell phone as a cell phone in the hand of a white man and cell phone as a gun in the hand of an African-American man, sometimes with tragic consequences, it is more effective to train police officers using exercises that get them to focus on the object in the person’s hand, as opposed to simply telling them “you need to be aware of and avoid shooter bias.”
Applying similar approaches tailored to local practices, based on the latest, most sophisticated mind science research Professor Phillip Goff of UCLA has succeeded in significantly lowering the incidence of the use of excessive force in several law enforcement agencies around the country.
We heard from the Honorable Mark Bennett, U.S. District Court Judge in the Northern District of Iowa, who uses debiasing practices in his courthouse ranging from giving jury instructions on implicit bias to shaking hands with defendants (who are disproportionately of color) at the commencement of a criminal trial, to illustrate, rather than just explain the tenet “innocent until proven guilty”.
Another promising line of research revealed the perils of acting under a colorblind paradigm. As Professor Victoria Plaut taught us based on her research and related studies, people “primed” (deliberatively programmed or oriented) toward colorblindness showed greater apathy toward racially offensive images, increased explicit and implicit bias, and decreased perception of discrimination and intervention. Higher white colorblindness in interactions with a person of color also lowered the latter’s psychological engagement and negatively affected his or her performance.
Some of what was presented was challenging and disturbing, not given to easy answers or application. What do we do with Professor Jennifer Richeson’s revelation based on her research that subtle discrimination in the workplace is more depleting and creates more work interference for its targets than overt discrimination? What can we offer to Dr. Alison Briscoe-Smith of Oakland Children’s Hospital whose heartbreaking presentation decried the literal brain damage her very young patients suffer as the result of repeated exposures to violence in their neighborhoods?
All that was presented and discussed– the inspiring and hopeful, the difficult and daunting–was critical information that we as advocates fighting for true social equity must take in and figure out how to apply in our work.
I felt tremendously privileged as an attorney practicing health and environmental justice law to have connected directly with ground-breaking researchers, seasoned and new civil rights and community advocates, people fighting for people’s lives on death row and in the juvenile justice system.
I am grateful to the co-sponsors of the conference – the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, American Values Institute, and the Equal Justice Society – for inviting me to participate and look forward to the collaborations to come among my fellow conference attendees and the greater network that I am confident will grow from the conference.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This conference was made possible with the support of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation.