Combating Unconscious Bias and Systemic Racism

June 3, 2021
Valerie Leow, J.D. Candidate, University of Alberta

Congress 2021 blog edition 

Although – hopefully – most of us do not consciously or intentionally work to perpetuate inequality in the world, odds are that most of us at least sometimes say or do things that preclude diversity and exclude the ‘other.’ SAGE Publishing hosted the “Getting Real About Inequality and Unconscious Bias” open event at Congress on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. This event featured pre-recorded presentations by two contributing authors to the book, Getting Real About Race, and one contributing author to the book, Getting Real About Inequality, all of whom speak on how we can endeavour to do better in terms of addressing inequality and unconscious bias. 

The first speaker, Karen Wu, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and contributed the chapter, ““I Just Think Asian Men Aren’t Sexy!”: Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality, and the Devaluing of Asian Men and Women,” to the book, Getting Real About Inequality. Because of the myth that there is no racism against Asian Americans, or that Asians represent the ‘model minority,’ Wu argued that society fails to address many issues that Asian Americans face. This can be seen in Harvard’s admissions officers denying Asians solely based on their race or ethnicity. They justified their actions by rating Asian-American applicants as a group as scoring lower than other groups on positive personality traits, showing that even people we commonly assume are ‘educated’ are still affected by negative stereotypes. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to anti-Asian sentiments, as it is much more common now for someone to act blatantly racist against Asians as compared to pre-COVID-19. According to Wu, bias needs to be handled on a societal level. If someone implies that we, either consciously or unconsciously, spoke or acted in a discriminatory way, many of us will likely get upset because we generally want to feel good about ourselves. However, in order to take a step closer towards societal change, we need to acknowledge that we all have biases, and “embrace the discomfort and bad feelings that accompany confronting these biases.” 

Wu was followed by Bradley Koch, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Georgia College & State University and author of the chapter, ““Native American/Indian, Asian/Oriental, Latino/Hispanic… Who Cares?”: Language and the Power of Self-Definition,” in the book, Getting Real About Race. Koch talked about the role of implicit associations – unconscious associations, attitudes, or stereotypes – in bringing about racist outcomes. An example given by Koch is that police officers tend to have higher anti-Black Implicit-Association Test (IAT) scores on average than general members of the public. The result is that police officers are more likely to arrest or use more force against people of colour, especially Black individuals, as compared to White individuals, and that people of colour will more frequently be the targets of traffic stops or even victims of deaths that occur during arrests. An unconscious belief amongst police officers that people of colour commit more crimes leads to a heavier policing of people of colour; and since “more crime is going to be found where you look,” more police interactions with people of colour will only perpetuate these same kinds of racist outcomes. Additionally, Koch noted that it is important to pay attention to the role of language in both reflecting and creating bias, seeing as we tend to behave in ways that are consistent with the language of the dominant culture, and then act in ways that reproduce that same social order. “Language is a part of the continuing system of the way that meaning is created, and then handed down, especially generationally,” said Koch. 

The third and final presentation was by Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the Georgia College & State University Sara Doude, who also contributed to the book, Getting Real About Race, with her chapter, ““If Black People Aren’t Criminals, Then Why Are So Many of Them in Prison?”: Confronting Racial Biases in Perceptions of Crime and Criminals.” Doude briefly delved into the history of slavery in America, particularly that of Black individuals, and how the American legal system balanced the status of Black individuals as both people and, legally, ‘property.’ She also discussed the different historical laws regarding crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Even though they are chemically the same product – cocaine – albeit in different forms, crack cocaine was more likely to be used by minorities, people of colour, and the poor, whilst powder cocaine was more likely to be used by white individuals and people with money. The fact that crack cocaine was more heavily policed than powder cocaine reflects the bias and systemic racism that pervades the legal and criminal justice system. “Racist stereotypes – especially questions of “who’s the criminal?” – are very misleading because they aren’t right. They’re stereotypes.” These stereotypes, Doude argued, have been perpetuated for decades, ebbing and flowing according to who is in power, and represent a long history of racial biases within America’s history.