Why the Term ‘Implicit Bias’ Has to Go

junkscience

by Christopher Paslay

It’s negative, hypocritical, and does nothing to open minds and solve problems.

Earlier this week, Texas high school English teacher Melissa Garcia wrote an article for Education Week headlined, “Why Teachers Must Fight Their Own Implicit Biases.” In it she cautions teachers not to judge a book by its cover when dealing with new pupils, which is good advice; as educators, we should be proactive instead of reactive, and remain fully present with our students by staying in the moment without labeling or judging them.

Only Garcia doesn’t use the words don’t judge a book by its cover, or be proactive rather than reactive, or be fully present without labeling or judging. She chooses the phrase implicit bias, which not only carries a negative connotation (I don’t know a single person who is proud of having a so-called “implicit bias”), but is also inherently political and dualistic, and in my experience tends to make teachers defensive, causing them to close their minds rather than open them.

Still, Garcia seems genuinely interested in helping improve education, and goes on to write about the importance of first impressions at the beginning of a new school year. She states:

In these moments, as students mingle and shyly interact with one another, we the teachers begin to make the very crucial observations that will affect our perceptions, and thus inform our expectations, of each student that school year.

Research has shown that before teachers even have a conversation with a student, they have already formulated a number of opinions based on that student’s race, appearance, and other factors—and begun to form a certain set of expectations. . . .

Regardless of how much we may like to think of ourselves as progressive educators, the reality is that our subconscious is at work. . . . These subconscious thoughts and feelings are known as implicit biases. Whether our perceptions are positive or negative, they have an impact; they determine expectations, and these expectations dictate how we teach. Studies show that teacher expectations are closely linked to student achievement and success.

In a nutshell, Garcia isn’t saying anything we haven’t known for decades: teachers make observations about their new students, which lead to expectations that have an impact on student achievement.

What is relatively new, however, is the term “implicit bias,” and the idea that an educator can filter out these so-called negative subconscious prejudices by learning to be more aware of them. Also new are the implicit bias training sessions that are popping up everywhere—from Starbucks to the Philadelphia School District—which are being run by lawyers, CEO’s, and activists with little to no training in clinical counseling or psychology; amazingly, input on the Starbucks training came solely from lawyers, CEO’s, and activists, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

From a clinical standpoint, the new phenomenon known as “implicit bias” is junk science. Especially the notion that the extraordinarily popular Implicit Association Test (IAT) can measure either real bias or predict human behavior with any accuracy.

Last year, New York magazine published a lengthy article debunking the IAT, stating:

A pile of scholarly work, some of it published in top psychology journals and most of it ignored by the media, suggests that the IAT falls far short of the quality-control standards normally expected of psychological instruments. The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior — even the test’s creators have now admitted as such.

The notion of “implicit bias” is clearly more about politics than it is about counseling. Ask any psychiatrist if you can suddenly become aware of the complex language of your subconscious simply by deciding to notice your “implicit biases” and they will laugh you out of the building; traditionally, analyzing the subconscious is done through psychotherapy, hypnosis, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), among other approaches.

From a clinical standpoint, an educator’s tendency to make a snap judgement of a student is much more related to that teacher’s conditioning, not the complexities of his or her subconscious. The root of conditioning is something called learning. According to B.F. Skinner, Learning is an adaptive function by which our nervous system changes in relation to stimuli in the environment, thus changing our behavioral responses and permitting us to function in our environment. And those of us who have any clinical training (I’m a certified secondary school counselor in PA and my wife is a licensed clinical social worker in three states) know that there are three main types of learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning.

So it’s conditioning that causes an educator to make a rash judgement of a new student, not technically “subconscious thoughts and feelings,” but I digress.

The point is this: the whole “implicit bias” theory is oversimplified gobbledygook, and although some educators have adopted it with good intentions, the fact remains it’s inherently political. Specifically, it can be used to set policy and control the narrative on race, among other things.

Take the 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that showed Black students were more than three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled. Why was this the case? Because America’s teachers, which were 84 percent White, were racist. Were there any documented cases of discrimination in the classroom? No, but the teachers were institutionally racist. Or, according to today’s buzz phrase, they had an “implicit bias”; the fact that Black students were three times as poor as their White peers didn’t seem to factor into the equation.

So President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan chastised American teachers for being racist and implemented a bunch of strangling regulations that made it harder to suspend students of certain races (robbing many children of their right to an education in the process), and guess what happened? Nothing; in 2018, Black students are still more than three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled.

But at least politically, you can absolve certain races of responsibility and blame others.

Which is why the notion of “implicit bias” has to go. It’s negative, hypocritical, and does nothing to open minds and solve problems. If we as teachers want to remain fully present with our students and stay free of judgements, why don’t we keep things simple and say instead: Be proactive, not reactive. And never judge a book by its cover.

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Starbucks and the Hogwash Known as Implicit Bias

Starbucks

by Christopher Paslay

The supposed implicit bias seen at a Philadelphia Starbucks is similar to the ‘spectral evidence’ seen during the Salem Witch Trials.

By now we know the story.  Two black men went into a Philadelphia coffee shop last Thursday in Rittenhouse Square, planning to meet-up with a friend.  One or both of the men asked to use the bathroom (amazingly, the story still lacks key details at this point), and were told by a Starbucks manager that the restrooms were for paying customers only, and were asked to leave.

The two men didn’t leave.  Or buy anything.  They sat down at a table, ignoring the manager.  The manager, a white female, called the police.  “Hi, I have two gentlemen in my café that are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” the manager said, according the the 911 call. “I’m at the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce.”

The 911 dispatcher responded: “Alright, police will be out as soon as possible.”

The police came and respectfully tried to explain to the men, for nearly 15 minutes, that they needed to leave or be charged with trespassing.  According to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, the police gave the men three chances to leave, but they didn’t move.  Finally, the two men were escorted out in handcuffs.

Why?

Not because the two men ignored the store policy and the authority of the manager (they could have simply purchased a cookie for a few dollars), and not because they ignored the polite requests by police to exit the store.  No; the two men were arrested because the police officers (one of whom is black) are racist.

Because the Starbucks manager is racist.

Not consciously racist, mind you, but unconsciously.  That’s the kicker.  The conscious intent of the store manager and police doesn’t matter here, even if they didn’t mean any harm.  Even if the manager was simply following store policy (the facilities are for paying customers only) and the police were simply following the law (it’s trespassing when you refuse to leave private property).

The verdict being rendered by social justice warriors across America is that the police and the Starbucks manager have an implicit bias.  How do we know?  Because people like Melissa DePino, an upper-middle-class white woman who does marketing for nonprofits, say so.  She took the video of the two men getting arrested.  In an article published on CNN.com, she stated:

. . . none of this attention I’m getting for tweeting the video that showed the horrific treatment of two young black men in Philadelphia just doing what we all do at Starbucks—sitting and talking quietly—should be about me or any other person who does not experience these kinds of indignities, threats of violence and discrimination every day. . . . How did these two men feel as they were arrested? Why did this incident happen? What can we do to make sure that incidents like these—and worse—stop happening?

Well, one way to stop this from happening is to respect store policy.  When a manager explains that you must make a purchase in order to remain in the store, you make a purchase or leave; this is guaranteed to keep the peace in any coffee shop in America.  As for the matter of getting handcuffed by police?  Perhaps you might want to respect their authority as well, and not completely ignore them when they tell you to exit the building.

But according to people like DePino, the two black men experienced “horrific treatment” not because of their refusal to comply with a very reasonable store policy, but because of the implicit bias of the store manager and the police (one of whom was black).  That’s their verdict—implicit racial bias.  Case closed.  The proof?  Because people like DePino say so.  Are the people who cry implicit racial bias experts in psychology, psychiatry, or applied behavioral science?  No.  Do they have any clinical training whatsoever?  Not at all.

Were the arresting officers and the Starbucks manager psychoanalyzed by a professional, or put under hypnosis?  Were anecdotal records kept of their interactions with other customers in and around the store?  Do we have any documented evidence that the Starbuck’s manger treated these two black men any differently than any other people?  (When I say evidence, I mean real, empirical data showing that the behavior of the police and store manager was biased, not speculation from latte-drinking folks like DePino, who possibly suffer from white-guilt and project their own unresolved prejudices on the world around them.)

Do we have anything like this?

Of course not.

But this doesn’t stop DePino and the social justice folk from calling the Starbucks manager and members of the Philadelphia Police Department racists, and completely destroying their reputations (and in the case of the Starbucks manager, her career).  This doesn’t stop them from claiming they have, get this—an unconscious bias—not one that the manager or police can see, but only they can see.

How do you know the Starbucks manager has an implicit bias, Ms. DePino?  How are you able to get inside her unconscious and know her racial prejudices?  Seriously?  How do you do it?  If the manager were to say she called the police because she was simply following store policy, and insisted it had nothing to do with skin color, how could you prove otherwise?  How do you know, really know, this isn’t true?  The police have already stated that they didn’t act on skin color, so are you calling them liars?  Are you a mind reader, is that it?  You know their intentions better than they do themselves?

Witch TrialsThis so-called “implicit bias” is very similar to the “spectral evidence” that was used to
convict people of being witches during the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th century.  Townspeople who had a gripe with a neighbor could claim that they were attacked by the neighbor’s spirit, and the only proof was the testimony of the victim.  Many, many people were killed until folks started to realize the absurdity of the situation—the fact that there was absolutely no conclusive way to prove such crimes.

Interestingly, there’s no conclusive way to prove implicit bias.  Project Implicit, which was founded by Harvard professors and describes itself as “a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition—thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control,” is a recognized expert on the subject.  You can even go on their website and take a test to see if you have an implicit racial bias.  However, the organization has posted a disclaimer.  It states, “these Universities, as well as the individual researchers who have contributed to this site, make no claim for the validity of these suggested interpretations.”

Incredibly, even the experts on implicit bias admit there is no validity for the results of their tests.  Loose translation: implicit bias is hogwash.

Granted, people are subject to conditioning and often use life experiences to make important decisions.  In addition, the way we interpret the world is based on physiological, psychological, and sociological factors.  But no one has the right to tell another person what they were thinking at the time they made a choice, nor do they have the right to claim to know a person’s intent better than that person themselves, whether conscious or unconscious.

Any attempts to do so is outrageous, and dangerously close to 17th century Salem.