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A reckoning on race, with its heightened awareness about the sustained effects of racism in American society, is changing the experiences of diversity and anti-bias educators/trainers and their audience interactions. The door is opening to frank, more truthful conversations about topics like implicit bias. Simultaneously, corporate America is demonstrating a new sensitivity toward these issues, including a willingness to relinquish profits for opportunities to improve racial equity and inclusion.
It will be needed. Tragedies such as the killing of six Asian women in Atlanta massage spas demonstrate, even if authorities aren't willing to openly acknowledge it, that the stereotypes surrounding race continue to influence implicit and explicit actions.
When George Floyd lay lifeless on that Minneapolis street last May, it began shaping a starkly different narrative in American society. Instead of second-hand accounts about police abuse, social media delivered an undeniable scene: a policeman pressing his knee on a Black man's neck as life seeped out of his body. Fellow officers callously looked on.
The killing of Floyd along with the deaths of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, enraged Black as well as white Americans and dramatically altered the landscape around race. In the aftermath of the recent Atlanta shootings, there have been widespread vigils against anti-Asian bias. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Atlanta. It was a stark difference from August 2017 when Heather Heyer died during a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Donald Trump said, "I think there is blame on both sides."
There has to be an acknowledgement of certain fundamental truths regarding the racial/ethnic history of the United States. First, the United States is not a nation of immigrants. Native Americans were already here when Europeans arrived, and Black Americans were forced to come here against their will; that is not immigration. We are a nation of foreigners, with the exception of indigenous people. To call enslaved people immigrants is offensive.
Second, American and Caribbean chattel slavery was the worst form of slavery in human history. It is distinguished by the fact that slaves were chattel (property), the trade was transcontinental, it affected up to 40 million people (approximately 12.5 million survived the full journey), was extremely brutal, was intergenerational, almost split the country in half, formally lasted 246 years and was relatively recent, ending 156 years ago.
Third, systemic racial bias exists today in most major aspects of American life: health care, income, employment, education, criminal justice, and housing, among others. If the existence of these and other fundamental truths based on racism remains widely denied, as it often was in the past, it would be a barrier to progress — a failure to acknowledge a problem that our society must address. When these issues are brought forth, the topics can be discussed and strategies created to address the problems.
Today, there is an environment where diversity and anti-bias educators/trainers can talk about the causes of the biases as well as the impact. Although it is difficult to eliminate implicit bias, there are promising practices for reducing its effect on behavior. These strategies include: removing or avoiding information that may activate racial stereotypes, basing decisions on objective rather than subjective information, absorbing education about targets of bias, holding people accountable for biased behavior, developing genuine relationships with members of other groups, and consistently engaging in bias-reducing habits.
Candid conversations about these topics put individuals and organizations in a position to more effectively mitigate the potential impact of implicit bias on various outcomes. As a result, more organizations are seeking anti-bias education and training for senior leadership, management, and staff, especially those who are public facing.
There is no better example of the corporate commitment than the E.W. Scripps Company airing my implicit bias training session in a one-hour, commercial-free special in March on television stations in their 41 local markets across the country. It was an unprecedented response to this moment. We are a nation sharply divided but with a strong desire by many to be better.
Scripps decided to bring this relevant content to their local markets, opening the airways to educate the public and spark discussion among colleagues or neighbors about implicit bias. Focusing on our unconscious impulses can encourage authentic conversations at work, school and in communities. These discussions can also open up opportunities for interactions where people can gain a deeper understanding of each other.
When people realize they harbor implicit bias, they seem a bit surprised at first. Still, upon reflection, they can connect the dots and begin to understand how a particular bias may have developed. Some feel some guilt, but I believe it fades away when we explain the science of implicit bias as a byproduct of simply living in society with a functioning brain. Often, people are willing to acknowledge their implicit bias if they aren't made to feel guilty or judged.
Implicit bias can be found in our criminal justice system when a judge gives a harsher sentence to a Black man for the same offense as a white man. It can be found in our education system when a Black student is assumed to be less intelligent because of his or her race. And it can be seen in our health care system when white Americans are more likely to receive prescriptions and/or refills for pain management medication than Black and Hispanic Americans.
Through the decades, people have been unwilling to believe these episodes of bias actually exist. Just as there has been a reluctance to accept that America was founded physically and politically on racial inequities, on forcing Africans, as slaves, to be the backbone of the Southern economy. Historic racial beliefs, both conscious and implicit, shaped American society, public policy, and private sector practices while influencing the public's behavior as well as that of civic and political leaders.
But now, after all the nation has endured the past year, more people are open to acknowledging these truths. Everyone can benefit from anti-bias training, but it is imperative to train people who make decisions that have significant or life and death impact: police, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and social workers.
The more we can engage in candid conversations and acknowledge how the past has shaped our present, the better the odds that the United States can have a more just future.
Bryant T. Marks is a tenured professor of psychology at Morehouse College. He is also an anti-bias/diversity trainer and the founder, and chief equity officer of the National Training Institute on Race and Equity (NTIRE). NTIRE has launched an interactive social media campaign #ImplicitBias#SeeMEon TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.