clock menu more-arrow no yes

Yes, Mike Pence, it’s possible for black cops to have implicit bias

The research on implicit bias is clear: Anyone is susceptible to it.

Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s running mate, used the words “implicit bias” in the vice presidential debate on Tuesday — but he completely bungled what the words actually mean.

Pence took offense with Hillary Clinton’s suggestion in the first presidential debate that everyone has implicit biases — subconscious thoughts that shape how we view people based on their race, age, gender, and so on.

Pence said:

[Police] hear the bad mouthing that comes from people that seize upon tragedy in the wake of police action shootings as a reason to use a broad brush to accuse law enforcement of implicit bias or institutional racism. And that really has got to stop. When an African-American police officer in Charlotte named Brentley Vinson, an all-star football player who went to Liberty University here in the state, came home, followed his dad into law enforcement, joined the force in Charlotte in 2014, was involved in a police action shooting that claimed the life of Keith Lamont Scott, it was a tragedy. We mourn with those who mourn, we grieve with those who grieve, and we are saddened at the loss of life.

But Hillary Clinton actually referred to that moment as an example of implicit bias in the police force. When she was asked in the debate a week ago whether there was implicit bias in law enforcement, her only answer was that there was implicit bias in everyone in the United States.

I just think what we ought to do is we ought to stop seizing on these moments of tragedy. We got to assure the public that we will have a full and complete and transparent investigation whenever there is a loss of life because of police action. But senator, please, enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly by making accusation of implicit bias every time tragedy occurs.

Essentially, Pence is saying that the black police officer who shot Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, couldn’t have been biased against black people because he is himself black.

But while black people appear to be less biased against other black people, they can still have anti-black biases. According to the research, people of all races build up implicit bias throughout their lives by being exposed to different cultural influences — for example, a lot of media coverage characterizes black people as criminals, leading much of the public to associate black people with criminality.

No one, including black police officers, is immune to this. Project Implicit, a nonprofit research organization, summarized the evidence it’s collected on this question:

Although the majority of White respondents show a preference for White over Black, the responses from Black respondents are more varied. Although some Black participants show liking for White over Black, others show no preference, and yet others show a preference for Black over White. Data collected from this website consistently reveal approximately even numbers of Black respondents showing a pro-White bias as show a pro-Black bias. Part of this might be understood as Black respondents experiencing the similar negative associations about their group from experience in their cultural environments, and also experiencing competing positive associations about their group based on their own group membership and that of close relations.

The short of it: Roughly as many black people report a pro-white bias as a pro-black one, in large part because black people are exposed to the same cultural influences that lead to subconscious biases against black people.

For police officers, the primary issue with these biases is that they can lead them to use excessive force against black Americans. Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, previously said it’s possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”

This is what Clinton was talking about. Just about everyone, including black cops, can have implicit biases. And the research backs her up.


Watch: Why recording the police is so important