News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 2 to 3 p.m.

Everyone's a little bit racist: explaining implicit bias




A woman faces police officers advancing to arrest anyone who fails to disperse as demonstrators react to the grand jury decision not to indict a white police officer who had shot dead an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, in the early morning hours of November 25, 2014 in Los Angeles.
A woman faces police officers advancing to arrest anyone who fails to disperse as demonstrators react to the grand jury decision not to indict a white police officer who had shot dead an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, in the early morning hours of November 25, 2014 in Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images

Listen to story

08:59
Download this story 8MB

There's a common thread in many of the recent killings of black people by police: officers deemed that person "threatening."

For example, some say police in Minnesota shot Philando Castile because he was seen as threatening for carrying a firearm; they argue that a white person doing the same would not have been killed.

There is an entire field of research dedicated to this psychological and social phenomenon called implicit bias.

"It's either an attitude or stereotype that you have about a social category – maybe a racial group – that you didn't know you have," says Jerry Kang, a vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA. Kang says no one is immune from having implicit biases, either.

"Recognize first, with some humility, that none of us is perfect," he says.

So like the song from the musical "Avenue Q" says, everyone's a little bit racist.

Or at least some kind of -ist. Even you.

For example, someone might say men and women should do equal work in the home, but after dinner the wife defaults to doing dishes at the sink while the husband watches TV.

Or people might say they believe all races are created equal, but then get nervous about being mugged by a black person who crosses their path on the street.

Kang says researchers are able to quantify these feelings with a type of video game (which you can take it online right now).

Test-takers are asked to match faces to ideas that are quickly shown on a computer: type "1" when you see a white face or positive word, for example, and "2" if you see a black face or a negative word. Then in the next phase, type "1" when you see a white face or negative word, and "2" if you see a black face and a positive word.

The program works by tracking how fast subjects reacted.

About two-thirds of testers were able to sort words like "beauty" and "joy" faster to white faces than with black faces in one study. In another, 72 percent of people were able to more quickly sort pictures of firearms when they were shown with pictures of young black men.

"It turns out we're not nearly as color-blind and gender-blind as we think we are," says Kang. "Most people are shocked, shocked, shocked when they take one of these tests."

It is possible to change the programming in your head, however.

Kang believes that the diversity in Los Angeles is a huge benefit, actually: the greater number of relationships you have with people of different backgrounds than yourself, the greater likelihood that you'll have positive attitudes towards others who look like them.

"It turns out who your friends are do matter," says Kang.

Also, he says people's views may change when presented with "counter-typical exemplars."

If, for example, you imagine a generic police officer and the first image in your mind is of a tall, white guy, seeing a different kind of officer – say, a short Latina woman – will reset your understanding of a typical cop.

"The bottom line is you are what you eat, you are what you see," he says. "It's all something we, as a society, should work on."