By Esme Choonara
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Can implicit bias explain racism?

This article is over 5 years, 4 months old
Twenty years on from the Macpherson report focus has shifted from institutional racism to unconsious bias. How helpful is this concept in the fight against racism, asks Esme Choonara.
Issue 444

When the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, chaired by William Macpherson, announced in 1999 that the police were institutionally racist, it was a huge vindication of the struggles and arguments of black people and the wider anti-racist movement. Yet 20 years on, there is widespread denial of institutional racism. The London Met police commissioner Cressida Dick recently said she doesn’t see it “as a helpful or accurate description”.

This is despite the fact that at current rates, it would take another 100 years for police forces to reflect the diversity of the area they work in, one of the 70 recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. The chair of the national police chiefs’ council Sara Thornton has also waded into the discussion, arguing that institutional racism is not a helpful term, and that the real problem is “unconscious bias”.

The notion of unconscious bias has become a widespread framework for understanding modern racism. At the end of last year, the Guardian newspaper ran a series of reports entitled “Bias in Britain” which looked at the discrimination that black and Asian people face not just in the criminal justice system, but also in areas of everyday life including housing, employment, education, health, driving tests and even eating out. It showed the enduring and pervasive nature of racism in Britain and investigated how this is experienced by black and Asian people. Yet it uniformly attributed the systematic discrimination it revealed to unconscious bias.

Rapid judgements

The idea of unconscious bias is that all humans naturally make categories out of the world around us as a normal part of understanding and processing information. We make rapid judgements based on assumptions about these categories and these constitute the biases that we may not be aware of and that may inform our outlook and behaviour.

Concepts of unconscious bias can be related to any characteristic, and people using this framework often start with examples they believe are less threatening to a person than suggesting they are racist. For example, the arbitration service ACAS starts its explanation of unconscious bias with an example of a manager who didn’t do well at school who then unconsciously favours an employee without qualifications (an odd example by any standards). However, the notion of unconscious bias is usually applied to forms of discrimination and oppression — predominantly around questions of racism.

It is important to be clear from the outset that unconscious bias does exist. It is a real phenomenon and individuals, including anti-racists and those on the left, can have unconscious biases, prejudices and assumptions. These biases can affect interactions between people in employment, service provision and in everyday encounters. There is a great deal of evidence around job recruitment, for example, that shows bias against women in the fields of science and technology or against black and Asian people in all fields of employment. Throughout the NHS, to take another example, it is very useful to challenge health workers to think about the way they respond to different patients and the assumptions and biases that may inform those interactions.


So unconscious bias is a real problem and should be addressed. However, the notion of unconscious bias becomes problematic when it is elevated from a symptom of a wider racist climate to becoming the over-arching explanation for how racism works.

Notions of unconscious bias suggest that it is natural to favour people who we see as like ourselves and to be hostile to outsiders. So police chief Thornton describes unconscious bias as how “we prefer people who are like ourselves, because we understand them and they are familiar. People who aren’t like ourselves, sometimes we feel less comfortable with.”

This is a very simplistic and reductive view of human psychology. For a start, there is the question of how we decide who is “like ourselves” — a contested area that is shaped by society as well as by our very varied experiences. It is not natural to divide the world into “races” — these are categories created by the ruling class at the birth of capitalism. Our sense of who is “like us” could in fact be based on any number of attributes or values — it could be based on class, or geography, or politics or shoe size or a love of yeast extract. The fact that “race” and ethnicity are so important to our identities is a product of the racist world in which we live.

Second there is a question about what is a natural response to others. There are plenty of potential responses to people we feel are not “like ourselves”, including deference, curiosity, indifference and attraction. Yet it is assumed that the natural response to “outsiders” is always fear and hostility.

So where do people’s unconscious biases come from? When it comes to racism or other forms of oppression, bias is not just based on a neutral sense of affinity or difference — it is based on notions of hierarchy and stereotypes that are created by wider social forces. And these inequalities do not exist just at the level of ideas — they affect the material reality of people’s lives.

Of course many who focus on unconscious bias also see individuals’ attitudes as a reflection of wider society — one writer has described unconscious bias as a “thumbprint” of society, for example. However, the focus on individual psychology means a tendency to try to change ideas and attitudes without actually challenging the wider power structures of racism.

The concept also sometimes slides into the idea that all white people are naturally racist. Ex-footballer John Barnes recently argued that everyone is unconsciously racist, in a somewhat bizarre intervention into the controversy surrounding actor Liam Neeson’s disclosure that he once set out to kill a black man. If bias is unconscious and natural, it is hard to see how it could be eliminated, so it can only be exposed and contained.

The concept of unconscious bias is sometimes used as a way of contrasting the explicit racism of the past with the more hidden racism of the present. So, for example, Baroness McGregor-Smith in her 2017 review into “Race in the Workplace” argued that the government should create more training to tackle unconscious bias that is “much more pervasive and more insidious than the overt racism that we associate with the 1970s”.

The obvious objection to this is that there is still plenty of overt racism around. Just last month racists painted “Blacks Out” on the door of a family home in Salford. Black and Asian people still face racist abuse and physical attacks in the street and racist bullying in the workplace. Racism is being deliberately stoked by those at the top of society — with Theresa May’s creation of the “hostile environment” and Sajid Javid’s attempt to create a national panic over a few refugees attempting to cross the channel on boats.

It is right, however, that some of the most open racism of the 1970s was driven back for a time. But this wasn’t because racism went underground or became repressed into the unconscious psyche of white people, as some argue. It is because anti-racist movements drove back racism and stopped it being respectable. This changed the political climate in Britain. However, gains can be rolled back and globally we are now seeing a frightening resurgence of some of the worst forms of overt racism.

The discussion about how we understand racism matters because it affects how we fight racism. Doreen Lawrence recently pointed out that the institutional racism identified by Macpherson was quickly replaced by notions of “diversity” — a term that hides the underlying power dynamics of racism. Diversity in turn seems to have now been largely replaced by ideas of unconscious bias.

Primarily psychological

Seeing racism as a primarily psychological phenomenon implies the key battle ground is ideas, and the key aim is to improve equality through mitigating against natural biases. Seeing racism as structured into the functioning of capitalism, by contrast suggests that collective struggle is needed not just against each manifestation of racism, but also against the system itself.

One of the consequences of focusing on unconscious bias is a reliance on experts. If unconscious bias cannot easily be recognised by individuals it puts the emphasis on scientists, diversity trainers and implicit association tests to reveal the truth about our hidden ideas. This moves the activity of antiracism away from collective struggle towards technical fixes, psychological retraining and even, at the extreme, towards medical solutions (see below).

The biggest problem with the idea of unconscious bias is that it lets those in power off the hook. If racism becomes just one of multiple natural biases, then there is no need to understand or acknowledge the specific history of racism — how it is rooted in slavery and colonialism and how it is used today to create scapegoats and divide working class people. This is why employers, police chiefs and government ministers are all too happy to embrace the idea of unconscious bias. It points the problem away from them, their vested interests and their institutions. In fact it can cast them as the enlightened good guys trying to retrain and restrain their employees’ baser instincts.

Where unconscious bias is understood in the context of institutions and not just isolated individuals, the logic is often to find ways to mitigate bias — for example by evaluating job applications without details of gender or ethnicity. The establishment of anonymous marking in many university departments is another example — one that came from the demands of student unions in the 1990s. However these measures only deal with one aspect of a much wider problem — which is why a recent large-scale study concluded that the racial disparities in higher education have persisted dispite anonymous marking.

Similarly, revealing disproportionality of black and Asian people in particular roles can shine a spotlight on racism, but just demanding better proportionality isn’t enough to change the racism embedded in specific organisations. Almost 50 percent of officers in the NYPD are of black or minority ethnicity, for example, a much closer correlation to the local population than British police forces, but this has not eliminated police racism. This is because racism is not just lodged in the unconscious bias of individual officers, but in the institutional culture and functioning of the organisation — and in this case is best understood as part of the role of the police in maintaining capitalist society.

The concept of institutional racism, as defined in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, does allow space for challenging instances of unconscious bias — it encompasses both overt and covert forms of racism in public and private organisations. Macpherson argued that institutional racism could be seen “in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Systematically embedded

This definition was in fact a weak reflection of a more radical understanding of institutional racism that came out of the Black Power movement of the 1960s. However, the framework of institutional racism used by Macpherson is still vastly superior to that of simply unconscious bias. It sees racism as not just located in individuals, but as systematically embedded in the policies and practices of an organisation, placing responsibility for that racism at the top of those organisations.

Saying that racism is structured into capitalism doesn’t mean that anti-racists and socialists aren’t interested in changing attitudes or tackling specific manifestations of racism. We should combat every area of racism. Ideas, including entrenched biases, can change — but they don’t exist in a vacuum. Active struggle against racism and the capitalist system that perpetuates it can help to break down reactionary ideas, drive back racist discrimination and point the way to eliminating racism altogether.

The rapid rise of implicit bias tests

The rising popularity of the concept of unconscious bias has been accompanied by the growth in implicit association tests (IAT) — a computerised form of self-testing that was created by US academics in the 1990s to try to illuminate unconscious psychological biases in individuals. These tests involve timing individuals’ responses to associations between images of different characteristics and positive or negative values. Despite their widespread use, the tests are supported by poor scientific evidence. Yet IATs have become the core for many of the training programmes around unconscious bias — an industry that has burgeoned into a multimillion dollar money spinner.

In the US it is estimated that companies spend over $8 billion a year on unconscious bias training. In New York, more than 40,000 members of the NYPD are currently undergoing classes in implicit bias, with over $4.5 million being handed to a private contractor to carry out the training. In the UK, psychologist Dr Pete Jones recently reported that he has conducted over 2,000 IATs with police staff — with a fifth of these showing a concerning level of ethnic bias.

The claim of implicit association tests to quantify unknown biases in a scientific way has been extended into the field of neuroscience with attempts to combine the IAT with identifying areas of brain activity connected to unconscious prejudice. Racism, in this framework, isn’t a societal problem that we should confront collectively but a neurological phenomenon that can be treated. So a 2012 study from Oxford University claimed to prove that a beta-blocker tablet could stop implicit bias. This was followed by a 2015 Dutch study that claimed to show that forms of induced brain stimulation could reduce prejudice. One member of the Dutch team even humbly suggested that their work meant that “the dream of Martin Luther King…may become a little closer”! There isn’t space here to discuss the problematic science of these claims. However, it is clear that this approach offers a hugely reductive view of racism that strips it of history, context and struggle.

• To read more, see Race on the Brain: What implicit bias gets wrong about the struggle for racial justice, by Jonathan Kahn.

• To try an Implicit Association Test for yourself (for free), go to

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