By Marc H. Morial
President & CEO
National Urban League
“Those of us who bear the brunt of racial bias and oppression every day end up having to not only battle that bias and oppression, but also convince everyone else that it even exists. It is very hard for the majority of the population to see how the everyday businesses, agencies, and organizations that we interact with are perpetrating harmful racial bias, and even harder for the majority of the population to see how they are perpetrating harmful racial bias themselves. It is hard to see how something that can feel like the air you breathe to most, can be the storm you drown in to others.” — Ijeoma Oluo
The arrest of two young Black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks sparked widespread protest and has ignited a national conversation about the issue of implicit bias and how to combat it.
As a sort of contrast, around the same time as the Starbucks arrest, a fraternity at Syracuse University was suspended over racist, sexist and homophobic videos recorded in the fraternity house and posted to a fraternity Facebook group.
The videos show members pledging always to “have hatred in my heart” for African Americans, Hispanics and Jews – all of whom are referenced with slurs.
It doesn’t get any more explicit than that.
Implicit bias doesn’t advertise itself as blatantly. It doesn’t wear a hood and burn a cross. Unlike explicit bias, implicit bias has many defenders who fail to see it for what it is.
Last year, the United States Supreme Court reversed the death sentence of a defendant after the defendant’s attorney introduced evidence that suggested the defendant would be more likely to commit violent acts in the future because he was black.
As I wrote at the time the case was being argued:
The false belief that black people are inherently more dangerous than other races has obvious and injurious implications in criminal justice proceedings. Large segments of society, our economy and countless individuals are harmed when this myth of black dangerousness is validated. The idea of an innate black tendency to violence is a malignant, centuries-old belief that continues to impact America, undermining freedom, individuality and opportunity.
This false belief – this implicit bias – is not only what led to the arrest of the two young men in Starbucks, it is behind the tragic deaths of far too many young men and boys, from Travon Martin and Tamir Rice to Philando Castile and John Crawford.
Studies indicate that 70% of Americans harbor implicit racial bias against black people. It infects our interactions at every level of society. Even preschoolers are not immune – Black children make up 20 percent of preschool students, but half those who are suspended.
Implicit bias is reinforced by the media – for example, while about half of people arrested by the New York Police Department for violent crime are Black; they are represented as suspects in 75 percent of the cases shown on evening tv news coverage.
Starbucks decision to close its stores for a day of implicit bias training is well-intentioned, but it cannot be an isolated effort. We hope it is the beginning of a national awakening to an issue that has hidden in plain sight for far too long.