Magazine article Poverty & Race

Beyond Bias

Magazine article Poverty & Race

Beyond Bias

Article excerpt

Professors Banks and Ford are correct to highlight the dangers of the current preoccupation with implicit bias among academics and civil rights advocates. The central problem is not an empirical ambiguity in the Implicit Association Test (IAT). And, notwithstanding the Court's recent decision in Walmart v. Dukes questioning expert testimony that relied in part on the science of implicit bias, I am more hopeful than Professors Banks and Ford about the utility of implicit bias research for law and policy. Yet I agree with their essential observation that implicit bias is too thin an account of the forces that maintain contemporary racial inequality.

Of course, I understand the appeal of the implicit bias research. The findings of the IAT and other research on unconscious bias appear to provide an empirical account for continuing racial inequality, potentially countering narratives that focus on individual attributes. Also, the unconscious bias account centers not on historic discrimination, but on contemporary discrimination in which we are all complicit. But in presenting implicit bias as universal, something that we all harbor and experience, this account obscures the extent and multiplicity of barriers facing the most disadvantaged groups in our society. Moreover, an emphasis on individual-level behavior - whether covert or explicit -fails to show how individual processes are reinforced or produced by private and public institutions. In short, it omits what we have typically called the "structural" aspects of inequality.

In my view, our challenge as scholars and advocates concerned about inequality should be to provide rich empirical accounts of the contemporary forces that sustain inequality. Just terming these inequalities "structural" will not go far enough. The term conjures up racial discrimination that is too pervasive and amorphous to be quantified or remedied. Instead, to capture the appeal of empirical accounts of bias, we need to similarly document how the structural aspects of racial inequality are maintained today- for instance, by showing how racialized geographic spaces operate to limit economic and social advancement or how race-specific networks and poor social capital contribute to racial disparities in employment. …

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