How Implicit Bias Impacts African American Communities

I recall a time, in the not so distant past, when the sale and use of illegal drugs like crack cocaine was widespread and had risen to almost epidemic status in certain sections of the city in which I was a long time resident. Drug activity, sales and use, brought with it other criminal activity, as well as a proliferation of “ladies of the night”. There were certain streets that had come to be associated with both drugs, and prostitution-men and women trying to support their dependence on this highly addictive cocaine derivative and a very destructive substance.

Whites would come into that neighborhood looking to buy drugs, make their purchases, are occasionally spotted and pulled over by the local police. So many times, a car filled with whites who clearly are in an unfamiliar area, standing out from the locals, will get interrogated by the police officers, who were either in plain-clothes or full uniform dress. They remain in their car, and are asked where they are headed or coming from[very obviously after they had bought drugs]. Then, usually instructed to leave the neighborhood, go home and not return, the police tell them: “You don’t belong here!”. Without hesitation, they are sent along their way. No car or body search, no arrest, no handcuffs, no criminal record.

Similar scenario, but there are young black men in a car. They are asked to step out of the vehicle, questioned, searched, and 9 times out of 10, they will end up in that police car on their way to the local precincts, whether innocent or in possession of narcotics or weapons.  It’s been said that, sometimes illegal items ‘magically’ appear on their persons. That’s called policing in America? In a nut shell-not blind, color-blind, nor is it equitable treatment. Even youth who ARE residents, law-abiding citizens, traveling along their normal daily routes to/from school or work, are automatically treated as criminal suspects and potential ‘perps’. That doesn’t sound like “innocent until proven guilty”; but rather quite the opposite.

Where is the same consideration if the situations are similar? Whites are assumed to be from ‘good’ families, and perhaps would shame them by getting into trouble. Their futures may be destroyed by an arrest record, and Harvard may be out of the question should their clean records be blemished. Why not the same consideration to a youngster from a poorer family, and one who lives in a housing development? If nothing else, they need someone to encourage, guide and support them in achieving their life goals and acknowledge their potential for a better life attending Harvard if they want, establishing a career and leaving subsidized housing, taking the family with them.  Also, what makes for a ‘good’ family anyway? Is there an assumption that because of skin color, or community location, economic status that one doesn’t have a good family…as caring and loving supportive as parents in different areas?  That is a problem and an example of  implicit bias.


With an arrest record, their futures are almost guaranteed to follow a path leading to possible future incarceration[s] due to more criminal behaviors, a life of unemployment, or underemployment or even early death, instead of a thriving professional life as productive citizens. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, as misguided youth, who make mistakes more often than not…because that’s what youth do.

The police are supposed to be your ‘friend’. They are supposed to represent a friendly face, and people are supposed to be happy and feel safer, protected when they appear on the scene. We aren’t supposed to be afraid, dislike them o feel that we must walk around on eggshells-just in case. Just in case, you are seen walking home from school, work, the playground, or coming home after running an errand for your mother. Mothers shouldn’t have to teach their young children, adolescent boys in particular, to walk, act, or talk a certain way with police in their communities. The only rule of conduct that should be instilled in all children is to show respect for yourself and respect for others.

It must also be understood that ‘respect’ is a culturally defined construct, that varies from culture to culture. The only way we know the differences may be acquired through prior knowledge, experience or by being unintentionally disrespectful to someone. The operative term is “intent”, though impact may indicate disrespect. In many situations, we must be mindful of the distinction between the two, before making the determination of motive and intent. Prior to acting on erroneous presumptions, or wrongful assumptions, take a few seconds to ‘consider the source’, so to speak.

Unfortunately, decisions are made every day that influence the life trajectory for so many black and brown youth, without thoughts as to what it really is going to cost us all, besides the cost to that individual. It comes down to cultural competence, and diversity training of law enforcement to enable better outcomes and better relationships with the general public-everyone, everywhere, and in every community. Pre-service, in service and ongoing trainings must become a part of the process to determine ‘fit’ of these persons to effectively perform their duties. They must be in possession of sufficient self and cultural awareness that serve to mitigate and prevent biases that influence judgments and actions taken in the field. One shouldn’t expect a person raised in a middle-class community to enter a poor community without preconceived notions and assumptions based upon their own limited experiences.


In the real world that can be dangerous, counterproductive and fatal. Perhaps, if my assignments were limited to familiar areas, cultures, races, incomes, gender, and so on, then my judgment as an officer, would be appropriately situation-specific. But that’s not how it goes in real life. We are all confronted with diversity on a daily basis, and so we must not only respect it, but expect it.  The aim is to maintain or restore peace, prevent harm and diffuse conflict, not ignore or escalate potentially dangerous or volatile situations.

We should be challenging and eliminating all prejudices and implicit /explicit biases in individuals who interact with diversity Service oriented professions demand transparency and clear respect for diversity and culture, especially when conflicts arise. In law enforcement, that is critical to performance and public safety. If the present protocol is ineffective, unjust, and unfair, then it behooves the powers-that-be to change organizational procedures,  adopt new practices, design and implement new training guidelines and standard procedures.

Why we can’t wait is here and people don’t wish to wait anymore. The revolution has not been televised, but thanks to the world-wide web, it is now. Look around! What do we think “Black Lives Matter” is all about? Organizational change, and cultural competence is definitely central to the movement. Why is this so difficult to regulate out of empathic awareness of the truth, realities and experiences of families, black families across the nation?


Personally, I am tired and hurting from witnessing the hurt felt by parents and families of color. I’m tired of reading the news and learning that yet another ‘questionable’ shooting death of a young person of color by police. Aren’t you?


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