Implicit bias legislation

By Sydney Kamlager-Dove, Special to CALmatters

Well-intentioned individuals have undetected biases that impact their perceptions and decisions, producing discriminatory behavior and unequal treatment of people based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, age and other characteristics.

For instance, women who see female doctors are three times more likely to survive a heart attack than women who see male doctors, according to a paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

White defendants facing misdemeanor charges are nearly 75 percent more likely than black defendants to have all charges carrying potential imprisonment dropped, dismissed, or reduced to lesser charges, according to  a 2017 Loyola Law School study.

A 2015 study by a UC Davis professor found that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average.

If we subconsciously believe that certain lives are less valuable than others, then we may be less likely to try to save those lives. If we latently believe that certain people are more threatening, then we may be less willing to defend their rights. If we subliminally believe that certain people are more likely to commit crimes, then we may be more likely to believe that they are guilty.

Fortunately, neuroscientists say that individuals can recognize and replace lurking biases with positive mental associations through education and training.

All fields and professions require training. The object is to improve the decisions and skills that professionals make and have, which is what implicit bias training is designed to do.

The first step is to educate people about bias, about how it manifests itself and about how it can be mitigated. Awareness about personal biases, especially in professions designed to save and protect people, such as healthcare or law enforcement, motivates professionals to acknowledge and address their biases.

Once people understand that they are engaging in unconscious discrimination, most aspire to eliminate that behavior.

There is substantial scientific support for training despite cynics claiming the contrary. Even if there weren’t, would we need to wait for science to tell us what we already know?

A study looking into implicit bias intervention methods conducted in 2014 by 14 top universities, including USC, Harvard, NYU and UC Irvine, found that eight of the 17 training methods studied reduced implicit racial preferences, and none had a negative impact.

The beauty of training is that it is continuous and can be adjusted as results are monitored and as more is known about the longevity and hidden complexities of prejudice.

Regular testing and training for healthcare professionals, judges and peace officers, with standards for implementation, is what Assembly Bills 241, 242 and 243 provide.

Only people who don’t suffer discrimination believe that we should wait to educate people until we have enough information about outcomes. Education never hurt anyone except for people who have a stake in maintaining ignorance.

The status quo is appalling. Black women, even when adjusting for factors such as socio-economic status or education, are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes. Experts repeatedly have linked this failure to implicit bias. Let’s put a stop to that.

Implementing curriculum that has been proven to reduce biases before consequential decisions are made in courts, emergency rooms and beside the flashing lights atop a police car is imperative. Saving the lives of people who traditionally have been marginalized will move us toward a more fair and just society.


Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager-Dove is a Democrat who resides in Culver City and represents the 54th Assembly District, [email protected] She wrote this commentary for CALmatters. Please read her past CALmatters commentary by clicking here.

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