Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager-Dove and David A. Lehrer, in a point-counter point: Assembly Bills 241, 242 and 243 would mandate that lawyers and judges physicians, nurses, and physicians’ assistants, and virtually all peace officers in California undergo periodic training regarding “implicit bias.”
By Sydney Kamlager-Dove
Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager-Dove is a Democrat who resides in Culver City and represents the 54th Assembly District, Assemblymember.Kamlager-Dove@Assembly.ca.gov. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters. Please read her past CALmatters commentary by clicking here.
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.
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.By David A. Lehrer
David A. Lehrer, a former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, leads Community Advocates, Inc. in Los Angeles, firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.
The California Assembly has passed three bills that display a superficial understanding of human relations, and reflect a desire by certain politicians to look as if they are promoting diversity and combating discrimination.
Given the overwhelming bipartisan votes for Assembly Bills 241, 242 and 243 by Democratic Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager-Dove of Culver City, legislators probably thought they were voting on an issue for which the opposition was minimal and support widespread.
They were wrong.
The bills would mandate that lawyers and judges, and all subordinate judicial officers, trial court managers, supervisors and court staff, physicians, nurses, and physicians’ assistants, and virtually all peace officers in California undergo periodic training regarding “implicit bias.” The bills are a troubling reminder of how legislators chase fads and are resistant to evidence, reason and logic. Implicit bias is the bogeyman du jour.
In reality, legislators who voted for these bills ignored science and disregarded the needs of the professionals they seek to train.
Each of the bills deals with what legislators perceive the impact of implicit bias to be. They define it as the “implicit or unconscious biases that affect their [all persons] beliefs, attitudes, and actions towards other people.”
As the Assembly Judiciary Committee analysis of one of the bills says, implicit bias is “an unconscious preference (positive or negative) for a group based on a stereotype or an attitude that operates outside of human awareness. Implicit bias is, to some extent, a part of human nature.”
After their prefatory statements, each bill makes huge and unwarranted leaps. One asserts, with no evidence, that implicit bias “often contributes to unequal treatment of people based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and other characteristics.”
Another claims that “all persons possess implicit or unconscious biases that affect their beliefs, attitudes, and actions toward other people.”
The bills blithely assert, as if it were established fact, that our unconscious thoughts, as revealed in Implicit Association Tests or functional magnetic resonance imaging, affect how we actually treat others.
Undoubtedly, our unconscious thoughts impact us. But the extent to which they impact our actions is not clear.
The bills take as a given what science hasn’t proven: that because our mind may make associations with a stereotype, that we then act on that association negatively or positively.
It simply hasn’t been proven that just because we associate a person, an image, a screen shot or a word with a negative connotation that we act on those thoughts, images or inclinations.
Renown psychologist and author Daniel Levitin has warned of the risks of making that leap.
To demonstrate the error of drawing simple real-world conclusions from complex data, Levitin noted that when author Malcolm Gladwell took the Implicit Association Test, it showed that he, the son of a black woman, is racist against blacks.
“Mr. Gladwell was suitably shocked and distressed. But if a test gives results that are so far-fetched, it’s time to start questioning the validity of the test.”
It is perilous to assume individuals’ future actions from their “unconscious preferences” and build a superstructure of mandatory instruction on that foundation. To ascribe “unacceptable disparities” in the world around us to “those perceptions, judgments and actions” is wrong-headed. The world is more complex than that.
Neuro-science research ought not be exploited to further political agendas that assume facts not in evidence. Tens of thousands of Californians should not be forced to sit through political re-education courses triggered by what they are presumed to have thought in their subconscious. Such a requirement would, in fact, be unconscionable.