Implicit Bias: The Conversation Starts With Me
Studies show that if you are a public defender, you suffer from implicit racial bias. This is far from an original idea, and I am not the first to shed light on the problem. Actually, everyone on the planet is influenced by implicit bias – no matter what our race, we all create unconscious stereotypes and feelings about social groups, and we all belong to cultures that encourage us to associate various groups with certain traits. Furthermore, and somewhat scary, is the notion that merely being aware of a stereotype, even if you don’t think it is correct, can “activate the unconscious [and often negative] stereotypes in our minds”. As a result, the more a particular social group is commonly associated with a negative trait, the more we are likely to associate that group with anything negative, without our awareness or conscious control. (Thus the term “implicit”.)
Studies also conclude that public defenders are especially prone to implicit bias judgments. Much like emergency room doctors, public defenders practice in environments that are cognitively-depleting, highly pressurized, time-constrained, and information-limited. In these types of environments, our subconscious minds particularly benefit from racial biases: they are a quick way to fill in blanks about cases and people that we simply do not have the time to investigate. I am a public defender, therefore it is inevitable that implicit bias has influenced and will continue to influence my decisions and perspectives, without protocols in place to help me.
It seems that while many of us in the public defense community recognize that implicit racial bias is a problem within the criminal justice system, we have taken little action to mitigate its damaging effects within our walls. It seems easier to blame prosecutors, judges, police, and probation officers for their biases rather than address our own. If I had to bet on a reason for this, I would say it is because no one wants to start a dialogue that may lead to a discussion about her own racial bias. It can be really uncomfortable, often requires vulnerability, and may possibly hurt someone’s feelings or dredge up ugly images and memories. That’s all true. Neverthess, if the implicit biases we form truly are unconscious, then perhaps we can we can give ourselves and each other the grace to talk about our biases and where they came from so that ultimately, we can provide clients of every race with the purely objective and effective representation they deserve. Maybe it will hurt our pride momentarily to talk about the racial stereotypes and associations floating around our minds, but our clients will reap the benefits.
So I thought I would get the conversation started, and in time, others might join in. Here goes:
My name is Randi and I suffer from implicit racial bias. More frequently, I understand that I am powerless to it and need the help of my colleagues and clients to overcome it. (Wow. It's a little daunting putting "I" and "implicit bias" in the same sentence. I much prefer daydreaming about it being someone else's problem.) Since I'm advocating we all get vulnerable — I'll tell you something else that I consider embarrassing. I have been a public defender for 19 years, and never really reflected on the pull of my own biases until last year, and that was only after watching a TV show. Something about “The Get Down” on Netflix, a period piece about the rise of hip hop in the late 1970’s in the South Bronx, woke me up.
The Get Down captured me because of its history. I grew up 13 miles from the South Bronx in Queens, New York in the late 1970’s and found its re-cap of 1977 fascinating. It had been ages since I thought about Mayor Koch, his “anti-graffiti campaign”, the “Blackout of 1977”, and how they affected me during my childhood in Glendale, Queens. The thirteen miles between Glendale and South Bronx weren’t much of a distance. Were I prone to running, that’d be a half marathon. But if The Get Down’s South Bronx of 1977 has even a shred of accuracy to it, 13 miles might as well have been 13,000 miles. During every episode, I kept asking myself, "How could I not realize that life was this hard for so many young people so close to my home?" And during every episode, I compared childhoods of the young people in the show to mine. When I finished, I realized that as adults, it would be impossible for the kids in The Get Down and I to have the same perspective on the world.
In my corner of Glendale, every child lived in a two-parent home. Every kid on my block went to a parochial grammar school. Every person within a 4 block radius lived in 2-family, semi-attached homes. We neighbored with a few immigrant families, mostly German, Italian, Irish, but not a single black or brown person was to be found for miles. The kids, all white, all knew each other, and our parents all knew each other’s parents. Every family had at least one car, and we were not allowed to take public transportation very much until we got to high school. We all had video games, and many kids had swimming pools in their backyards. We lacked nothing, and my biggest material dilemmas were when, and not if, I was getting the latest toy, or what toys to bring with me to our family summer rental home. It was a given that I would attend college. And we were all encouraged to seek help from the nearest policeman in a time of need. Police were our friends, we were taught. I can’t think of a single instance, in all the years I lived there, in which the police ever had to make a call to our block.
Zeke and his friends in The Get Down, on the other hand, grew up in poverty in the South Bronx. Zeke was raised by his aunt because his parents were murdered. He lived in a high rise apartment without any privacy, went to public school, and had to use buses and the subway to go anywhere. In his corner of the world, the majority of his neighbors are black and brown with a few white merchants sprinkled around. He was not expected to survive his environment and the prospects of his attending college were bleak. Regardless of the fact that he possessed the ingenuity to succeed, his poverty would hamper his chances of ever leaving his neighborhood. He was surrounded by drug trade and gun violence, and his neighborhood lacked proper resources, like water, fire departments and sanitation, because the City (the same City that governed Glendale, Queens) was unwilling to provide the appropriate funding. Many of the people and buildings in his neighborhood were left abandoned because of governmental desertion.
In July 1977, when the infamous Blackout rendered all of New York City dark for 25 hours, people on my block were forced outside, but enjoyed the time to converse with each other and grumble together about the lack of electricity. It was a momentary nuisance that, at most, interfered with our air conditioning. In Zeke’s neighborhood, however, few people had air conditioning, buildings were burning and businesses were looted. If you had to rely on the subway to get home in the South Bronx, you were left stranded wherever you were when the Blackout hit.
I also remember Mayor Koch's Anti-Graffiti campaign. Today, public defenders would call that campaign an all-out assault on juveniles for expressing on subway cars what many would classify as art. But then, it was acceptable, and obviously politically empowering, to label young graffiti artists "vile animals" who needed to be stopped with attack dogs and barbed wire. In my corner of Glendale, we had little to no graffiti. I often heard Mayor Koch speak about graffiti when I was young, but grew up thinking the "vile animals" must have lived somewhere else far away. When I got older and started to take the subway more, I remember being fearful of riding on graffiti-covered subways. The Get Down shows a much different side to graffiti – street art was a huge part of the culture, and in large part, a form of talent performed by a large number of young people who just wanted to be seen and heard in a world that had clearly forgotten them.
As I pondered these differences between the South Bronx and Glendale, I wondered about my family of origin and its role in fostering some of my own associations about race, about police, about poverty, and about crime. I can see how some of my family’s beliefs may have compounded whatever race-based associations I may have today. I bet my Grandma inspired quite a few of them. She and I spent alot of time together in my youth, as my parents worked allot of hours and she readily took care of me. I loved her, and because she loved me so much, she had a powerful impact on me.
Grandma lived close by, in a different nook of Glendale that had a large German influence. She was German and proud of her neighborhood. There were lots of German merchants in Glendale and we would walk daily to the German baker, the German butcher, or the German shoe cobbler. Thus, by the time I was old enough to talk I began to associate Germans with high-quality goods, and especially food. For me, “German” meant a scrumptious liverwurst sandwich on a Kaiser roll, and delectable crumbcake for dessert. I have no doubt, however, that while I was relishing lunch at Grandma’s, much of the rest of the world did not share my associations. Instead, they probably connected “German” with an evil dictator who slaughtered millions of people in the name of white supremacy.
In Grandma’s house, anyone that was not German (or her offspring) was at risk of ridicule. Not that Grandma would directly offend a person. Being a woman of the pre-feminist era, she didn’t speak much about topics outside of her expertise: grandchild-rearing and home-making. But, from time to time, offensive ethnic comments just kind of “came out” in the midst of conversation behind closed doors. She didn’t only discriminate against people of color – she discriminated against everybody. (Much like a softened version of Archie Bunker, whom we frequently watched on television.) For example, her in-laws were white Swedes. Grandma didn’t hesitate to criticize them. Over the years, I learned that Grandma had a variety of offensive ethnic nicknames stored in her mind.
The phrases that disturbed me most, though, were against black people. Grandma had really racially derogatory names for chocolate candies, for Brazil nuts, and for the buses that would take black and brown children to school in the urban areas. In retrospect, I can’t fathom where she learned such hurtful words or why she would repeate them – words that I refuse to repeat today. There were NO black people living within miles of her, nor were there ever. Moreover, the only contact she had with the sole black person she knew, was incredibly positive. My grandfather was a contractor, and a perfectionist. The only plumber he would work with was a black man, and he respected the man’s work so much that he could be seen traveling with him from job to job. Thus, why my grandmother thought it appropriate to so readily use the “N” word for candy and nuts, is beyond me. The defense attorney in me really wants to believe that she had no idea about the magnitude of what she was saying or the detrimental impact it could have.
The good news is that Glendale and Grandma weren’t the only influences on my subconscious mind where race was concerned. I had a wonderful education – and I don’t just mean the professors and books. I mean I experienced higher learning with outstanding students of color. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school. Teenage girls are known to be cliquish. I was in the Geek clique – we were nerds of all races, with braces and glasses, and we were safe in each other’s company knowing that we supported each other in our goal of overcoming average grades and staying on the Honor Roll. I attended a top women’s liberal arts college, where I had the privilege of studying and residing with women from around the world. By the time I got to law school, I realized I could not be happy unless I was surrounded by people of color. My closest friends, the ones that got me through those ridiculous all night study sessions and made me laugh so hard while we were in the midst of them, were men and women of color. After law school, I started becoming more active in church and found a great place to worship where dozens of black and brown people treated me like family. I have been blessed with innumerable opportunities to create positive race-based associations.
In retrospect, however, I can see that as a public defender, my clients and I may rarely have the same associations about white and black people, about police, about poverty, and about crime. Even today, even after all the positive experiences I have had, there are times when I still feel pulled to examine a case involving a black defendant through the eyes of the little girl who grew up in Glendale. I often have to stop myself from defining “a good deal” based on the crime, and instead, try to think about matters on a client’s terms. I often have to remind myself that you cannot believe everything you read in a police report, no matter how credible it sounds. And I honestly don’t readily understand why my clients carry guns; why they don’t call the police when they are victims of violence; or why they think public defenders aren’t real lawyers. Being mindful of my own biases forces me to analyze and triage my often heavy caseload differently.
With introspection, I can understand how my clients have their own implicit biases to wrestle. I can also see how neither they nor I chose where we were born, or where we grew up, or the people who inspired the race-based associations of our youth. I happened to have been blessed with a socioeconomic status from which I could reap the benefits of higher education and all the positive racial experiences that came with it. I know the majority of my clients have not been so blessed, and some of them have never had a positive experience with a white person to draw from.
As my Grandma would say when she wanted to end a conversation, “Anyway . . . .” Anyway, I don’t know your story or where your implicit bias comes from. But I’d like to hear it. And maybe we can teach each other how to improve this machine we call public defense. And maybe, in time, we can get those judges, prosecutors, police officers, and probation officers to reflect on their own implicit biases.
To share your story (either just with Randi or possible as an NAPD blog), shoot Randi an email by clicking HERE