Number 576 June 4, 2015

This Week: Racism and Police Violence

"Quote" of the Week: "The System Is Failing Everyone, Including the Police."
Racism and Police Violence: Where to Begin?
The Four Levels of Racism
A Primer on Implicit Bias
"Debiasing": Changing Our Unconscious Biases


If you've been following—or participating in—the growing movement known as Black Lives Matter, you've heard people stress that it's not about this bad cop, or that bad cop. Instead, leaders constantly remind us, the problem is SYSTEMIC. Since Nygaard Notes is always talking about using a Systems Orientation in our thinking, I thought this was a perfect opportunity to apply a systems approach to the current news about police violence.

When I was younger and I heard people talk about changing "the system," it sounded to me like a mostly-meaningless slogan. Now I know better, and my hope is that this next couple of issues of the Notes will help readers to understand (if you don't already) how "the system"—in which we all play a part—can produce such terrible injustice and human suffering.

Another point I hope to make is summed up well by Opal Tometi, speaking about racist police violence and the way forward: "It will be challenging to make changes at the core of what policing looks like today, but it's clear that what we have today does not work and that the solutions must come from the community." Those words come from the essay from which this week's "Quote" of the Week is drawn.

This issue of Nygaard Notes discusses some of the theory and practice that we in the community may want to utilize as we work to make changes at the core, not only of policing, but of the larger system in which the police are embedded. I guess you could call this a mini-series, as it will continue, and conclude, in the next issue of Nygaard Notes, when I will offer a case study that applies systems thinking to the problem of racist police violence. That issue will be out very shortly, I hope.

Systemically yours,



"Quote" of the Week: "The System Is Failing Everyone, Including the Police."

"The energy on the street is about justice and accountability—the system of policing is what is making us unsafe. With months of protests and organizing, we are finally at a moment where more people are newly open to understanding the institutional and systemic problems with policing that hurt communities of color and disproportionately black people. Policemen and young people who are considering joining the police should understand this too—it's the system. Despite claims that there are good and bad cops—we know that the system is failing everyone, including the police."

That's Opal Tometi, writing in Huffington Post on December 22nd. She's the Executive Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter. The essay—"Staying Focused in the Movement for Racial Justice"—is well worth reading.


Racism and Police Violence: Where to Begin?

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement (can we call it a movement?) and the increased attention being paid to police violence against people of color around the nation presents a great opportunity to talk about race and racism. Nygaard Notes already talks about it a lot, but this issue of the Notes will attempt to offer a few connections and thinking tips that might be helpful in understanding what gives rise to this particular form of racist violence and what we might do about it. Remember, this is Nygaard Notes, so we'll be "thinking systems," and the analysis will consequently touch on all sorts of racist violence. After all, it's not as if policing—as an institution—is separate from the larger society.

Last September I published a piece called "Understanding Two Distinct Thought Systems." ( NN #560, September 8, 2014.) I called one system the Dominant Thought System (DTS), and the other system I referred to as a Systems Orientation (SO). Here's one of the things I said:

"DTS relies on something that academics call 'Methodological Individualism,' which is the idea that 'social phenomena must be explained by showing how they result from individual actions, which in turn must be explained through reference to the intentional states that motivate the individual actors.' (That's from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) People who think in this way believe that things happen because individuals make them happen, and they make them happen because they want them to happen. In contrast, SO is interested in outcomes rather than motivations or intentions. Motivations and intentions may be a part of the explanation, but it is the interaction of many factors that produces the outcomes we see." (For those who actually went back and read #560, you'll notice that I slightly edited this quotation. And I'm quoting myself! Am I compulsive, or what?!)

How does all of this apply to Black Lives Matter, and to the police violence that stimulated its rise? Let's start by looking at the different levels of racism.


The Four Levels of Racism

The group Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation (formerly the Applied Research Center) has a great series of short videos—many are only one minute long—which are aimed at helping us understand that racism operates on multiple levels. In one of the videos they suggest a multi-level approach to understanding racism. They identify two levels, each of which is further divided into two, for a total of four levels. I think they can guide our current discussion, so I'll summarize them here.


There are two INDIVIDUAL LEVELS of racism. The first level they call INTERNALIZED RACISM, which is "all the prejudice, bias, and blind spots you as an individual might have within yourself as an individual."

The second INDIVIDUAL LEVEL of racism they call INTERPERSONAL RACISM, which is "what happens when we act out that internalized racism on each other."


At the SYSTEMIC LEVEL, there are also two levels of racism. The first level of racism here is INSTITUTIONAL RACISM, which is made up of "the racist policies and discriminatory practices in schools and workplaces and government agencies that routinely produce unjust outcomes for people of color."

But we can't stop there, because when we step beyond this level, we discover STRUCTURAL RACISM, which Race Forward tells us is "the unjust racist patterns and practices that play out across the institutions that make up our society."

The two INDIVIDUAL LEVELS of racism are "the simplest ones to focus on, the easiest to recognize in our day-to-day lives, the ones we spend most of our time talking about." And that's unfortunate, if not tragic. Race Forward explains why:

"Focusing on individual stories distorts our understanding of how racism works. It encourages us to see racism only as the product of overt, intentional racist acts by individuals that can be fixed simply by shaming and correcting those individual defects." Or, as many of my liberal friends seem to think, through "education." Furthermore, an individualized understanding of racism often leads us to focus on individual acts of transcendence—Obama, Oprah, Jackie Robinson, Booker T. Washington, etc—which leads us to conclude that anyone who tries hard enough can succeed in this system. And the corollary, naturally, is that any person of color who can't succeed must have only themselves to blame.

Race Forward concludes by saying that "If you want a real, clear-sighted conversation on racial justice, you have to be talking about both levels [individual and systemic]. And one of the most common ways we fail to see the big picture on race is by failing to think about systemic racism. That is, by failing to be systemically aware."

When we are systemically aware, one of the things that happens is that we realize that racism goes beyond the conscious acts of biased people. If racist systems came about solely as a result of the efforts of some "bad apples," then all we would have to do is to find the bad apples and put them out of commission. But that's not how it works. Racism is far more subtle and powerful than that, and it touches each and every one of us in a deep way, as we can see when we begin to understand something called "implicit bias."


A Primer on Implicit Bias

In Nygaard Notes I often talk about what I call "Overt Propaganda" and "Deep Propaganda." Overt Propaganda takes the form of conscious and specific ideas that are widely disseminated in the culture, and that many of us believe, while some do not. Deep Propaganda is different, as it resides in our unconscious. Here's what I said about Deep Propaganda in Nygaard Notes #199:

"I suggest the possibility that all of us share a susceptibility to what I call 'deep propaganda.' These are the ideas that get lodged in our heads through our contact with the various doctrinal institutions that surround us every day, such as our education systems, the mass media, and advertising. Many of the ideas planted here are then reinforced in popular jokes, conversations with friends and family, and so forth. Over the years these ideas harden into attitudes, beliefs, and conceptions about the world. I like to call these Attitudes, Beliefs, and Conceptions the ABC's of internalized—or 'deep'—propaganda."

This idea is key to the understanding of modern racism and, as it turns out, it's been studied quite a lot in this regard. Researchers and activists know it as "Implicit Bias."

Sometimes called "unconscious bias" or "implicit social cognition" or "automatic bias," the idea is really quite simple: Implicit Bias refers to the racist thoughts, feelings, and ideas that are lodged in our unconscious, whether we want them there or not. And, when it comes to race, the research indicates that all of us—young, old, all colors, even the most committed anti-racists—carry around these implicit biases, and they often are not what we think they are. That's partly because we don't "think" about them at all, because they dwell in our unconscious, where they are mostly out of our direct control. As the academics would say, our implicit biases are "not accessible through introspection." Introspection is defined as the examination of one's own conscious thoughts and feelings.

The concept "implicit bias" is relatively unfamiliar to most USAmericans, so this essay presents a brief summary of the idea, largely drawn from a paper released in April by The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, called "State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2014." On page 15 is found a section called "Primer on Implicit Bias," and I'll quote extensively from it here (leaving out the 10 million academic references; read the report yourself if you're into that sort of thing.)

"Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual's awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection. Internationally acclaimed social scientist David R. Williams grounds the conceptual in real world realities when he states, 'This is the frightening point: Because [implicit bias is] an automatic and unconscious process, people who engage in this unthinking discrimination are not aware of the fact that they do it.'"

"Everyone is susceptible to implicit biases. [Psychologist Nilanjana] Dasgupta likens implicit bias to an 'equal opportunity virus' that everyone possesses, regardless of his/her own group membership. The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance. These associations are generally believed to develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages. In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations. Dasgupta writes that exposure to commonly held attitudes about social groups permeate our minds even without our active consent through 'hearsay, media exposure, and by passive observation of who occupies valued roles and devalued roles in the community'."

The report goes on to list "A Few Key Characteristics of Implicit Biases":

* Implicit biases are pervasive and robust. Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality such as judges." [And, I might add, committed anti-racists.]

* Implicit and explicit biases are generally regarded as related but distinct mental constructs. [More on this below.]

* The implicit associations we hold arise outside of conscious awareness; therefore, they do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.

* We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own ingroup, though research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our ingroup. This categorization (ingroup vs. outgroup) is often automatic and unconscious.

* Implicit biases have real-world effects on behavior.

* Implicit biases are malleable [i.e. changeable, flexible, not permanent]; therefore, the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned and replaced with new mental associations. [Emphasis added by Nygaard, as this idea is discussed elsewhere in this issue of the Notes.]

* The unconscious nature of implicit biases creates a challenge when it comes to uncovering and assessing these biases. Years of research led to the conclusion that self-reports of biases are unreliable, because we are generally weak at introspection and therefore often unaware of our biases.

* Extensive research has uncovered a pro-White/anti-Black bias in most Americans, regardless of their own racial group. Moreover, researchers have even documented this bias in children, including those as young as six years old.

(To check out your own implicit biases, you can take an online test called the "Implicit Association Test."

Where Does Implicit Bias Come From?

The psychologist Laurie Rudman published a paper in 2004 called "Social Justice in Our Minds, Homes, and Society: The Nature, Causes, and Consequences of Implicit Bias." (It can be found online by googling the title.) The section most relevant to our current discussion is the section "What causes implicit biases?" Specifically, what gives rise to implicit, or unconscious, bias that is different from explicit, or conscious, bias? Rudman mentions a few factors that have been suggested. (And you'll notice that she sometimes uses the word "orientation" instead of "bias.")

First of all, she says, "implicit orientations stem from past (e.g., developmental) experiences, whereas explicit orientations may reflect more recent events."

"Second, implicit biases may be more sensitive to affective [emotional] experiences, compared with self-reports. The inference is that implicit biases are linked to perceptions of anxiety or threat. These findings suggest that changes at the automatic level may depend on emotional reconditioning."

"Third, implicit orientations may be more influenced by cultural biases, compared with explicit attitudes and beliefs. For example, high status groups typically show stronger automatic ingroup bias, compared with low status groups, whether status is based on ethnicity, age, religion, physical attractiveness, socio-economic status, or college affiliation. Because high status groups are culturally favored, these findings suggest that societal appraisals permeate the implicit cognitions of all group members. [P]eople preferred the dominant group to the extent that it was culturally favored, but only at the automatic level.

Fourth, she says that "implicit orientations are influenced by cognitive balance principles. For example, people who liked themselves and identified with their ingroup also showed robust ingroup bias. The pattern can be characterized as "If I am good and I am X, then X is also good."

If we're all harboring biases—racial and otherwise—in our unconscious, then isn't the struggle against racism kind of hopeless? This makes it sound like it's the worst epidemic ever! Well, that may be but, as it turns out, there are things we can do that show promise in re-shaping our unconscious biases. The researchers call it "debiasing," and we turn to that exciting idea now.


"Debiasing": Changing Our Unconscious Biases

Here's the good news about the deeply-held, unconscious biases that we all carry around with us: We can change them! The Kirwan Institute refers to the process of re-working our hidden biases as "debiasing," and the research is promising. (They say that our unconscious biases are "malleable." That means that they are changeable, flexible, and not permanent.) The Kirwan Report says:

"Given that biases are malleable and can be unlearned, researchers have devoted considerable attention to studying various debiasing techniques in an effort to use this malleability property to counter existing biases. Debiasing is a challenging task that relies on the construction of new mental associations, requiring 'intention, attention, and time.' [And that's not just on the individual level; to change enough minds to really make a difference will require a movement, and action supported by numerous institutions.]

"[D]ebiasing is not simply a matter of repressing biased thoughts. Research has indicated that suppressing automatic stereotypes can actually amplify these stereotypes by making them hyper-accessible rather than reducing them." [In other words, this is NOT about being "politically correct."]

"Several approaches to debiasing have emerged, yielding mixed results. Among those for which research evidence suggests the possibility of successful debiasing outcomes include:

* "Counter-stereotypic training in which efforts focus on training individuals to develop new associations that contrast with the associations they already hold through visual or verbal cues.

* "Another way to build new associations is to expose people to counter-stereotypic individuals. Much like debiasing agents, these counterstereotypic exemplars possess traits that contrast with the stereotypes typically associated with particular categories, such as male nurses, elderly athletes, or female scientists.

* "Intergroup contact generally reduces intergroup prejudice. [Psychologist Gordon] Allport stipulates that several key conditions are necessary for positive effects to emerge from intergroup contact, including individuals sharing equal status and common goals, a cooperative rather than competitive environment, and the presence of support from authority figures, laws, or customs.

* "Education efforts aimed at raising awareness about implicit bias can help debias individuals.

* "Having a sense of accountability, that is, 'the implicit or explicit expectation that one may be called on to justify one's beliefs, feelings, and actions to others,' can decrease the influence of bias.

* "Taking the perspective of others has shown promise as a debiasing strategy, because considering contrasting viewpoints and recognizing multiple perspectives can reduce automatic biases.

* "Engaging in deliberative processing can help counter implicit biases, particularly during situations in which decision-makers may face time constraints or a weighty cognitive load. Medical professionals, in particular, are encouraged to constantly self-monitor in an effort to offset implicit biases and stereotypes."

In summary, here are the things that each of us—including, but not limited to, police and other officials—can do to help us change the unconscious biases that may lead us to act out in ways that hurt not only our victims, but our society:

■ Counter-stereotypic training

■ Exposure to counter-stereotypic individuals

■ Intergroup contact in equitable and cooperative environments

■ Education

■ Having a sense of accountability

■ Active empathy

■ Deliberate self-monitoring.

It's not easy. As the Kirwan study says, debiasing is "a challenging task that relies on the construction of new mental associations, requiring 'intention, attention, and time.'" And, when dealing with a social problem as widespread as police violence, it isn't a matter that can be left to individual police or individual police departments. That's what's so hard for a lot of people. Terrible things happen and we want somebody to blame. But a systems approach goes beyond blame and focuses on the ways in which we all share responsibility for making things different.

In the next issue of Nygaard Notes I'll do a little systems analysis of police violence that I hope will give some hints as to how we might begin to address the terrible legacy of racist violence and injustice that is our lot in the United States.