Racial Discrimination and Implicit Bias

Photo by Manel Torralba


On March 21st we celebrated International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This year’s theme at the United Nations focused on racial profiling and incitement to hatred against refugees and migrants. It defines racial profiling as:

A reliance by law enforcement, security and border control personnel on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin as a basis for subjecting persons to detailed searches, identity checks and investigations, or for determining whether an individual is engaged in criminal activity.

Discussions about racial profiling and other discriminatory practices usually focus on explicit bias—that is, discriminatory beliefs and practices that a person, society, or government intentionally and consciously supports. However, implicit bias is as powerful, if not a more powerful, factor behind discriminatory policies and practices that lead to unjust outcomes.

What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias comes from attitudes and stereotypes that operate at a level below our conscious awareness. Even if we believe very strongly on a conscious level that racial discrimination and bias are unjust, our behaviors and decisions about different people may be conditioned by an implicit bias of which we are unaware.

Implicit bias is shaped by early experiences, family or cultural attitudes, the media, and news programming. Policies and practices often reflect the implicit biases of the individuals or institutions that have the power to create or enforce those policies or practices. This is why some policies, although they may not refer explicitly to racially discriminatory motives, have discriminatory outcomes. For example, in the United States, Black Americans are more likely to be subject to longer prison sentences than White or other Americans for the same offense, even if the sentencing guidelines are technically racially neutral. A recent article published in the Yale Law Journal examines this issue more in-depth.

How are businesses addressing racial discrimination and bias?

Implicit bias and racial discrimination affect all aspects of society including education, healthcare, courts/legal system, and business. More and more groups in these sectors are assessing and reforming their systems to ensure less discriminatory outcomes.

In the business world, some businesses are incorporating workplace training on implicit bias as part of their anti-discrimination programs. For example, Google has a series of training materials, tools, and case studies on implicit bias–which Google refers to as “unconscious bias”–for their employees. They also make the materials available to the public on their re:Work site. Here is a brief summary of highlights from Google’s workplace training materials and tools on unconscious bias.

  • A Train-the-Trainers program that empowers Googlers to train other Googlers to lead trainings on unconscious bias.
  • Unconscious Bias @ Work: 60-90 minute workshop. An introduction to the concept of unconscious bias, including the scientific research on unconscious bias and how it affects the workplace. The facilitator guides and presentation slides are available so people can adapt them for their own trainings.
  • Bias Busting @ Work: A next-level workshop intended for use after the introductory Unconscious Bias @ Work. Bias Busting @ Work is more interactive and uses scenarios to help participants identify potential situations and offer actions to address those situations. Facilitator guides and presentation slides are also available for free.
  • Performance review and hiring checklists that are designed to help managers make unbiased decisions.

Examples of organizations working to eliminate racial discrimination 

In honor of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Asian Philanthropy Forum would like to share with you some organizations working to eliminate racial discrimination. 

Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation—Based in New York City and Oakland, California, Race Forward is a public policy, educational, and research institute that focuses on the connection between race and social inequity. They publish Colorlines, an online daily news site that includes investigative reporting and news analysis, offer trainings and workshops to support anti-discrimination projects, and organize  media campaigns to highlight racial discrimination issues.

Southern Poverty Law Center—Founded in 1971 and based in Montgomery, Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center uses education, advocacy, and litigation to fight racial discrimination. One of their newest initiatives is the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative that provides free legal representation to detained immigrants who are facing deportation proceedings. Also, SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program produces and distributes anti-bias/anti-discrimination documentary films, books, and lesson plans to schools throughout the United States. They also built and maintain the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the American Civil Rights Movement.

The Sikh Coalition—The Sikh Coalition in New York City was created in the aftermath of September 11, when people of Sikh descent and other brown-skinned people were scape-goated, assaulted, bullied, and even murdered by racists who blamed them for the terrorist attacks. The Sikh Coalition was originally a grassroots effort, organized and run completely by volunteers. Since 2001, it has grown to a full-time staff of six with offices in New York, California, and Washington D.C. They provide direct legal services to protect people whose civil rights were violated, education about Sikh culture, and advocate for anti-discrimination policies to protect all people.

How are other businesses addressing racial discrimination and bias? What are some other groups that are fighting racial discrimination? Let us know in the comments below!

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