Bias and Ghosts
We have done ourselves a disservice. We have set the definitions for unacceptable behavior as too extreme. We have addressed domestic violence by showing beatings and broken bones. So when abuse occurs that is below this threshold, we do not label it. We have probably heard a statement at some point that sounds something like this: “Well he controls my money, threatens me, isolates me from my family, but he’s never hit me. It’s not abuse.”
I am glad we learned about slavery and civil rights. I am glad movies have been made from this time period to help ethos meet pathos. But we have done a disservice by too narrowly defining what bias and prejudice are. For too long, we have pointed at the KKK and hate crimes and said “don’t be like that.” And so, with the exception of a few, we weren’t. We became polished and even polite in our dealings, but that has lulled us into a false sense of moral complacency where we can sit back, compare ourselves to the extremes and assure ourselves we are still good people. We are not like that.
And so bias and racism morphed, into an insidious and ominous form of its previous self. While the unequal laws had been mostly corrected on paper, the ghosts lived on and continued to haunt the Black community. Those ghosts appeared in big and small ways: the presumption of guilt when going about daily tasks, fewer call backs from potential employers, less matches on a dating site or unflattering representation in movies. It appeared in the way women clutched their purses a little closer when they walked by, the frequency of stop and search, or the way their children were treated as adults for teenage crimes. Yet when they turned the lights to show everyone what they saw, the ghosts sunk into the walls and everyone insisted they were crazy. Then, when everyone had gone home and no one else was looking, the ghosts came out to play again. So round and round we went- the Black community insisting what they saw and felt- and everyone dismissing the experience. That, my friends, is how you gaslight an entire community.
It took a few decades, but researchers started to study these issues: implicit bias, systemic injustice, and oppression. Marilyn Frye developed her analogy of the birdcage and Kahneman noted we have default thinking patterns. Psychologists studied identity development, false memories, and ran controlled experiments. We started to study how people made decisions and the impact of trauma. Lawyers pointed out imbalances, journalists dug deep and statisticians crunched numbers. And the findings were disturbing: The totality of racism and bias is greater than the sum of its parts.
Ah-ha! So the ghost did exist! In the words of the court following the case of Yick Wo v Hopkins, “even though it appears neutral on its face, if it (the law) is applied…with an evil eye and unequal hand…the denial of justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution”
What does that mean? Well, that means you can have good intentions and still be hurtful. That means ignorance is not the same as innocence. That means individuals may be operating independently and still contribute to an unjust system. Maybe that is why theologians have always told us we will fall short. And that’s a hard pill to swallow to my friends. I know it’s hard for me. It means we need to listen, acknowledge these insidious forces exist and do better. It means we need to stand up, flip on every light in the house and challenge the ghosts to step out.