A television show began in 1971 that changed America. The show was entitled All In The Family. The show, featuring Carroll O’Connor as the bigoted Archie Bunker. Archie believed himself to be a hard worker, loving father, and basically decent man but hated blacks, “Commies”, gays, and Polish-Americans. He frequently told his long-suffering wife Edith to “stifle yourself” and “dummy up”.
Archie Bunker was even alive and well in 2008. In that year, it was publicly asked whether candidate Obama had “an Archie Bunker problem” with the 2008 electorate – losing badly in white urban neighborhoods. And today, newspaper columnists say that Archie is alive and well, voting for Trump. All In The Family is such a cornerstone of American culture that today you can visit Archie and Edith Bunker’s chairs at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. As the museum’s website puts it, “Their battlegrounds were the very issues dividing American society—ethnic prejudice, women’s liberation, and racism. The show’s humor revealed the limits of Archie’s bigotry, as well as the self-righteousness of his children.”
I frequently watched the show with my own dad. Despite Archie’s blatant prejudice to his Polish live-in son-in-law Michael Stivic, who Archie often referred to as “meathead” and “Polock,” Archie was my dad’s hero. I always marveled at this point. Here was my father, a devoutly Polish American, cheering on Archie who hated “Polocks.” How could someone of a race cheer a person who hated their race? I call it the “All in the Family” paradox.
I always wondered how this could be so. It took me years to understand why. As usual, the concept is found in our evolutionary origins. Black, White. Male, Female. Categories. Our brain makes folders and tucks information about categories into each folder for future reference. This is not a conscious decision but is done automatically, and it helps us function. The evolutionary purpose is simply this: all mushrooms have as an essential property being poisonous so do not eat a mushroom, all bears have as an essential property being big and want to eat you so stay away from bears. A simple effective way of staying alive is to categorize things by their essential attributes (you do remember in college the philosophy teacher talking about Platonic idealism and the essential form being permanent, unalterable, and eternal, right?) in our lives. As “essence” may imply permanence, essentialist thinking tends towards political conservatism and therefore opposes social change. Forget that the heavenly taste of a portabella mushroom and that there are occasionally nonhungry bears—your categorization system keeps you safe.
I have previously written about implicit bias or how thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control can cause us to believe and act like when a lawyer selects jury or admitting certain types of evidence. Can these unconscious thoughts and feelings have implications? The trouble comes when the brain uses similar processes about mushrooms and bears to form negative views about groups of people. The process of categorizing the world obviously includes identifying the group or groups to which you belong. And that’s where the next psychological factor underpinning prejudice emerges. Much research has found that humans are tribal creatures, showing strong bias against those we perceive as different from us and favoritism toward those we perceive as similar.
Mix that information with news that six of the Baltimore cops charged with killing Freddie Gray include three black officers. Even more glaring, how about the New Orleans Police Department, which is “one of the most racially balanced police forces in the nation.” In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department found that the NOPD’s patterns of misconduct, which included excessive force and illegal stops, searches and seizures, showed racial and ethnic — as well as LGBT — bias. The “All in the Family” paradox arises. It demonstrates that having even the most diverse workforce won’t remove the need to do two critical things – address the prevalence of hidden, unconscious bias against black people and examine the racial impact of all of a department’s policies and practices, regardless of who is carrying out them out.
The actual implementation of police procedures is an arena ripe for these unconscious biases to emerge with terrible consequences. That phenomenon is called implicit bias, and it exists in all of us. I’ve observed a wrong use of implicit bias out in the world – often people think it means that we all have biases against each other, and these biases are evenly distributed. But they are not. We all do have biases, about ourselves and others, but those in this society overwhelmingly favor white people even if you are black.
In fact, according some studies, black citizens feel black officers are harsher on them than white officers. In the Journal of Criminal Justice, it was reported that newfound power that comes with being a police officer might affect Black more than White officers, given the novelty of this power, typically denied Blacks in the wider society: “They seem to look down on their people. They kick them around,” said a seventy-one year old Merrifield woman. “They’re inferior themselves, so that’s why they look down on people.” A Merrifield man elaborated:
It’s amazing but White officers are far more courteous to Black people than Black officers are. . . . You know, you’ve got a gun and you’ve got a badge. You’re the baddest thing out there. And whatever you say goes. That’s the Black man. That’s the man in charge. The White officer, when he come to you [he says], “I’m sorry sir, but you ran that red light,” or “Sir, you’re doing this, that, and the other thing.” But the Black officer, he’s in charge, you see. It’s because of the oppression that he comes up under. Well, I understand that. . . . Not all of them are like that, but I would say maybe 80 percent of the Black ones. The White guys, I wouldn’t say that. . . . [Black officers] have the power, and when you take a person and give them a pistol and a badge, he gonna talk to you any kind of way, be arrogant. I think that’s the main thing, the arrogance that Black officers have about being in authority.
Moreover, a second factor that is conducive to “hard-line” behavior is officers’ need to demonstrate to White citizens or White colleagues that they are “blue” not Black. Id. Thus, “[w]ith respect to the behavior of White and Black officers, many respondents subscribed to the “blue cops” principle that occupation outweighs racial identity.”
As reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, using a simple videogame, the effect of ethnicity on shoot/don’t shoot decisions was examined. African American or White targets, holding guns or other objects, appeared in complex backgrounds. Participants were told to “shoot” armed targets and to “not shoot” unarmed target. Participants fired faster at armed targets if they were black, and more quickly decided not to shoot unarmed targets if they were white. White and black officers had similar responses, so there wasn’t much difference in decision making based on the identity of the cop.
Implicit bias can affect anyone black, white or any other color we may dream up. It is especially a problem for police. From recruitment to hiring to training, solutions to implicit bias are emerging all the time, and we need to realize how it affects us. And