Last week at Colgate University in central New York, reports of a black male carrying a gun — which in reality was a Colgate student carrying a glue gun for a school project — prompted school officials to put the campus on lockdown. In a message to the university, President Brian W. Casey wrote: “It is important that we understand the role that implicit racial bias had in the initial reporting of and responses to the events of last night.”
African Americans have learned to expect bias in their lives from an early age, and very little has been done to counteract the effects associated with implicit biases. If black students experience the effects of implicit bias from the first day they step into a school, how can we expect them to develop healthy or positive attitudes toward authority figures later in life? While we may think of ourselves as unbiased, it is important for educators to recognize and purposefully counteract any effects of implicit bias by beginning with staff and then spreading understanding beyond schools and into the public mindset.
Implicit bias — unconscious attitudes and stereotypes used by the brain to make decision-making more efficient — often alters our actions and decisions in high-stress and split-second situations. When bias relates to preferred foods or colors, very few — if any — negative consequences occur. However, implicit bias often enters our judgments related to other people based on skin color, ethnicity, language, and other traits. In schools, the effects of implicit bias on students of color have been linked directly to excessive discipline, lower teacher expectations, and over-critical grading procedures; and linked indirectly to higher dropout rates, future incarceration, and lower higher education outcomes.
Experiences of implicit bias and related differences in treatment of individuals by race starts at an early age. A study by Yale University faculty found that preschool teachers looking to prevent behavioral problems focused on black male students significantly more than their peers. National data sets show K-12 black students received suspensions and expulsions at rates higher than students of all other races, and they experienced out-of-school-suspensions 3.8 times more often than white students. Resulting differences in discipline exposure by race lead to juvenile incarceration, lower graduation rates, diminishing academic achievement, higher incidences of future poverty, and high costs to taxpayers through assistance programs and extended time in the K-12 school system.
To begin lessening the effects of implicit bias, schools must provide professional development opportunities to make teachers aware of implicit bias and the different ways it might impact students. Data collection and analyses in the form of equity audits provide clear information as to where implicit bias most severely impacts students. Schools need to implement policies that allow for adequate time for teachers to react to and respond to the academic, disciplinary, and social needs of students. Recognition of culture must become an integral part of school climate and be allowed to grow and change based on the population of students served by the school.
Personal bias mitigation can begin with systemic self-examination. The Implicit Associations Test, developed by social psychologists, is a tool that assesses levels of implicit bias in several categories. Although it is difficult, individuals may begin to change their levels of implicit bias by reading stories that go against popular beliefs about people or cultures and experiencing examples of strong and/or successful people of color. Individuals must share awareness of bias with local communities or workplaces and practice making informed decisions and thoughtful reactions when working through situations subject to bias. Every situation will be different, but beginning to identify and address one’s own implicit biases is an important first step toward the realization of a more just and equitable society.
Dr. Beachum is the Bennett Professor of Urban School Leadership at Lehigh University. He is also the program director and an associate professor in the Educational Leadership program in the College of Education. Gina Gullo recently completely her doctorate in Educational Leadership at Lehigh University.