(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images).

‘Unconscious bias’ masking issue of real racial inequality


By Dal Babu

THE Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has shone a light on how organisations are responding to the geological pace of racial equality.

But unconscious bias training, a mandatory requirement in many organisations, is being thrown under the bus.

The concept of ‘unconscious bias’ is a phrase George Orwell (who was a police officer in former Burma) would perhaps have written. An industry has grown up around it, offering expensive training that organisations gratefully accept, so they feel exonerated from words like “discrimination, homophobia, racism and sexism”, allowing them instead to point to some psychological reason imbedded in us for centuries to explain why they are particularly unrepresentative in relation to BAME, gay, women, transgender and disabled people.

The evidence that society has a huge challenge in dealing with diversity in terms of race is all around us – and the police are an obvious example. but not alone. We still do not have a BAME chief constable, and the Senior Command Course 2018, where many future chief constables are chosen, remains stubbornly white.

An industry grew up selling training to remedy this supposedly unknown bias, particularly to public servants in any number of professions. Last week I was struck by a phrase that has become a mainstay of many people in the public sector, but which stops a real debate on racism and inequality in society – “unconscious bias”. This idea was developed and marketed by Universities of Washington and Yale, and called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Basically, the concept says that we all are prejudiced (not your fault) and you can have some training to rectify the problem.

Suddenly, trainers are less keen to offer unconscious bias training and, instead, are saying that anti-racism training is the must have of a modern, forward-looking organisation. In part, this is due to the need to rebrand to win new business from old customers, but is also due to the conclusion that some organisations have reached that unconscious bias training does not work.

For example, the College of Policing has reported that “supressing stereotypes may result in individuals reverting to holding stereotypical views about an underrepresented group that [the training] was trying to supress”.

For some organisations, this is a disaster. Unconscious bias training represented evidence that they had tried to do something – to change, to improve. Devaluing the training that has been bought and delivered means having to go through the cycle all over again.

Instead of worrying about unconscious bias by whatever name it is to be known from now on, why not address actual, real, deliberate bias? This means taking actions to implement rather than just acknowledge the recommendations made years ago in, say, the Scarman and McPherson inquiry reports. It means taking complaints about explicit, no-holds-barred racism seriously and making examples of those guilty of perpetrating them such as the PC in Northumbria who was disciplined and sacked for racially abusing staff in an Indian takeaway, but then reinstated on appeal.

As a society, we are still riven by hate crimes which themselves are routinely mocked as preoccupations of the “woke” but include violence and murder. Hateful insults shouted in the street are perhaps a gateway crime leading to escalation and violence. It is difficult for an agency such as the police to deal effectively with hate crimes if it cannot adequately deal with hatred among its own members.

When open discrimination and bias, hate crimes and the culture that enables them to take place have been successfully addressed and eliminated, then we can turn to unconscious bias as a target and remove this as the fig leaf from those who would continue to cover their discriminations.

I hope that the geological pace of racial equality will change. BLM will challenge concepts like unconscious bias that organisations have been using for many years with no impact, and seek new ways of ensuring that our organisations are more representative of our society.

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