Hillary Clinton made "implicit bias," a term that has its origins in social justice circles, a buzz word when she invoked it in the first presidential debate. Mrs. Clinton was side stepping a question about whether she though police are racially biased. She did this by bewailing the implicit bias from which we all suffer (and she proposes funding for implicit bias training!)
Kay Hymowitz takes a look at the implicit bias in the way a new Yale University paper on the supposed implicit bias among pre-school teachers was handled in the press. The occasion for the paper was that black preschoolers are 3.6 times as likely to receive suspension as punishment than white preschoolers. Black kids make up 19% of preschool enrollment, but 47% of suspensions. Boys are three times as likely to be suspended as girls. To what, if any degree, is implicit racial bias a factor in these discrepancies?
Although the questions are pretty straightforward and uncontroversial, Hymowitz finds the resulting paper a mishmash:
Though endorsed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and gullibly covered in major media outlets, the study is a mess of contradictions and spin. If it proves anything other than the bias of both social scientists and the media on racial issues, it’s that implicit bias—assuming there is such a thing, and that we know how to measure it—has no clear real-life consequences.
The paper's methodology was to show showing preschool teachers thirty-second videos of kids (two black and two white) and used an eye scanner to find out which children were most closely watched. The teachers were also asked which child in the video deserved the most attention. The specific results are quite interesting (I encourage you to read the entire article), but ultimately did not come in with evidence of bias. The fact that teachers paid more attention to black, preschool boys, for example, was not evidence of racial prejudice.
Now, keeping an eye on black boys as potential troublemakers does suggest that teachers (white and black) have more negative expectations about them. Is this a matter of racial bias, or is it something more on the order of the above-mentioned gender bias? That is, could it reflect something in the real world? There’s abundant research that—regardless of color—boys who grow up in father-absent homes have more behavioral problems than those who grow up in two parent homes. Black children are far likelier to grow up without their fathers. If fatherlessness leads to acting out then, yes, black boys would have proportionately more behavior problems than white boys.
Any teacher worth her salt taps into her accumulated experience. What her eyes watch in a six-minute, fictionalized video shouldn’t worry anyone. It could be a problem if a teacher lets her past experience determine the way she treats her students.
Not only does the Yale paper find no sign of that, it finds evidence for the opposite. “No main effects were found for the single indicator item assessing participant’s recommendations regarding suspension and expulsion or the number of days to suspend or expel the child.” Let this sink in for a moment. A paper hypothesizing that implicit bias is the reason why black children are suspended at disproportionately high numbers finds no sign that a child’s race affects whether a teacher will recommend him for suspension or expulsion.
So where do we find implicit bias? In the media. Although the paper didn't find implicit bias, the media treated it as if it had:
How did a media fascinated by putative proof of racism in preschool cover this unexpected (and for the researchers unwelcome) finding? They didn’t. The headline on CNN’s story suggested that racial bias might start as early as preschool. NPR’s Morning Edition noted that bias isn’t just a police problem, it’s a preschool problem. Dozens of other articles on the study ignored the fact that it failed on its own terms.
Maybe before recommending implicit-bias training, Clinton’s policy staff will read the Yale study more carefully.
Call me biased, but I’m not counting on it.