August 18, 2016

August 18, 2016 | Commentary on Legal Issues

Implicit Bias at the Washington Post

Joe Davidson, the “Federal Insider” columnist for the Washington Post, recently published a fawning article about the “implicit bias” training that has been ordered for all Justice Department “law enforcement officers and prosecutors” by Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and her boss, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. It is obvious from the column that Davidson has drunk the Kool-Aid on the claim that “most” of us “carry some implicit bias” that influences our behavior.

Nowhere in the column does Davidson mention any of the questions that have been raised about the “implicit bias” tests (Implicit Association Tests or IATs) from which this theory is derived. For example, a 2012 analysis in the Employee Relation Law Journal points out that social-science findings on unconscious racism are “contested research”: “This research is the subject of vigorous debate within psychology. . . . [E]xperts citing IAT research often mischaracterize the findings from this body of work and omit important limitations on the research” (emphasis added).

After describing what DOJ is forcing on its employees, Davidson launches an out-of-the-blue attack on me. He cites Yates’s claim that “most people don’t really recognize that they are carrying around the bias, particularly people who believe themselves to be fair-thinking, non-prejudiced folks” and adds: “I wonder if that fits Hans von Spakovsky.”

He also seems to mock my claim that “the bias I saw there when I worked in the (DOJ’s) Civil Rights Division was toward whites,” not blacks. Davidson must be unaware of the sworn testimony of Christopher Coates, former chief of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division, before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2010.

Coates described the culture of animus within the Division toward race-neutral enforcement of federal voting-rights laws. The voter-intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party was not pursued because the Division did not want to enforce the Voting Rights Act against black defendants even if they were members of a racist hate group; if the intimidation had been carried out by white Klansman, that would have been a different story.

Coates also recounted the harassment directed at him and others who worked on another case in Mississippi where black officials were discriminating against white voters. Lawyers inside the Division did not believe the Justice Department should prosecute blacks or other racial minorities for engaging in discrimination, no matter how illegal or how ugly.

The Washington Post has declined to publish my response to Davidson’s attack. For those interested in another viewpoint, one which — unlike Davidson’s — does not accept the “implicit bias” claim as gospel truth, here is that letter:

Letter to the Editor:

In his recent column praising “implicit bias” training at the Justice Department, Joe Davidson includes a gratuitous swipe at me that is unfair, uncalled for, and beneath the usual standards of the Post. He snidely suggests I should talk to Howard University’s Lenese Herbert, who claims that the U.S. has a “scourge of officers killing unarmed Black people in extraordinarily disproportionate numbers.”

I would suggest instead that Davidson and Herbert start looking at actual evidence on this issue. Serious questions have been raised about the credibility, reliability, and validity of the supposed “science” behind implicit-bias testing.

As for the “scourge” of “disproportionate” killings, they might familiarize themselves with statistics from the Justice Department, which show blacks disproportionately commit crimes. In 2009 in our 75 largest counties, blacks were involved in 62 percent of all robberies, 57 percent of all murders, and 45 percent of all assaults while representing only 15 percent of the population. Less than a third of the individuals killed by police are black despite the fact that they commit crimes at a much higher rate than other racial/ethnic groups. Thus, when police are apprehending armed defendants, they will be disproportionately confronting black criminals. That is why, according to the FBI, black criminals also represented 40 percent of cop killers from 2005 to 2014.

The only implicit bias I have is to look at the facts and the hard evidence instead of making unsupported claims against the law-enforcement officers who risk their lives every day to protect members of the public, no matter their skin color.

About the Author

Hans A. von Spakovsky Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

This piece first appeared on National Review Online.