Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), this is not the 1970s, or even the 1980s.
There is a whole range of things that people talk about in public, on video and online for posterity that would have been whispered, avoided or utterly ignored just 30 or 40 years ago. This is a post-“Oprah” America, a country where reality TV and all manner of YouTube confessionals and tutorials are held in high regard. Yet, when faced during a vice-presidential debate with what CBSN anchor/CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano, the moderator, described as a question about “race relations” and policing, Pence advanced a notion popular among those convinced that bigotry would dissipate into the ether if people would simply stop raising the possibility that it exists. In fact, Pence's ultimate answer to the moderator's question amounted to exasperation that others remain intent on talking about these issues at all.
This is the essence of what the Republican vice-presidential nominee said:
But they [police officers] also — they also hear the bad-mouthing, the bad-mouthing that comes from people that seize upon tragedy in the wake of police-action shootings as — as a reason to — to use a broad brush to accuse law enforcement of — of implicit bias or institutional racism. And that really has got to stop.
Despite Pence's claim that there is a kind of craven opportunism involved in any question, allegation or evidence of police bias, a rather voluminous body of common sense and scientific research tells us that almost nothing is resolved by ignoring it, refusing to examine it or forbidding discussion of it. Bias — particularly implicit bias — is not an exception.
To be clear, implicit biases are universal but vary in the details from person to person. They are not, like your address or your political views, the sort of thing one openly acknowledges. They are typically a blend of deep-seated beliefs, notions, stereotypes and ideas picked up over the course of each of our lifetimes that we often are not even consciously aware that we hold. That is the very reason that the academics who developed the term also generated a series of online tests to help people privately gauge the degree to which a variety of implicit biases shape the way each of us views the world and the decisions we make.
As Bryant Marks, a Morehouse College social psychologist engaged in offering implicit bias awareness training sessions to police at the White House, told The Fix in August, police officers have a particular obligation to examine their thinking, precisely because they are armed public servants responsible for enforcing the law. The consequence of the unexamined ideas about who represents a danger, who is probably engaged in wrongdoing, who is probably armed, can be death, Marks said.
If nothing else, we know for sure that black men face a disproportionate risk of injury or death in encounters with police. That is what the data tells us. It confronts us all with a reality that we may not like, but nonetheless exists.
Instead, what American voters watching Tuesday night's vice-presidential debate saw was a discussion of whether the issues of possible bias — including the implicit kind — should even be mentioned, discussed, debated or combated at all.
Although no one can say with certainty what lives in Pence's heart and mind, The Fix can say this: For Pence, some reading on implicit bias might be wise.
Pence's apparent belief that all Syrian refugees represent a threat to the safety of his state was just slapped down by a federal appeals court. In the written decision and in court, Judge Richard A. Posner rebuked Pence's claim that he can refuse to admit Syrian refugees to Indiana on the grounds that Syrian refugees may be terrorists. The court's decision all but ridiculed Pence's evidence-free legal arguments based on “nightmare speculation.”
The governor’s brief asserts “the State’s compelling interest in protecting its residents from the well‐documented threat of terrorists posing as refugees to gain entry into Western countries.” But the brief provides no evidence that Syrian terrorists are posing as refugees or that Syrian refugees have ever committed acts of terrorism in the United States. Indeed, as far as can be determined from public sources, no Syrian refugees have been arrested or prosecuted for terrorist acts or attempts in the United States. ... He [Pence] argues that his policy of excluding Syrian refugees is based not on nationality and thus is not discriminatory, but is based solely on the threat he thinks they pose to the safety of residents of Indiana. But that’s the equivalent of his saying (not that he does say) that he wants to forbid black people to settle in Indiana not because they’re black but because he’s afraid of them, and since race is therefore not his motive he isn’t discriminating. But that of course would be racial discrimination, just as his targeting Syrian refugees is discrimination on the basis of nationality.
This decision, at the very least, suggests that a federal court is not convinced that Pence knows what overt bias, much less implicit bias, really is or that bias is indeed unconstitutional when it becomes public policy. On Tuesday night, Pence did little to refute that assertion.