Police often make hasty judgments based on the race of the civilians they encounter, said James B. Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a speech at Georgetown University on Thursday in which he cited the song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from Avenue Q.
Psychological research on the unconscious evaluations that people make instantaneously about others based on race -- known as "implicit bias" -- has been well established for years. Most people show a moderate to a strong bias against blacks when they are asked to quickly associate positive and negative words with white and black faces. Law enforcement officers show this bias, too, and police departments have been increasingly concerned about the effects of implicit bias in the past year.
Yet the discussion of implicit bias by a senior federal law enforcement official was still noteworthy, coming just a few months after a Cleveland officer shot and killed a boy playing with a toy gun within seconds of arriving on the scene. The boy, Tamir Rice, was 12. In addition to Rice's case, the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. have drawn renewed attention to how police interact with unarmed black male civilians.
In simulations, police are actually less likely to shoot at an unarmed black man who is carrying an object that resembles a weapon than civilians are, but both groups show a bias in favor of unarmed whites.
Lorie Fridell, a criminologist at the University of South Florida, helps law enforcement agencies train their officers to overcome their biases. She said that her group, Fair and Impartial Policing, has received several times as many inquiries since Brown's death as before.
Fridell contrasted implicit bias with what most people think of as racism against minorities. "It doesn't require any hostility toward those groups," she said. "It can happen outside of conscious awareness, even in people who are well-intentioned and who reject biases and discrimination."
In other words, everyone's a little bit racist.
In tests for implicit bias, faces appear on a computer screen, and subjects are asked to sort the faces into categories as quickly as possible. Most people tend to place black faces into negative categories more rapidly and frequently than they do white faces.
You can take a 10-minute version of the test here, and watch the song from Avenue Q below.