A conversation between a Republican lawmaker and the leader of a civil rights group at Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Hearing on policing reform showcased a common and persistent misunderstanding about implicit bias and how it impacts American society. It also provided a public illustration of why some, particularly some white Americans and conservatives, have a hard time accepting the existence of systemic racism in the United States, and thus, acknowledging how that affects the justice system.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) spent a significant part of his time asking the witness panel to share their thoughts on the prevalence of racism. After asking whether the panel believed there is systemic racism, and asking if it was poverty broadly rather than race that put certain Americans at a disadvantage, Cornyn zeroed in on a response by Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who said, “I don’t think there’s an institution in this country that isn’t suffering from structural racism, given our history.”

Cornyn took some umbrage at Gupta’s response, and the exchange that followed gets to the crux of why it’s still hard to get on the same page about how to resolve these issues.

Cornyn: You changed the phrase from systemic to structural racism. What does that mean? That means everything? Every institution? Every person in America is a racist?
Gupta: It means that there is bias built into existing institutions. There have been any number of courageous police who have spoken about systemic racism in history as well.
Cornyn: You think systemic or structural racism can exist in a system that requires individual responsibility. Or do you think it is one or the other?
Gupta: I think every American institution has been shaped by these forces and our goal is to do what we can as policymakers, as advocates to take that out and try to fight it in the modern-day iterations that it appears.
Cornyn: Do you agree basically that all Americans are racists?
Gupta: I think we all have implicitly bias and racial biases. Yes, I do.
Cornyn: Wow.
Gupta. I think we are an amazing country that strives to be better every day. That’s why I went into government, to make a more perfect union.
Cornyn: You lost me when you want to take the acts of a few misguided, perhaps malicious individuals and subscribe that to all Americans, not just our 800,000 police officers, our 18,000 police departments. Thank you for your answer.

Much later in the hearing, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of two black men in the Senate, revisited the exchange between Cornyn and Gupta while expressing his shock that Cornyn was so surprised by the concept of implicit bias. In his explanation, he gave examples of data supporting the presence of bias toward women and black people in health care by noting how black women are disproportionately more likely to die in childbirth, in the workplace by noting the wage gap between men and women, and in the criminal justice system by noting how sentences vary based on a person’s race.

Booker asked witness Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and CEO of police equity research organization Center for Policing Equity, to address the topic of systemic racism. He gave a tutorial on it that could clarify Cornyn’s questions about whether there is a systemic racism problem that could be enlightening.

The way we’ve talked about racism has been a huge distraction. We’re trying to solve it. When people are talking about racism in the public, they often mean bigotry. They mean the individual feeling or attitude that says “I don’t like you and I’m going to organize my life around that dislike of you.”
But when we talk about systemic bias — systemic racism from a scientific perspective and from a data analytic perspective, that’s not what we mean. So in the academy, I’m a professor. I’m a professional nerd. The people who work with me — the women who work with me — earn less than the men. That’s not evidence that I hold bias in my heart, because I’m a member of a class that has structural and systemic gender bias. Those are two different things. And it’s easy to conflate them because we imagine that prejudice and bigotry are the sole predictor of actual discrimination and therefore systemic outcomes. Nothing could be further from the truth. From a scientific perspective, attitudes like prejudice and bigotry are weak predictors of behaviors. The things we need to care about are those behaviors.
In the streets of this country for the last three-plus weeks, we haven’t been hearing chants of “What do we want? White people to like us better!” Right? We’ve been talking about the behaviors, right? If we get distracted by that conversation, then the whole thing gets derailed.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the protests it spawned, there’s new interest from all corners of the political spectrum in curbing police brutality. There’s also been an increased willingness, including from some Republicans, to grapple with America’s legacy of racism. But these exchanges demonstrated that there is still significant discomfort among some Americans to embrace what many others consider an obvious reality.

Such a fundamental disagreement over the root of policing issues may not prevent Congress from moving forward on trying to address them, but seeing it on display was a striking reminder of how hard it will be to find solutions.