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Opinion: Unconscious bias training won’t end police institutional racism


When it comes to police racism, is it the case of a few rotten apples or do we need a new barrel altogether? Sam Kidel argues that unconscious bias training alone just won’t cut it.

Illustration: Marissa Malik

In 2013, Bijan Ebrahimi, an Iranian refugee, was beaten to death and burned by his neighbours outside his house in Brislington. In the preceding years, he had phoned the police 85 times to report racial abuse, criminal damage, and death threats made by his neighbours. The police ignored him. The Safer Bristol Partnership, concluded in 2017 that the Avon and Somerset Constabulary had been institutionally racist.

The police accepted the findings of the report in full, including the charge of institutional racism. Since then, they have responded by providing their staff with a one-day training on ‘unconscious bias’. This response is woefully inadequate. To understand why, we need to understand the roots of unconscious bias training.

Bijan Ebrahimi, the refugee who was murdered in 2013 after police ignored his calls for help

Unconscious bias

In 1995, researchers at Harvard University found that people are more likely to associate positive qualities with white people and negative qualities with black people. Seeking to apply these findings, the researchers developed consultation services and trainings to address what they called unconscious bias.

In the decades since, unconscious bias training has become a primary tool for trainers in Equality and Diversity. It has been implemented in the USA by Facebook, Google, the United States Department of Justice, and, most recently, Starbucks.

These trainings are based on the mantra that ‘everyone has bias’. A journalist for The Atlantic reported that trainers frequently avoid mentioning racism explicitly, even though the programmes are implemented to tackle racism.

“The police have translated ‘institutional racism’ into ‘unconscious bias’, avoiding a direct confrontation with racism in their ranks”

In Bristol, the police chose this model as the foundation for their one-day training against institutional racism, titled “Taking the Hurt out of Hate Crime”. Just like its precursors in the US, it avoids directly addressing racism.

Jaluch, the consultants hired to develop the training for police in Bristol, state that bias is a “natural” response to “people who seem different to us”. Training includes discussions around a multitude of characteristics that might lead to stereotyping and bias including height, weight, regional accent, gender, and skin colour.

They state: “It’s okay to have biases, but it’s not okay to allow them to impact our decision making in the workplace”. This is, at best, a non-committal approach to tackling structural and institutional racism.

Representatives of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary have been repeating the mantras of unconscious bias training to the press. In a BBC Points West interview, the Chief Constable said: “we all have unconscious bias”, which was echoed verbatim by Assistant Chief Constable in a recorded meeting and Deputy Chief Constable in an interview for the BBC.

The police have translated ‘institutional racism’ into ‘unconscious bias’, avoiding a direct confrontation with racism in their ranks.

The problem with the unconscious bias framework

The problem with this use of unconscious bias is that it implies racism is a ‘natural’ response to differences between people. This assumption is not supported by the research at Harvard University, on which the unconscious bias training was founded. Researchers found that it was not just white participants, but also black participants who were likely to associate negative qualities with black people.

These findings support the arguments that critical race theorists have been making for decades: racism is not just about bias based on inter-personal difference, it is a structurally maintained system of power relations with a long history, built on specific, dehumanising racial stereotypes.

“It seems that rather than taking the opportunity to address racism, the police are deliberately avoiding it”

In contemporary Bristol, Iranian refugee Ebrahimi was arrested by the police after he was falsely accused of being a sexual predator. Police consistently ignored his complaints and treated him like a liar over a period of six years. The philosopher Edward Said found Europeans historically justified the colonisation and brutalisation of the ‘The Orient’ by stereotyping Arabs as dishonest sexual predators. The stereotypes, then and now, are strikingly similar.

Europeans justified the mass enslavement of black Africans and colonisation of Africa by stereotyping black people. In this case, black people were stereotyped as excessively strong, and aggressive. In January 2017, an investigation into the UK police’s use of excessive force on black men found they were “reliant on racial stereotyping of Black men as having ‘exceptional strength’”.

In the same month, Bristolian Judah Adunbi, a 63-year-old former race relations advisor, was stereotyped as an aggressor by police officers who tasered him in the face outside his home. Last week, the police officer was cleared of assault after the judge concluded she had acted in self defence.

The dehumanising stereotypes projected on Ebrahimi and Adunbi by Bristol police officers echo stereotypes that were used to justify the violence of colonialism. Racism is not just the ‘natural’ bias against people who look or sound different, it must be understood in relation to structures of power with long, violent histories.

Ending institutional racism

Critics say that talking about colonialism is just dredging up the past, but it’s clear from the specific ways that racism manifests today that the past never really ended. Colonial, racial hierarchies still permeate our social relations. If the elimination of racism requires us getting to know our unconscious better, then we cannot ignore the colonial hierarchies and stereotypes that we carry within us.

Despite their official acceptance of the determination of institutional racism, police Chief Constable Andy Marsh said in a recent interview: “I don’t think it helps anyone at all to say the Avon and Somerset Constabulary or the police are institutionally racist”. It seems that rather than taking the opportunity to address racism, the police are deliberately avoiding it.

Structural and institutional racism can only be tackled through deep engagement with histories of colonialism, and how they play out today. Only through this can we begin to repair the deep wounds inflicted by racism, and work towards anti-racist futures.

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