Implicit Bias in the Time of Trump [OP-ED]

By Rinku Sen Mar 25, 2016

At Race Forward, Colorlines’ parent organization, we obsess about how groups of people generate racial justice. We look for helpful ideas and tools to disseminate among people and organizations who are trying to move the needle on this divisive set of issues. About 10 years ago, I met the creators of the implicit association test and learned that racial bias can be so deeply embedded in our brains that we are unaware of the judgments that guide so much of our behavior. Today, dealing with implicit, or unconscious, bias is a key element of our strategy and programs.

Watching Donald Trump’s political rise makes me wonder if we need to refocus our work. What I have understood as a minority population, full of hate speech proudly flung, appears to be larger than I thought.*

Does implicit bias still count as a strategic tool in the age of Trump? It does, but we need to more aggressively treat these different forms of racism (the one I know I hold, and the one I’m unaware I hold) as two sides of the same coin. That coin will be played again and again during this election cycle and beyond and not just by one party.

The idea that we don’t always know our own biases has become mainstream through the website and through books like this and this.  Unconscious bias explains how racism works when there are no avowed racists. People associate White with goodness and Black with badness so fast that they don’t even know they’re falling short of their stated intention to be “colorblind.” Such bias is the likely source of millions of microagressions endured by people of color—from being interrupted while speaking to being followed while shopping.  Rapid-fire racial judgments can also be institutionalized in the form of, say, harsh discipline policies affecting kids of color in the school-to-prison pipeline.

The revelation of unconscious bias has been a gift to racial justice educators. It allows White audiences in particular to understand how they might contribute to racial harm without meaning to. That release from conscious maliciousness in turn, can get past some of the automatic defensiveness that blocks change.

At Race Forward, we changed the main question we’re asking from “Who’s the racist?” to “What’s causing racial inequity?” We needed to broaden the very definition of racism so that people can recognize it in its hidden systemic forms, not just when the noose is hanging. I am fond of saying that, “In looking for causes, we will sometimes find an outright racist, but quite often we don’t. We just find a whole of bunch of well-meaning people who think they’re doing the right ‘colorblind’ thing.” Even most police officers who shoot unarmed men of color are unlikely to say that they hold intentional hostility toward Black people.

I thought unconscious racism was clearly more pervasive than the conscious kind, but the Trump phenomenon has upended my analysis. Trump himself bypassed dog-whistle politics. He doesn’t use codes that only the racists will understand, he goes ahead and names those for whom he has no use. A solid portion of Trump’s largely White base appears willing to own such hostility. In recent polls, 20 percent of Trump supporters said that freeing the slaves had been a bad idea, and one-third found Japanese-American internment a good one.

But what of the other 70 or 80 percent of Trump voters? Since Trump hasn’t, to date, bothered to use the codes, his many supporters who are not in the KKK or admirers of David Duke have to find ways to excuse his racism. Implicit bias enables this dismissal. Instead of co-signing the racism, they say they admire him for speaking his mind, for not taking crap from anyone, for being independent of “special interests.” They admire him for being, as the cognitive linguist George Lakoff points out, a “strict father” who will beat back.

Refusing to see racism, dismissing the context in which we live, excusing bias—these are some of the most destructive ways that implicit bias expresses itself. I have a Black friend who lost her house in the mortgage crisis. Too often, when she told someone White that the banks targeted people of color like her, the response she got was, “not necessarily.” In workshops, when people of color assert that their communities suffer disproportionate poverty and other ills, a White person often says, “That’s your perspective.” These things are not a matter of perspective. They are facts, well established by data as well as anecdote, but implicit bias—still discriminatory even if unconscious—fuels denial.

There’s plenty of implicit bias in the Democratic race, too, creating blind spots like the kind that told Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton that, in the midst of the largest movement against police violence in 50 years, they could enter a primary season with nary a thing to say about race and the criminal justice system. It is implicit bias that leads Sanders supporters to critique Black women supporting Clinton as easily manipulated. This phenomenon got so bad that Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, felt the need to say at a Clinton event, “And please tell the people we are not being exploited!” And Hillary Clinton has a substantial history of blowing the dog-whistle herself, and was forced to apologize for calling Black boys “superpredators” in the 1990s. 

But here’s the thing. Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, once reminded me that there’s a third form of racism besides the deliberate and the unconscious: the strategically hidden. The concept of the strategically hidden is akin to, but bigger than, dog-whistle politics. It’s the use of coded language that only the racist will recognize while politician X denies guilt. Donald Trump, along with candidates on both sides of the aisle, will no doubt be engaging these codes in the general election.

“Strategically hidden” is the stuff of Nixon advisor John Ehrlichmann’s admission to Harpers Magazine that the War on Drugs was indeed designed to attack Black communities: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. …Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

People of color knew it too, but it’s been damn hard to prove that racist intent. Everything is a conspiracy “theory” until the conspirators make it plain. In the end, the only thing that should be allowed to matter is racist impact.

After 30 years of racial justice work I’m still astonished by the unending number of forms racism can take: the tiny to the massive, the individual to the collective, the unwritten rule to the legislated policy. Racial justice educators need to avoid choosing either the explicit or the implicit form as the “real” racism.  We need to help people understand that both are real, and there’s a third one besides, operating in a feedback loop through which they constantly reinforce each other. 

Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation and publisher of

*Piece has been updated since publication.