We are a nation of doers. And right now, confronted with the injustice and suffering so many Black Americans are experiencing, many people are asking, “What should I do now?” I believe the answer lies in an inner doing that complements and supports our outward doing. We must actively work to destabilize our own biases so that we can uproot prejudice at its source.
Awakening to Two Americas
Right now, many Americans, including lawyers, seem to be experiencing a sort of racial awakening. The insensible deaths of so many African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers or those aligned with white supremacy groups have been a wake-up call for many. Some Americans seem to be slowly shaking off their slumber and waking up to the reality that so many of their fellow citizens are living in a world that’s different in so many ordinary and extraordinary ways if you’re not white. This stirring of consciousness is welcomed, even if belated.
This awakening is extraordinarily important, because as a vast amount of polling on race relations over the years has shown, “a substantial gap between whites’ and blacks’ perceptions of the position of blacks in U.S. society” has existed for years. Seemingly most white and Black people have been living on different planets, not in one United States. For example, in 2009, the year President Barack Obama took office, just 36% of white Americans said the country needed to do more to ensure that Black people gained equal rights, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Before the George Floyd killing and subsequent protests, 37% of white and 78% of Black respondents said our country hasn’t gone far enough toward equal rights, a difference of 41 points.
However more recently, polling indicates that perhaps the consciousness-raising aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement is shifting implicit attitudes. For example, in a 2018 study, two social psychologists asked more than 1 million digital participants to quickly associate a series of faces (some Black and some white) with a series of words. The researchers found that during and after the protests, people were less likely to immediately associate Black people’s images with negative words, or to quickly tie white people to positive ones.
In a recent Monmouth University poll, 76% of Americans—including 71% of white people—called racism and discrimination “a big problem” in the United States. That’s a 26-percentage-point spike since 2015. In the poll, 57% of Americans said demonstrators’ anger was fully justified, and another 21% called it somewhat justified.
These changing attitudes in response to contemporary, highly publicized acts of injustice are promising signs for change. And many, including lawyers, wanting to capitalize on this increased energy and resolve are asking, “What should I do now?”
Overcoming America’s Prejudice Problem Requires An Inner Doing
The doing that must happen now should be strategic and solution-oriented. I believe it involves the inner work of debiasing. Starting with ourselves, this work is aimed at engaging in, advocating for, and fostering the inner work that attacks the tree of individual and systemic racism at its roots.
As lawyers, we naturally want to advocate to change laws to advance the cause of racial justice. The impulse to right wrongs is part of our training and natural disposition. This outer work is often necessary. Consider the post-civil war Constitutional amendments outlawing slavery, providing for citizenship, equal protection, due process, and voting rights for Black men. Consider, as well, the anti-employment discrimination, equal pay, and fair housing laws of the 1960s. Such laws were critical in reversing the most egregious and conspicuous forms of racism and inequitable practices. For the many ways intentional discrimination continues to operate in this country, ensuring the levers of our legal system are operating to provide justice to all Americans is vital.
But this outer work is insufficient. For example, many may want to pass new laws to deal with the current manifestations of racism. But we cannot legislate our way out of this problem. If that were true, the problem of racial injustice would be solved already. For example, researchers have concluded that hiring discrimination against Black people has not changed in the last 25 years, and that Latinos have seen only a moderate drop in discrimination against them.
The profound doing that needs to happen right now must go beyond this outer work and include inner work. This inner work is targeted at the root cause of prejudice, and that is our unconscious bias. This is especially so since unconscious biases, explicit biases, and structural forces do not stand alone, but are often mutually reinforcing.
Understanding the Root Causes of Prejudice
Understanding the root causes of prejudice is critical. Although we have long known that many people are prejudiced towards others based on group affiliations, whether racial, ethnic, sectarian, sexual orientation, and otherwise, we know far less about why people are prone to prejudice in the first place. This matters, because we cannot continue to simply address the symptoms of prejudice if we are to produce truly transformative change. Many research studies document the operationalizing effects of bias across the entire landscape of human endeavor, including decision-making and institution-building. These include who gets a call back for a job, whether you are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, who gets access to health care, where realtors will take prospective home buyers, whether residents will have access to services, whether your child is more likely to get disciplined by a teacher, who gets a loan, whether a neighbor is likely to call the cops on you for performing a mundane task, and hiring, compensation, and progression in one’s legal career. “In the U.S., these decisions are deeply wrapped up in race—whether you are seen as deserving, a good investment, a safe risk, a worthwhile neighbor. Through a century of law-making, policy-making, and decision-making, we have so thoroughly ingrained an association between race and risk, that this access has decidedly and consistently been withheld from people of color for generations.”
These individual decisions and systems are like leaves on a tree, each leaf representing a present injustice or legacy effect of discrimination. We can rip the leaves off, one by one, such as by passing legislation, and indeed this is necessary, especially if the leaves are rotten. But the root causes producing those leaves—the manifestations of prejudice and bias—remain unaffected. Those roots continue to thrive and grow. We must do more to defile the soil of prejudice, contaminating its roots so that the leaves of bias and racism wither and die.
Wired for Bias
Neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and other scientists have sought to understand the origins of bias and prejudice. Why do humans prejudge others, setting up an us-versus-them standard, rewarding the in-group and disadvantaging out-groups? Their research may be summarized as follows:
- prejudice may have evolved as humans began to live collectively to distinguish between those in their community (a positive affiliation as they supported the collective) and those outside the collective (evoking a wary or negative response because possibly seen as a threat to the group)
- our brains unconsciously and automatically look for patterns, registering who looks like us (in-group) and who doesn’t (out-group)
- in-group members are rewarded while out-group members are disadvantaged.
This evidence does not present a rosy picture. Our brains may be wired to recognize and reward those who look like us, and be wary of and disadvantage those who do not. However, this doesn’t mean we are helpless. The fact that our brains make these lightning-fast distinctions, for example, isn’t necessarily the biggest problem. We could regard such differences of out-group members with curiosity rather than malice or suspicion, for example. Rather, the greater challenge is that we are largely unconscious and unawake to these associations. It’s like the background music we’ve got going as we go about our daily work. We’re not consciously aware of the songs that are playing, but they are making an impression in our minds nonetheless.
What are we to do? Researchers have identified a number of science-backed strategies that have been shown to be effective in combating implicit bias. Below, I describe one of these: the debiasing strategy of actively increasing awareness of bias as it arises and using antidotes to counteract its effects. This strategy is like a weed killer that destroys at the root level, cutting off the channels of prejudice, and promoting the withering away of the leaves of prejudiced actions and systems.
A Strategy for Debiasing our Minds
To destroy the roots of bias, we must first become aware of the associations our minds make at the point of contact with the other and then act to interrupt or mitigate their negative effects. This means that we must be committed to devoting “intention, attention, and time” to a process of waking up to what our minds are doing. Meditation and other contemplative practices are incredibly useful for this purpose. Such practices help slow down and focus the mind so that we are better able to see the associations arise in real-time.
If you can see when you’ve prejudged another person and are in danger of acting on that prejudgment, already this is a huge victory compared to our largely unconscious state of awareness right now. Recognizing those associations, you can then use a variety of mitigating measures to oppose the negative associations. The research demonstrates that one of the most effective countermeasures in opposing negative associations is to say the word “no” and then think of a counterstereotype and say “yes.” People who use this technique have greater long term success in interrupting their unconscious bias with respect to that stereotype.
A step-by-step approach:
- Engage in regular formal meditation practice, such as five minutes of mindfulness of breathing daily.
- Set an intention to actively be more mindful of your biases that day, and to do so with curiosity and self-compassion.
- Go about your daily business out in the world.
- Notice when a bias arises. For example, as you walk down the street, notice that your mind and body are reacting as a Black man walks toward you.
- Say “no” to the stereotype and its hidden message (that Black men are menacing or criminals).
- Think of, and say “yes” to, a counterstereotype. See a Black man pushing his baby in a stroller. Say “yes!”
- Pause to generate a sense of warmth toward your fellow human being and to honor yourself for doing this inner work. Recognize that each time you practice like this, you weaken the roots of prejudice.
Right now, we can feel the tremors under the ground upon which we stand. These tremors have the capacity to produce seismic shifts in the ground upon which racial injustice depends. To capitalize on this moment, we must act with wise attention and intention. This means seizing this moment by taking up the challenge ourselves to actively do the work to destabilize our own biases. Don’t be fooled. As lawyers, we harbor unconscious biases, just like every other human being on this planet. Research more than amply demonstrates that no one, including us lawyers, is protected from bias due to our education, affluence, or class status.
Let us do this inner work, then leverage the privileged positions we hold in society to bring our clients and the larger communities along, encouraging them in this work. Let these awakening tremors allow us to reach down and tear away the roots of prejudice and bias so that we can truly actualize the dream of a just and united nation.
About the Author
Phillis Morgan is the founder and principal consultant for Resilient At Work and has more than 30 years of experience as an employment lawyer. Phillis is a vice-chair of the ABA Law Practice Division’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and a meditation teacher.