The Harmful Effects of Implicit Racial Bias in the Police

In a study of police body camera footage recently undergone by researchers at Stanford University, it was found that police officers on average spoke less respectfully to black residents than their white counterparts. This meant that black community members were less likely to be addressed with a formal greeting, titles such as “sir” or “ma’am” were infrequent, sharp commands were more common and apologies or expressions of gratitude were rare. The issue is not overt expressions of racism, hate or violence against non-whites that come in contact with the police. The problem isn’t even that police were being intentionally racist. The concern is that police (and many other people that possess social power) make statements during interactions with people of color that possess perceived negative meaning. It is believed that, many times, they simply do not realize that their words sometimes harm those on the receiving end, who must then determine whether they are the subject of a racist police confrontation. Over time these interactions eat away any positive relationships that exists between the two groups, and supply fuel to the belief by many in minority communities that police officers are racist, insensitive, and dangerous. Police need to understand how to communicate more respectfully to minority groups because, even though their demeaning words or actions may not be consciously understood, the harm is still real and causes significant damage to race relations in this country.

In a stressful or important situation, people often call upon racial stereotypes to make decisions. These stereotypes are brought on by primers, which raise certain fixed opinions about different groups to the surface of one’s mind. Being a police officer, where important decisions must be made quite often, creates situations where harmful racial stereotypes are “primed” if they are dealing with a black community member. Judgments on a person’s level of hostility or guilt likely prime racial bias in someone’s mind, and therefore are common when policing people of color (Levinson & Young, pg. 327). This in turn can lead that officer to assuming negative qualities of that black resident, and therefore disrespectful language and actions may seem appropriate. The same goes for a black community member approached by a police officer. Stereotypes and fear regarding the police change the way that person will act. The police, when faced with these situations, may be primed to think of black residents less respectfully than their white counterparts, and make judgments that affect the treatment of that citizen.

These serious judgments often manifest themselves in what are known as “microaggressions”. They are subtle demeaning or derogatory statements or actions that, while not overtly racist, subtly deliver messages that often have meaning to members of certain races, genders, sexual orientations, etc. (Sue et. al., pg. 271). Clutching one’s purse when a black man walks by, commenting on someone’s accent, and alluding to someone’s intelligence in comparison to a group that they belong to are just a few examples of microaggressions. Microaggressions are often hard to fully grasp for those on both ends of a potentially derogatory comment. The “invisibility” of microaggressions means that someone who is faced with a potentially harmful comment must decide if the person they are interacting with was being racist or simply did not mean anything by it. This causes confusion, and the hurt is the same as what would be caused if the sleight was intentionally racist. (Sue et. al., pg.275). In this way, one might be able to understand how a powerful group, such as police officers, might cause significant harm to racial relations in the country. If they continuously, albeit (sometimes) unknowing, make underhanded comments and use disrespectful language that hurts members of the black community by making them feel under attack, relations between the police and people of color will never recover. Academic activists have put in work to try to determine how to mend the rift between the police and the black community. Training police officers, cadets and senior officials alike, in implicit racial bias and structural racism is a popular way to try to teach officers how to recognize their biases and the effects they can have.

Emphasizing the unconscious nature of microaggressions is not meant to downplay the seriousness of the problem of racial stereotyping and violence in American policing. The issues facing people of color at the hands of police are very real. However, it is necessary to recognize how microaggressions are often done automatically and without measured thought. Racial stereotypes are engrained in society and often find their way to the forefront of someone’s mind when interacting with someone of another race. The important thing to understand here is that the ignorance to the severity of one’s actions do not limit their harmful effects to the community. The seemingly minuteness of one’s words, if spoken in the wrong way to certain groups of people, does not mean that they have no repercussions. Microaggressions, especially when delivered by members of powerful groups like politicians, employers, and especially the police, build up over time in a community until negativity and racism is all that group is associate with (Sue et. al. pg. 277).

For more about implicit racial bias training in police departments, I recommend these articles, which offer both optimistic and cynical views on how effective it is;

Is This How Discrimination Ends?

Implicit Bias

A Meta-Analysis of Change in Implicit Bias

UW ignores own research, hosts ‘implicit bias’ workshop

Dr. Rashawn Ray at the University of Maryland has recently done a lot of work on this very subject, and his work is worth checking out for anyone interested.


Levinson, Justin D.; Young, Danielle. “Different Shades of Bias: Skin Tone, Implicit Racial Bias, and Judgments of Ambiguous Evidence.” West Virginia Law Review 112.2 (2010): 307-350.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). “Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice”. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.


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