Jealous Guy

“I didn’t mean to hurt you / I’m sorry that I made you cry / I didn’t want to hurt you / I’m just a jealous guy”

I wonder if implicit bias is the progressive version of unintended consequences.

A truly powerful idea that’s associated with conservative thought but has become widely accepted is “unintended consequences.” You try to alleviate poverty by providing a village with a better paved road, and the town becomes attractive as a route for drug smugglers to use in transportation, bringing violence to the town. You create certification processes for businesses so that consumers are protected, and business is disincentivized because the red tape becomes unmanageable.

For foundations, you provide grants in your focus area, and nonprofits that are desperate or don’t know any better modify their missions to go along with what you fund. You try to be clearer in your grant guidelines, and nonprofits hew ever more closely to what you say.

Unintended consequences are usually marshaled as an argument against government intervention, which makes them a popular resource of conservatives. But the reality of their existence means progressives are aware of and care about them as well, even if they don’t like some of the thinking behind them. They’re a hard-to-deny reality that undermines a central tenet of progressive thought, the value of intentional collective/government action in pursuit of greater social welfare.

I wonder if implicit bias is the progressive version of unintended consequences – a hard-to-deny reality that undermines a central tenet of conservative thought, that, as Chief Justice Roberts put it in a recent decision on affirmative action, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of by race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” If despite our conscious efforts, our unconscious minds betray us, Roberts’ notion is not enough.

Implicit bias is the idea that even if you don’t consciously hold racist beliefs, even if you would reject them with your conscious mind, you have still learned patterns of thought and behavior that encode biased and racially invidious beliefs.

Studies have been done looking at the way recruiters handle job applications differently based on something as superficial as people’s names (example, see page 4).

For foundations, implicit bias can affect the way that leaders of nonprofits are seen as legitimate or not, authoritative or not, trustworthy or not. There’s a gender dimension as well, as the study linked to previously points out as well.

My question is whether the moment for implicit bias to emerge as the counterpoint to unintended consequences has come. The beliefs that George Zimmerman had about Trayvon Martin based on the limited visual information he initially received – some were explicit (“they always get away”) and some were no doubt implicit. “Suspicious-looking” – so much is encoded in this slippery phrase.

We live in the era of the algorithm – they calculate what to recommend on Amazon or Netflix, what ads we see on Facebook, what search results we get on Google. We all walk around with implicit algorithms about race and propriety and danger. George Zimmerman’s came to light, tragically, fatally. How long before it becomes abundantly clear to all that implicit bias is real?

In the meantime, foundation folks who review and approve grant applications would do well to ask themselves about potential sources of implicit bias, and investigate means to mitigate them. Because it would be a tragic unintended consequence to allow implicit bias to undermine the laudable goals of philanthropy.

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