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Implicit Bias

Before discussing this evidence, we must comment on the nature of the bias just mentioned. A half century ago, racial and ethnic bias often took the form of “Jim Crow” racism, with whites holding blatantly racist views regarding African Americans and other people of color as biologically inferior, and with out-and-out racists occupying law enforcement, prosecutorial, and judicial positions in the South but also sometimes in the North (Litwack, 2009). Fortunately, that form of racism has largely faded, although too many Americans still hold such racist views. More to the point, Jim Crow racism has been replaced by what is called modern or symbolic racism that views African Americans and other people of color as culturally, if not biologically, inferior and blames them for their low SES (Quillian, 2006).

Responding to this change in the nature of racial and ethnic prejudice, social scientists have studied the extent and impact of implicit bias, the idea that many people hold unconscious racial and ethnic stereotypes (James et al., 2016; Lum, 2016). To the extent that people of color are at a key disadvantage today in the criminal justice system because of racial and ethnic bias by criminal justice professionals, social scientists think this bias reflects implicit bias rather than a conscious, shamelessly racist attempt of these professionals to oppress people of color (Walker et al., 2018). Some police and other criminal justice professionals, of course, may still be out-and-out racists, but overall the bias that operates in the criminal justice system is much more implicit and unconscious than explicit and conscious.

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