Confronting Implicit Bias In Sports, On The Streets And In Our Schools

Four years ago, a tiny powerhouse named Gabby Douglas blasted on to the national scene, tumbling, leaping and flying her way to gymnastics' most sought-after title: Olympic individual all-around champion.

She was young, only 16, but her athleticism could be held up against any adult's. Her performances were absolute marvels.

This month -- at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro -- we watched that mega-talented young woman demonstrate the same set of gravity-defying skills that made us all fans in the first place. But we watched something else too. We watched her spirit take a tumble.

In the face of criticism about her patriotism (she didn't place her hand over her heart during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner") and her commitment to the team (she seemed, to some, unenthusiastic when teammates performed well), Gabby's shoulders slumped, and her smile at times seemed pained.

Eventually, she admitted that the criticism stung. When they talk about my actions, she said, with tears in her eyes, "they're really criticizing me, and it doesn't really feel good. It was a little bit hurtful."

Now, consider if you will, the public's reaction when another Olympic great, swimmer Ryan Lochte, was suspected of being involved in a drunken act of vandalism and violence, and lying to the police and the world about the incident.

"No apologies from him or from the other athletes are needed," Mario Andrada, a spokesman for the Rio Olympics organizing committee, said about Lochte. "We need to understand that these kids were trying to have fun." Andrada went on to say, "Let's give these kids a break. Sometimes you take actions that you later regret. They are magnificent athletes. Lochte is one of the best swimmers of all time. They had fun. They made a mistake. It's part of life. Life goes on."

Gabby Douglas, a young Black woman, had her unknowable thoughts and feelings scrutinized and was taken to the social media woodshed. Ryan Lochte, a 32-year-old white man, actually did something boorish and stupid and likely illegal (we found out later that his version of the story in question was indeed untrue) and he was given -- initially -- a global pass.

In the days since, many have commented on the disparities between the treatment of these two exceptional athletes. The prevailing conclusion is that Lochte benefits from an outsized helping of white privilege. This is true.

But it is also true that Gabby is being crushed by a national implicit bias.

For the uninitiated, implicit bias is the tendency for our unconscious selves to feel or exhibit a bias toward certain groups of, or characteristics in, people -- in part because we've been bombarded by negative images and messages.

In the case of Gabby Douglas, the general public's implicit biases about Black people as unpatriotic and Black women as "angry" made it easier to jump to conclusions that a talented athlete was acting in a manner unbecoming of an Olympic great -- and not that she was tired, disappointed, or in need of "a break." Believing those things about her then made it easier to attack her.

What we believe about a person -- or a group of people -- translates into how we act toward them. That translation of beliefs into actions is pervasive in our society and it is dangerous.

Consider the recent Department of Justice report coming out of Baltimore, a little more than a year after Freddie Gray was killed while in police custody.

According to an article in The Baltimore Sun, the report showed that police practices in Baltimore "perpetuate and fuel a multitude of issues rooted in poverty and race, focusing law enforcement actions on low-income, minority communities" and encourage officers to have "unnecessary, adversarial interactions with community members."

Unfortunately, implicit bias isn't just a problem on the Olympic medal stand and on urban cities' heavily policed streets. The same thing is true in the classroom.

Research consistently shows that Black and Brown students are disciplined more harshly and more frequently than white students who engage in the same behaviors. Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, and are more frequently referred to the criminal justice system for offenses.

In a particularly galling statistic, even pre-schoolers are subject to the discriminatory effects of implicit bias.

From an article in The Atlantic describing the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection report on school discipline:

Black children accounted for 18 percent of preschool enrollment but almost half (48 percent) of the children suspended more than once; in contrast, white children were 43 percent of preschoolers, but only 26 percent were subjected to repeated suspensions. Likewise, boys comprised 54 percent of children in preschool programs, yet represented the vast majority of pre-K students suspended either once or multiple times.

The reason: Black boys often are perceived to be older -- and therefore, scarier -- than they actually are.

As most of the country prepares to head back to school, it's critical that we understand the real dangers of implicit bias. But at the same time, it's also important to realize that something can be done about it.

Research by the American Values Institute shows that implicit bias can be overcome -- if truthful data, is well-circulated, and when people are aware that their biases exist.

We know this to be true at NUA because it is the crux of what we do every day in school systems across the country.

Working with teachers in a true partnership, we check, challenge and change deep-seated beliefs that can be barriers to effective teaching and learning. We show educators -- with science, data and meaningful interactions with students and communities -- that all students have the capacity to think and achieve at high levels, extend beyond their current boundaries and reach their full potential.

All students.

Beliefs -- when rooted in stereotypes and unchecked perceptions -- can be a major stumbling block when it comes to teaching and learning.

But positive beliefs can lift our young people up, push them to achieve greater and greater feats, and encourage them -- like Gabby Douglas -- to leap toward their goals and fly.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at He tweets as @ECooper4556.