The One Problem Hurting All Americans

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By Laura Mather, David Rock, and Keith Payne

In the wake of the 2016 election much has been made of how divided our country has become. From age to race to geographic region, it seems that Americans simply don’t recognize the problems others face. From the rust belt to the coasts however, one basic problem unites Americans. Although we are struggling to recognize it, implicit bias is the one issue that continues to hurt everyone.

This isn’t an accusation of guilt: it’s a call to action. If we are going to heal our nation and promote the American values we all cherish, then we have to understand what implicit bias is and how it is holding us back.

Implicit bias is a set of unconscious associations we form about everything from fashions to regional accents to rock bands. Everyone’s brain, every day, uses pattern association to inform their behavior and reactions. Red means stop and green means go is a pattern association that reflects how our brains associate symbols with meaning, and how those associations control our actions and reactions.

One is not “guilty” of pausing when we see a red light, even if it isn’t the signal for our lane. We pause because our brain is conditioned through our lived experiences and a broadly agreed upon cultural symbol, that when we all see a red light, it’s time to stop.

Everyone has these biases. Bias isn’t something one is “guilty” or not “guilty of” any more than one can be guilty of having a reaction to begin with. We have a hard time acknowledging bias because we’ve falsely associated it with the idea that if one “admits bias” in certain settings, (Mike Pence’s VP debate scenario of an African American police officer shooting a suspect, for example), then that person is admitting to being “racist.”

This simply isn’t true. While racist behavior is conscious and intended, unconscious bias is just that: unconscious and unintended. What’s more, unconscious bias isn’t exclusively formed around race. We develop unconscious biases around a number of factors including age, sex, social class, background, appearance, etc.

Long-term unemployed white men from North Carolina to Ohio suffer from biased thinking among employers about their ability to learn new skills and adapt and thrive in a modern workforce. These men are struggling to find jobs, in part, because they face forms of unconscious biases that have nothing to do with their qualifications. Far beyond race, research suggests that southerners are associated with unintelligence because of their accent, that overweight people are stereotyped as lazy, and that the poor are stereotyped as low ability simply for being poor.

The Fortune 1000 has already widely accepted the notion that biases exist. Companies from Xerox to Facebook are embracing a wide range of steps to disrupt that biased thinking. Why is the Fortune 1000 taking on this complicated issue? Because they understand that doing nothing will mean that their workforces will be less diverse and therefore have enormous blind spots that will make them less successful.

We absolutely should be worried about unconscious bias but not because it’s a politically correct term for racism. We need to be worried about bias because it is one of the biggest challenges facing our economy. It limits our ability to hire diverse, creative, and competitive teams and it is disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of hardworking people. From Silicon Valley to the Rust Belt, tackling unconscious bias is crucial to opening more opportunities to everyone and moving America forward.

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