Individuals who contribute to racial inequities and discrimination are not always motivated by purposeful racial hostility.

The ACLU of Michigan routinely urges police and school administrators to increase their awareness of implicit bias as one approach to reducing racial profiling and racially disproportionate school discipline. Implicit bias causes discriminatory acts when the actor has no conscious intent to discriminate.

Implicit bias is the product of accumulated racial experiences, societal racial norms, stereotypes and other factors that influence an individual’s behavior in circumstances where a racial or ethnic dynamic is present. A police officer may not have a conscious plan to stop and search young people of color, but when he sees one driving an expensive automobile, he instinctively becomes suspicious and may feel compelled to investigate. Behavior that a teacher might regard as “boys will be boys” conduct by white kids is somehow regarded as “disruptive” or even criminal when displayed by children of color.

Understanding and addressing implicit bias can go a long way toward meeting the racial justice challenges confronting the ACLU of Michigan and others on a similar mission. For example, teaching a conscientious police officer about implicit bias may cause him to both use more care when observing people of color and to also resist urges to stop and question them until he observes actual or potential criminal conduct.

That said, training around implicit bias cannot take us the full distance. Implicit bias often accounts for the discriminatory acts of persons with good intentions. They mean no harm, but cause it through ignorance and inadvertence. It is increasingly evident however that in Michigan, as in much of the rest of the country, there are conscious, deliberate efforts that have undermined—if not derailed—the progress of minority communities.

For the last 10 years, our state has witnessed one racial setback after another. Affirmative action has been banned in Michigan. Democratic government and corresponding voting rights have been taken from predominantly black cities and school districts. When those affected used referendum, a remnant of democracy still available to them, to repeal the emergency manager law that stole their democratic rights, their enemies struck back by enacting a new emergency manager law not subject to referendum. To make way for new upscale populations and development, many poor people of color in Detroit have effectively been driven from their city by mass tax foreclosures and mass water shut-offs. The children of Flint have been poisoned by the water supply. Leading the long parade of black victims of police violence is homeless black man Milton Hall who was gunned down in cold blood by a Saginaw police firing squad. And as we list these racial horrors in Michigan, we have only scratched the surface.

The ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project is committed to resisting these encroachments on the lives and civil rights of black people and others—and as such the ACLU recognizes that we must also stand ready to challenge the bias that is explicitly expressed as well as implied.  

Indeed, the policies and actions that have effectively rendered Michigan’s people of color second-class citizens are not products of implicit bias. They are purposefully directed at minority communities—but not always because of pathological racial hatred. When the rich and powerful steal democracy and gentrify cities, they are likely driven not so much by racial hatred as by greed and an indifference to the plight of powerless people of color. Of special concern however is the mindset of white workers who vote to ban affirmative action, or who have jobs as prison guards and police officers and in those positions abuse people of color. Many may have bigoted views, but at bottom they are driven primarily by generations-old ignorance and confusion that date back to the slave era.

Slave owners were a distinct minority. There were many white workers who may have been paid for their labor, but their poverty rivaled that of enslaved Africans. They were abused and called derogatory names like “white trash” and “lint heads” because they walked out of textile mills at the end of the work day covered in cotton fibers. Recognizing the potential alliance of these white workers with black slaves, the elite classes persuaded poor whites that their racial identity linked them most closely with slave owners.

In subsequent years, the hardships encountered by whites who are poor and middle class have been attributed by the powerful not to worker exploitation, but to job-stealing, opportunity-taking, trouble-making black people. This game of phony white privilege and scapegoating has been played for years and has maintained racial division. Recognizing the impact, Black Power Movement activists in the late 1960s urged white sympathizers to abandon their forays into black communities as civil rights missionaries, and to instead go into white communities to explain that scapegoated minorities are not the enemy. It was a request that was never honored in a significant way, and white workers remained vulnerable to coded racial messages by white political demagogues. There should be no surprise then about the current political season which has been marked by the resonance of inflammatory scapegoating rhetoric about immigrants, Muslims and a black President who has supposedly “stolen” the country from “real” Americans.

For white allies of communities of color, the request made by Black Power leaders 50 years ago still stands. Progress toward real racial justice in Michigan and elsewhere in the country will not be made until there is clarity among white workers about the true source of their misery. They won’t know the truth unless committed individuals and organizations roll up their sleeves and provide them with an informed analysis.

Author’s Note: For those who are interested in sharing the truth with those who have been misled about race, the ACLU of Michigan’s “Fair Justice/Smart Justice” campaign, and the organization’s ongoing campaign to dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline are targeting communities for public education initiatives that will disseminate facts about racial discrimination in the criminal justice system and in school discipline. To become involved, contact Mark Fancher, staff attorney, ACLU of Michigan.