The harmful impacts of implicit bias and systemic racism

Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.
— Ibram X. Kendi

The racial disparities in our country are the direct result of hundreds of years of systemic racism and policy. Systemic racism, along with implicit bias, creates a cycle that propels White people to success and keeps Black people behind. While conversations around inequities have reignited in the wake of the George Floyd murder, it is the responsibility of White people to learn how this cycle benefits them and hurts others—and most importantly, to push for systemic change.  

Those with privilege must understand their place in this cycle. For those who have been demanding change for decades, we ask that those with privilege take the time to reflect on their lives. How can you use your power to create a more equitable world?

Right here in Minnesota, we are reflective of years of systemic racism that has led to some of the country’s largest racial disparities. We are better than that. We must come together as a community and work toward a better state for all. But before we can get to work in our own lives and demand change, we must understand the systems in place.

What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias is how people unconsciously assign stereotypes toward others. This includes the harmful stereotypes that White people learn to assign to the BIPOC community.

Implicit bias is active when people interact with peers at work, when they pass shoppers in the grocery store, and when they see groups of people on the street. Even when people do their best to treat others with respect and compassion, they may unknowingly react with implicit bias. This can be harmful to those around them.

Because implicit bias is a process of thinking, it is more difficult to call out and address than overt racism. 

Test your implicit bias here. There are a number of biases you can test, including disability, sexuality, weight, age, and more. Navigate to the race test by clicking “go” under project implicit social attitudes. Select “I wish to proceed” and then select the “Race IAT” button toward the middle. 

What is systemic racism?

Systemic racism (also known as structural racism or institutional racism) refers to systems and policies that harm the health and livelihood of BIPOC. These systems include housing, food access, education, incarceration, workplaces, and more.

Systemic racism was designed to propel White people to succeed and make it harder for BIPOC to succeed. These systems continue to exist today due to the implicit bias of those who work in and benefit from these systems.

How do implicit bias and systemic racism work together?

Because implicit bias feeds into systems like incarceration, housing, and healthcare, these systems continue to flourish while racial disparities grow. And as racial disparities grow, so does implicit bias and stereotypes against BIPOC, creating a harmful cycle.

For example, when using a similar resume, job-seekers with Black-sounding names received 50 percent fewer callbacks than job-seekers with White-sounding names. Here we can see that implicit bias clearly impacts the hiring process. When Black people are given fewer opportunities, it makes it that much harder for them to succeed. 

Healthcare workers have implicit biases like everyone else, and this can be seen in the type of care patients receive. The National Academy of Medicine found that “racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than White people—even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable.” This systemic racism is life-threatening, as more people die from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes in the United States solely because of their race or ethnicity—not because they lack access to healthcare. 

Generations of housing policies like redlining and racial covenants in the Twin Cities forced BIPOC families into less desirable neighborhoods and banned them from more desirable neighborhoods designated for White families. The thinking behind this was racist, based on the idea that neighborhoods would be stronger if they were segregated, and that White families deserved to live in better neighborhoods. To this day we see the same segregation with BIPOC families in low-income areas and White families in high-income areas. And because lower-income neighborhoods are higher in crime, have less availability of fresh foods, and poorer-quality education for children, housing impacts numerous aspects related to one’s health and livelihood.

What we see across the nation and in the Twin Cities is the same. Due to implicit bias and systemic racism, Black and Brown people must work harder for the same opportunities afforded to White people. 

Our biases and the systems around us create a world where a barrier to success is the color of one’s skin. And although that idea is shameful to most of us, we play a part in the continuation of this reality. We may be quick to call out overt racism, but it’s implicit or indirect racism that we often fail to call out, and sometimes even notice. It is implicit bias that allows these systems to continue without any meaningful change. And this kind of racism has arguably greater impacts on the BIPOC community than overt racism.

What’s the solution?

There is no small or simple answer to fixing hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination. Racial disparities in the United States must be addressed through policy reform, which should be well-researched and involve community input. 

But before meaningful policy changes will ever pass, more people—specifically White people—need to be aware of the implicit biases they hold and the role they play in systemic racism. It’s not enough to be “not racist.” We must be antiracist and that means understanding how you benefit from racist systems and contribute to them. And it means fighting against policies that create racial disparities. 

Don’t let the momentum fade 

As these next months come and go, we ask that you work to keep this momentum going. Please do not forget the very real issues that are top-of-mind right now. Don’t let your friends and family forget. Continue to educate yourself and others and fight for reforms. We ask that you push back against the idea of “returning to normal,” because normal means systemic racism that disadvantages the BIPOC community and so many of our participants at Neighborhood House.  

Implicit bias and systemic racism will not fade away without active, daily work. It is up to each of us to do better, not just for others but for ourselves. When we keep equity and fairness at the root of our actions, we will make meaningful change and create a more equitable world.