Implicit Bias, Fear of Hoodies, and the Hypocrisy of the Political Commentariat

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Several politically right commentators have criticized Hillary Clinton's recent remarks about implicit bias, charging her with expressing her own bigotry in the process. See, for example, the Federalist and the Weekly Standard. A quick Google search turns up several others. When I first saw this, I thought it was a big of a lapse, given how quickly the right turned to the defense of Juan Williams when he was fired by NPR for basically saying the same sort of thing about people dressed in Muslim garb in airports. (See similar Google search for him.)

Williams admitted to an unconscious bias at airports when he sees people who he expects to be the more common demographic to be terrorists. He expressed some regret about this, clearly indicating that he thought something was unfortunate about being that way, but he said it's sort of understandable how people end up being fearful in that way. He was fired from NPR for being a bigot.

Clinton comes along and describes the implicit bias many white people have against young black men in hoodies. She says it's honest, open-minded, well-meaning people who have this fear, which is certainly true. That's what makes it implicit bias. It happens even among those who don't want it to, who oppose racism with every moral fiber they have. In context, it's clear that she's saying this is something that needs to change. She's not saying this is a good thing. But these critics latch on to it to insist that she must feel this fear herself, as if that somehow would make her hypocritical and a complete bigot worthy of condemnation (in a way that Williams apparently was not, at least the way many of the right acted at the time).

The point of both Williams and Clinton is that this is something unfortunate that our psychological makeup leads us to do, and it's something that ideally we should seek to change, but it's nonetheless part of how we experience race in this country. There's bad there, and there's something normal about it. Both are true. There might be slightly different nuances between the two cases, but I find it hard to believe that there's enough difference between the two cases to justify such radically different treatment. (And I'd be shocked not to find the mirror image of the right's treatment as the left begins to defend her, despite many of them having criticized Williams for saying the same thing.)

It's not hypocritical for an anti-racist to point out that they probably have implicit bias and wish that were otherwise, expressing a desire to try to find ways to deal with that. I don't have a lot of confidence that either Juan Williams or Hillary Clinton would have a lot of good things to say about what a positive response to it would be, and that's not because of their political views or anything like that. I don't expect politicians or political commentators to have much to say of value on the subject. Psychologists and psychologically-informed philosophers might have some things to say that are worth listening to, but no one has a lot of interesting and helpful suggestions about this particular problem. The best work on it shows that it forms at a very young age and doesn't really go away. Most of the ways people come up with to deal with it are very temporary or very gradual, and the best help for it is to have a more integrated society (especially at the most intimate levels of friendships and relationships). That's a good reason not to make a speech about it, as if there are a bunch of policies politicians can implement that will change this. But it's not hypocritical to do so. What is hypocritical to treat these two differently unless you can point to something that explains why he's heroic and she's evil for saying the same thing (or vice versa, for any who might defend her after having seen Williams as a bigot).

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