Unravelling the concept of unconscious bias

January 3, 2019 — Comment

Written by Jenny Bourne

To mark the anniversary of the death of A. Sivanandan, the IRR examines how useful his ideas are for unravelling the recent turn in the UK to the concept of unconscious bias.

Until the Guardian published at the start of December 2018 its ‘findings’ of omnipresent, omnifocal ‘unconscious bias’ to explain BAME people’s lack of progression in the UK,[1]  it was hard to see how far and how deeply the ‘concept’ had penetrated.  Now suddenly we see the new narrative: racism is covert not overt; it is psychological not social; it is individual not structural; it is subconscious not conscious. Hence, it effectively exonerates governments, institutions, organisations, even individuals, for it is unconscious, inevitable. But it can be remedied – through retraining and therapy for the individual. Unconscious bias (UB) is the child of neoliberalism.

Just do a little googling and there are hundreds of sites now offering advice, guidance, books and courses (at a price) on UB: UB training, UB exercises, types of UB, why you can’t afford to ignore UB, UB consultancy, Understanding UB. … And there are experts – many on the psycho-social side of the academy – debating in reputable journals, especially in education and in employment, the best forms of such training or therapies.

Don’t get us wrong. We are not arguing, as the Right does, about the existence of unconscious bias. We are worried about the way it is being given primacy as the fons et origo of racism and hence (to mix a metaphor) the forge on which to hammer out racial justice.

In the beginning was the word

Tom Blau/Camera Press, in ‘The fight against racism’

For the word or phrase matters. The word shifts blame, the word redefines, the word predicates the fight. Let’s look at it historically. One had during the 1950s and 1960s to contest the comforting use of the term xenophobia – a natural fear of strangers – which was said to explain away those ‘no Irish, no Blacks, no dogs’ signs in lodgings’ windows. Then we got ‘disadvantage’ to explain away profound racism at the hands of the police.  In 1981 after the urban uprisings Lord Scarman, called in to decide what had gone wrong in the policing of Lambeth, refused to acknowledge that there was systematic racial injustice in the UK, preferring the vague term ‘disadvantage’ which attributed no cause to what black people experienced. There was suspicion and prejudice on either side of the ethnic divide. And then to counter this disadvantage we got divisive localised ‘ethnic policies’ (or poultices as Sivanandan had it to bind up the wounds of said disadvantage). And to counter prejudice we needed a raised awareness.

Thus, in the early 1980s we were ‘sold’ RAT (race or racism awareness training). RAT, an American import, was all the rage for dealing with prejudice and being promoted by well-meaning left-leaning local authorities – which had money at that time. The IRR with the analysis provided by Sivanandan ‘RAT and the degradation of black Struggle’[2] produced a robust critique of it and RAT appeared to die a death. For Sivanandan, RAT failed to make the distinction between personal racialism (i.e. attitude and prejudice) and institutional and state racism. Worse it imposed a kind of collective guilt on all white people (as opposed to power structures in societies) implying that they were almost programmed as of birth to be racists. Trying to bridge the analytical gap between individuals and social forces, RAT practitioners adopted the very lazy idea that racism was simply prejudice + power (power being individualised to white professionals). The critique went on to parody the training of people out of racialist attitudes as teaching people to excrete their shit genteelly – letting the guilt out.

Behind the critique of RAT lay the notion that one has to distinguish between attitudes, which of themselves may not affect anyone, the acting out of those attitudes, which is discrimination, and the imprimatur of the state in creating the conditions for and condoning of racism. The need to make these distinctions is because we need to know where to conduct the fight.

But then in 1999 came the Macpherson report into the 1993 death of Stephen Lawrence in a racist street attack and subsequent police enquiry. And Macpherson, pushed no doubt by the weight of the evidence put before him, came out with a finding of institutional racism in the police and by implication in other agencies and structures. And the fact that this was said in a government-backed report (whatever the muddled thinking in his extended description of it[3]) was a watershed.

From Macpherson to Lammy

It was what groups and organisations fighting police brutality and racist violence for years had waited to have acknowledged as official fact. But it was just not what the police or the establishment wanted to hear. And since 1999 there has been a rear-guard action from right-wing politicians and the police to somehow wipe institutional racism from national consciousness,[4]  – not the reality on the ground, you understand, but the concept. That this was now entering the mainstream became quite evident in the 2017 Lammy Review ‘into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the Criminal Justice System’.

As Liz Fekete pointed out:

Having failed to mention institutional racism in the body of the report, Lammy identifies, in his conclusion, three forms of prejudice – ‘overt, covert and unconscious’ – as fault lines within the CJS. Many newspapers flagged up issues of ‘racial bias’ in reporting the publication of the Lammy review, but there is but one reference to racial bias in the report, where Lammy much prefers to work with phrases like ‘unintended bias’, ‘unconscious’ or ‘implicit bias.[5]

Racism as microaggression and covert bias

But the swing of the pendulum from institutional racism to unconscious bias is not just a concession to the anti-Macpherson Right; it has at least two other contributing nudges. On the one hand in the UK, we have had over the last two or three years a series of popular books[6] by BAME authors stressing the ubiquity of everyday racism, microaggressions, witnessed in a range of experiences from being mistaken for someone else, names forgotten, a culture which excludes people who look like them, a school curriculum which skews the historical record, to being passed over for jobs.  This all-pervasive racism (personal, cultural, structural, representational) is explained by the concept of ‘white privilege’. This they maintain is because of racism’s deep penetration everywhere including into white people’s consciousnesses, so that it inevitably colours interactions. White people think they are ‘colour-blind’ when in fact they practise forms of covert racism all the time. (Theoretically they are borrowing from Critical Race Theory [7] and the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.[8])

Importing IAT

The Guardian

On the other hand, or perhaps it is one and the same, changes in naming the problem in the US were slowly seeping into the British vernacular. And the US experience was particular. With the election of president Obama in 2008, a black man in the highest position in the land, it became part of the national narrative to describe the US as post-racial. And to fight this illusory idea that one black swallow made an egalitarian summer of a country based on slavery, people began to stress the omnipotence of everyday racism felt by the majority of the ‘Land of the Free’s inhabitants. And experts and professionals, especially in the fields of law, education and employment, had recourse to ‘science’ to validate and measure their claims. And they lighted on the ‘magic bullet’ of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) – basically a social cognition test – devised in 1998 by three psychologists,[9] to prove their point. Via its now  accessible and online portal  it purports to show, by giving an individual a series of images to choose between, how deeply in our subconscious we may hold views of ‘the other’, despite our conscious wish to be just. This test or its variants are now being used extensively to counter disproportionality in various professions in recruitment and promotion policies. (It was, too, given prominence in the Guardian’s take on racism and bias.)

Disproportionality – usually showing the under-representation of a particular group in an area or profession compared with their number in the population – is now a very popular way of ‘proving’ racism – vide the Guardian. But, as Lee Bridges pointed out in his critique of the Lammy Review, what it actually gives is a snapshot of something at one stage in a system. If, as Lammy was, we are looking for causes, we have to look at the way that stages compound one another and fit into whole processes. And the disproportion snapshots do not allow for such analyses.[10]

The problem with IAT and bias ‘theory’

US law professor Jonathan Kahn in his book Race on the Brain: what implicit bias gets wrong about the struggle for racial justice[11] explicates the political problems when ‘implicit bias’ morphs ‘from a useful psychological theory of cognitive function into a master narrative framing legal and policy response to race and racism in America today’. To provide a resume of his arguments:


it denies history;
it reduces racism to merely another form of ‘bias’;
it obscures power relations which undergird contemporary race relations;
it promotes a mirage of an easy pain-free way to fight racism;
it is overenthusiastic about a technological fix for what is fundamentally a complex social, political and historical problem;
it opens the door to the biologicalisation of racism.  (An Oxford research team is said to have come up with a drug to counter implicit bias!)[12]

Looking specifically at the UK, where does the emphasis on ‘bias’ take the struggle against racism?  Yes, as implied throughout this piece, it moves the centre of gravity from institutions and structures to the individual and, unfortunately, to the unconscious. But this has profound implications – in terms of class and hence what to fight and how to fight. It may feel from the point of view of those coming up against the ‘glass ceiling’, that racism is simply ubiquitous but that does not mean that it does not affect different groups and classes differentially. Everyday microaggressions, though wearing and demoralising, are not the same as a death in custody, a deportation or a housing eviction. We have, as Sivanandan pointed out, to distinguish between ‘the racism that kills’ and ‘the racism that discriminates’ especially when austerity policies and neoliberalism are making for an ever-increasingly unequal society.

And pinning one’s star to just enlarging the number of BAME people in an organisation or structure does not of itself change that organisation’s policies – witness Sajid Javid.[13] (Changing the colour of those in charge does not ipso facto change the colour of the policies.) And structural racism is not just as a recent writer had it, ‘the intensification of personal prejudice, of groupthink’.[14] The Home Office has racist policies on terrorism, security, immigration, gangs, all determined not by nasty unenlightened people but by state policies, themselves influenced by economics and foreign policy. [15]

The emphasis on individual bias runs fundamentally against a materialist view of society. It puts the chicken before the egg. Do ‘white’ attitudes and biases create the discrimination that blights the lives of BAME people? Or are those biases being inculcated and constantly being redefined by the political culture around us, itself being reproduced by the laws of the land, the steers from the media, and in fact the larger processes of globalisation and its flipside austerity – which provide the wrapper for class and power relations?



[1] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/02/revealed-the-stark-evidence-of-everyday-racial-bias-in-britain One column explained the nature of unconscious bias and the way it could be tackled.  https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/02/unconscious-bias-what-is-it-and-can-it-be-eliminated [2] A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the degradation of black struggle’, Race & Class, (26/4) 1985. [3] The definition that came from Macpherson was slightly confusing. On the one hand he noted institutional racism as ‘the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin’ which could be detected in ‘processes’ which amounted to discrimination’.   But on the other hand he wrote of ‘unwitting prejudice, ignorance thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping’ as part of the problem.  But overall, the acceptance of institutional racism was a very important breakthrough. See Jenny Bourne, ‘The life and times of institutional racism’, Race & Class, (43/2) 2001. [4] See for example the publications of the Institute for the Study of Civil Society cited in the above. [5] Liz Fekete, ‘ Lammy Review: without racial justice, can there be trust?’ http://www.irr.org.uk/news/without-racial-justice-can-there-be-trust/ [6] Nikesh Shukla, The good immigrant (Unbound, 2016); Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I am no longer talking to white people about race, (Bloomsbury, 2017); Afua Hirsch, British(ish): on race, identity and belonging (Jonathan Cape, 2018). [7] Critical Race Theory identifies power structures as based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates ‘the marginalisation of people of colour’. [8] His influential book is Racism without Racists: color-blind racism and the persistence of inequality in America (2014) [9] Greenwald, Anthony G.; McGhee, Debbie E.; Schwartz, Jordan L.K. (1998), ‘Measuring Individual Differences in Implicit Cognition: The Implicit Association Test’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74 (6): 1464–1480. [10] Lee Bridges, ‘Lammy Review: will it change outcomes in the criminal justice system?’, Race & Class,  (59/3)  2018 [11] Jonathan Kahn, Race on the Brain: what implicit bias gets wrong about the struggle for racial justice, Columbia University Press, 2018. [12] See page viii of the above. [13] This BAME home secretary managed to create a national hysteria over the ‘crisis’ of a few small boats of would-be-migrants in the Channel. [14] See Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I am not longer talking to white people about race (London: Bloomsbury, 2017). [15] A clear example of this was shown in a London TV programme on The London Mayor’s review of the Gangs Matrix database and the fact that since it so clearly disproportionally included black men, it needed to be reformed. Whilst a human rights NGO welcomed suggested changes to protocols, Tottenham Rights activist Stafford Scott held that the whole database had to be scrapped as its processes and reach were inherently unjust. See also  https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/21/metropolitan-police-gangs-matrix-review-london-mayor-discriminatory  

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.


January 3, 2019
Ann Singleton:

Thank you. This is so clearly written. Siva’s legacy and the work of IRR is needed more than ever. I will include this in my reading lists for students.

January 3, 2019
Nancy Murray:

Jenny, not only do you energetically sweep away current RAT droppings, but you do so with Siva’s holistic grasp and, at times, cadence…excellent job!

January 4, 2019
harsh punja:

What passion for justice and poetry in your language! …
“In the beginning was the word
For the word or phrase matters.
The word shifts blame, the word redefines, the word predicates the fight. Let’s look at it historically.”

Indeed fitting and great way to remember Siva and mark the anniversary of his passing.

January 5, 2019
Phil Scraton:

Excellent, Jenny. Thank you. Clear, concise and, as ever, wonderfully written. Love and comradeship. Phil x

January 5, 2019
David Edgar:

Jenny, this is a wonderful tribute to Siva’s thinking and legacy but also a great piece of itself: historically-based, punchy, direct, completely jargon-free, unanswerable in argument, as clear as crystal. What a great way to mark the anniversary.

January 7, 2019
Kesi Mahendran:

Great article Jenny. As a social psychologist, I find it frustrating how the Guardian and BBC, rather than survey the several explanations within the social psychologies of racism and prejudice, picked out one, highly individualistic explanation, ‘unconscious bias’ and ran with it. Its not just that there are structural and institutional explanations, there are undoubtedly better social psychological explanations and ways forward. It seems like a case of ‘their particularisation will be our generalisation’ – I’m glad you challenged it.

January 11, 2019
Mane Kumria:

Thank you Jenny for an excellent, clear piece of writing. An apt tribute to Siva but also a stand alone piece.

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