MLK Convocation Addresses Issues of Implicit Racial Bias

January 25, 2018

As Minnesota prepares to host Super Bowl LII, its leaders are promoting the region as “Bold North.” At the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation at the Law School, Dean Garry Jenkins put a twist on this idea, asking those in the community—and statewide—to boldly confront racial injustice.

Titled “Facing North: Implicit Bias in Minnesota Courts,” the third annual MLK Convocation featured Jenkins, Judge Pamela G. Alexander ’77 of Minnesota’s 4th Judicial District, and Professor Francis Shen, who is also executive director of education and outreach for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience.

In his introduction, Jenkins noted King addressed the topic in a 1964 interview. Northerners, King said, are “devoted to an abstract principle of cordial interracial relations … but the truth is that deep prejudices and discrimination exist in subtle and covert disguises.”

Uncovering the causes of implicit bias is complex. But Shen, who conducts research at the intersection of science and the law, noted that the human brain is confronted with thousands of choices daily. “Your brain is a decision-making machine,” he said. “Because we make so many decisions, we need lots and lots of shortcuts.”

While many of these shortcuts keep us breathing and moving, others reinforce racial stereotypes. Nearly everyone does this. “Not me, I’m egalitarian,” Shen said, summarizing the typical reaction. “I’m from Minnesota. I could never think that way. Yet the research suggests all of us … hold some of these decision-making shortcuts, these biases, that affect the way we think.”

For people of color, bias has led to police profiling, unfair charging decisions, and longer criminal sentences. In 1990, Alexander ruled that sentencing guidelines unfairly targeted African-Americans in requiring longer prison terms for people convicted of crimes involving crack cocaine than those involving powder cocaine. The Minnesota Supreme Court later upheld Alexander’s decision.

“When the police shootings happened here, that was not surprising to some of us because there have been issues in this state for quite some time,” Alexander said. Those issues include the 1920 Duluth lynchings of three black men.

Minnesota has been slow to confront racial injustice both inside and outside the courtroom because of its small minority population, Alexander said. But she believes the state can do it. “I have a lot of faith in Minnesota,” she added. “They are up to the challenge and do try and make change. The people who do that are lawyers. Y’all are the drivers.”

Specifically, she encouraged lawyers representing African-Americans to ask jurors about race. Alexander has heard some potential jurors say, when questioned, that they don’t like African-Americans and can’t be impartial.

Said Jenkins, “That is a sobering reality.”

In recognition of the dangers related to implicit bias, the Committee for Equality and Justice of the Minnesota Judicial Branch has begun taking steps to reduce its impact in the state court system. In 2015, the Committee created the nation’s first Implicit Bias Bench Card, a practical tool for judges to identify and mitigate implicit bias at various points of court proceedings. Furthermore, there are a number of implicit bias seminars offered around the state each year to judicial officers and employees. Pattern jury questions and instructions have also been updated to include both implicit and explicit bias, in the hopes of ensuring that those who serve on a jury understand the existence of such biases and are able to set them aside when deciding a case.

Dean Garry W. Jenkins, Judge Pamela G. Alexander ’77, Professor Francis X. Shen
Dean Garry W. Jenkins, Judge Pamela G. Alexander ’77, Professor Francis X. Shen

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