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Mindful : August 2015
“ “A lot of people think about black teens and poor black people as victims of bias, but it’s every- where,” says Basri. Ironically, in addition to his work as a professor, Basri is also the Vice Chan- cellor for Equity and Inclusion at the University of California, Berkeley, where one of his goals has been to increase the number of African-American students and faculty at the university and to make the campus a more welcoming place for them. “It is hard for someone who has not experienced a sense of pervasive negative stereotyping based on appearance alone to appreciate how incredibly wearing it can be,” says Basri. And of course it gets worse. A nine-month stretch from late 2014 to mid-2015 saw the following events: the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; the police choking death of Eric Garner on Staten Island; the death of Freddie Gray following harsh treat- ment while in police custody and the subsequent rioting that rocked Baltimore; and the video showing white fraternity members from The University of Oklahoma singing a racist chant on a school bus. In light of these, bias has become a critically important topic. In unprecedented remarks following the first two incidents and the ensuing protests, FBI Director James B. Comey acknowledged the “widespread existence of unconscious bias.” He said, “There is a disconnect between police agencies and many citizens—pre- dominantly in communities of color. We simply must find ways to see each other more clearly.” Whether it’s called unconscious bias, implicit bias, or “gut instinct,” bias influences the way every one of us sees and treats other people every day. It’s well-documented that gender equality in the workplace is deeply affected by bias. It’s what makes the world of scientific research and the tech industry run on man power. It’s one reason why orchestras used to be overwhelmingly male. “We are social creatures and need to be in relationship with others,” says john a. powell, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a prominent researcher on race and human society. “ Yet we have ways of deny- ing our interconnectedness, different ways of marginalizing each other. A lot of times we do things we aren’t consciously aware of. It causes suffering all around,” adds powell, author of Racing to Justice. “Perhaps most damaging of all, bias can be internalized and make the subjects feel and perform as if the biases about them are true, both on tests and in the workplace, studies by Claude Steele have shown. It’s what he calls ‘stereotype threat.’” I t was a lovely day in Berkeley when Gibor Basri decided to clean out the flowerpots on his second floor balcony, which overlooks a quiet tree-lined street not far from the University of California, where Basri works. Suddenly, two police cars pulled up, and a knot of officers ran into his yard, guns drawn and pointed. When Basri’s wife Jessica opened the door, they said they would rush her to safety because a “hot prowl”—a burglary in action—was in progress. She looked up. “Oh, that’s my husband.” An astrophysicist, Gibor Basri claims Jamai- can and Iraqi heritage and has dark skin. Jessica Broitman, who works as a psychoanalyst, is white. The two have been married for more than 40 years, have a grown son, and chose Berkeley as their home partly because of its reputation for diversity and a liberal attitude. But when someone driving by spotted a dark-skinned man on a porch in a good neighborhood, bias reared its ugly head. They called 911. The police were quite embarrassed and apol- ogetic, says Jessica. But they had been alerted that something strange was going on. “ Yeah,” she shot back, “Something strange was happen- ing, all right. It’s very unusual when my husband does any household chores. Really!” We are social creatures and need to be in relationship with others. Yet we find ways to deny our interconnectedness and marginalize each other. ” john a. powell, researcher and law professor at the University of California, Berkeley 46 mindful August 2015 unconscious bias