Social scientists now know that discrimination is a normal function of the human brain. Discrimination is part of recognizing things that are not part of our immediate, known universe. At its best, this function helps us organize the world, and helps us identify potential dangers posed by people behaving in ways that might be threatening.
Unfortunately, these natural brain processes have an ugly side. Our unconscious brain may see differences as a danger before our conscious brain can analyze what is and is not a rational threat. The quick emotion of fear tends to beat slower rational thought. We can very quickly identify people unlike us and then unconsciously conclude they may pose a threat. We learn our unconscious biases from our immediate families, our local communities, and our larger society. Much of the time, we do not even realize we have an unconscious bias.
Decisions we make that are influenced by our unconscious biases can interfere with other people’s safety, ability to compete for jobs, or access equal justice. In the real world, unconscious biases interfere with everyone being treated justly and fairly.
This is why it is vitally important that we each understand that we all have preconceptions built in to our brains. The hope is that if we become aware of those biases, we can decide on other, fairer grounds. This is especially important for people who are in a socioeconomic, racial, or religious majority, as unconscious biases are linked to problems with racism, sexism, and religious intolerance. These biases cause us to act in ways that prevent others from equally enjoying the benefits that come with full and fair participation in our society.
Our justice system is one place where we all deserve to be treated as equals. The core value of “equal justice for all” is reflected in the thinking behind the Declaration of Independence and our national Constitution, and putting that in practice has been part of the struggle of the American story ever since. In the courtroom, one way to help ensure justice for all, and to make the dream of America a reality, is to deal with unconscious biases so we can consciously deal better with the actual facts.
The video that the Oregon judges put together is short, thought-provoking, and can be seen on YouTube at