In the first 2016 presidential debate, moderator Lester Holt focused on an issue that has never before enjoyed such time in the presidential limelight. Specifically, he asked Hillary Clinton to comment on police and the question of implicit bias. The question, however, opened the door to deeper discussions on race. It also opened the door to understanding a unique struggle the campaign continues to grapple with: implicit bias against women.
Generally speaking, implicit biases are subconscious attitudes that inform a person’s behavior and actions. As opposed to explicit biases, which are known or expressed explicitly, implicit bias is unseen, hidden in a person’s social conditioning. It can be rooted in religious, gender, class or any other markers of identity. Sometimes there are layers, such as one who harbors multiple biases, like a racist sexist.
Clinton’s response to the question engulfed the question itself: “Implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.” Her remark hit the nail on the proverbial head, and paradoxically helped to explain why the presidential race is as close as it is. Implicit bias explains that she has lost votes simply for being a woman. Thus, in addition to whatever other vulnerabilities weigh down her campaign, the raw fact of womanhood disqualifies her in the eyes of some.
For students of race relations, the notion of “implicit bias” is a growingly important concept. In terms of race-critical analysis, the concept provides insight to other dimensions of social oppression. For example, the most direct type of bias is expressed at the individual level — from Archie Bunker to the slave masters. Beyond are those that manifest through institutional or systemic means — plantation lease systems, one-drop ideology, and stop-and-frisk regimes, as examples. Implicit bias complements these with an additional lens that accounts for prejudices that are held beneath the surface.
Implicit, explicit and institutional varieties together provide a composite of the scope of oppression in America. For Clinton, the notion of implicit bias is critical since it provides an explanatory for acknowledging that sometimes police violence is the result of neither bad policing nor bad police departments. Instead, some of the bad acting comes from agents who harbor animosities that are unknown but have real-life consequences.
Hence, in one sense, Clinton’s focus on implicit bias has chartered a “no man’s land.” That is, she has single-handedly managed to inject this important concept into the national discussion, which, by itself, is noteworthy. It is a courageous move that offers some hope for advancing race relations since the core of implicit bias theory suggests that careful monitoring and training can keep one aware of the pitfalls, and thereby push to improve social relationships.
For Clinton, “no man’s land” is also very real when considering how close the race currently stands. Implicit bias, as good as it is for explaining racial tensions, is equally effective at explaining why some simply cannot vote for Clinton. There is without a doubt a whole subset of men in America who are not ready for a woman in the White House. This open-air secret should give political pundits a boost in understanding why the election is competitive at all. Moreover, there are women who are equally unprepared for a female president. They have internalized this view too.
That some are opposed to the notion of a female president is no fantasy. Indeed, Rudy Giuliani has, with a Freudian slip of the tongue, stated that Trump would be a better president “than a woman.” Trump himself has not run a campaign that has pandered to women, including his refusal to shut down individuals who chant and wear shirts that say “Trump that bitch” among other sexist epithets.
That some have genuine misgivings about a woman becoming president has an implicit dimension as well. Sometimes the conditioning is so strong that one is immune to the force of the phenomenon. This is why some women would willfully rally around Trump and wear sexist T-shirts — they have internalized the misogyny to such a degree that it is not even recognizable.
These are some of the additional burdens that Clinton bears this campaign season. Implicit bias sheds light on other political ramifications, including why such an obviously unqualified candidate has made it this far — he is carrying the full force of the sexist and racist establishment, as well as those who act implicitly from social conditioning.
For those interested in building better race relations, implicit bias theory holds great promise. In the current presidential election, it challenges Americans to search their souls and reflect on how much womanhood matters. This is particularly so because that should not matter at all.
Just how much being a woman alone has hurt Clinton in the election is anyone’s to guess, but it is certain that patriarchy and misogyny are driving some of the numbers, both explicitly and implicitly. Clinton has introduced an idea that is particularly useful for providing insight into her own struggles to break political ground as the first female president of the country.