Hillary Clinton sign / Gage Skidmore

October 4, 2016; The Hill

The Hill offers a brief review of the exchange between VP candidates Mike Pence and Tom Kaine over Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “implicit bias” in describing the police shooting in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the VP debate, Governor Pence decried Secretary Clinton’s use of the term to “demean police” with a charge of racism. Senator Kaine was quick to leap to his running mate’s defense. “If you’re afraid to have the discussion, you’ll never solve it,” Kaine said. “I guess I can’t believe that you’re defending the position there is no bias.”

What a stunning shift away from Secretary Clinton’s earlier statement about a “basket of deplorables,” which left the impression that a portion of Trump supporters were “beyond redemption.” Following her statement, Secretary Clinton explained that she was referring to white supremacists and others whose bigotry and race hatred was indisputable. Her opponents argued that, while some Trump supporters fit the description, most did not and vehemently took exception to being painted with that broad a brush.

“Implicit bias” to the rescue. As explained in an article in Wired magazine, implicit bias is a well-documented sociological phenomenon.

It’s not demeaning at all to point out implicit bias. That’s the whole idea: The people who study implicit bias say just about everybody has it, to some degree, and pointing it out may be the first, best step to beating it. “Those of us working on this issue have made great progress getting beyond the blame game—making it clear that implicit bias is not the same as ‘racism,’ that its effects are, by definition, unintentional,” says Jack Glaser, a psychologist at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

That’s the point that Senator Kaine took up in his response to Governor Pence at the VP debate. Then, the VP hopeful took the argument to the next level, making the link between implicit bias and systemic racism.

Senator Kaine’s distinction between the bigotry of “the deplorables” and the racism that’s built into “the system” is critical. His distinction is bolstered by the fact that the police officer involved in the Charlotte shooting was himself an African American.

Now the non-supremacist Trump supporters have an option. They can accept that “we all have implicit bias that shapes how we view the world” or they can believe, as Governor Pence suggests, that some police may be bigots or “bad apples.” Some Republican moderates may see the merit of the first option and be drawn away from being associated with bigots. Governor Pence’s suggestion that every case is an individual “tragedy” that needs full investigation has a kind of hollow ring. The track record of police investigations of police misconduct is well documented in our nonprofit newswire.

Electorally, this shift from deplorables to implicit bias may make a minor difference, especially in light of the interest in Mr. Trump’s audio confession of sexual assault on a “hot mic” in 2005.

The real value of the distinction between bigoted speech and systemic racism could come in governance. A Clinton administration would be able to claim a mandate to address both blatant bigotry and systemic racism with different tools. Patrik Jonsson in the Christian Science Monitor gives an overview of the rise of “racist speech” in the current atmosphere. He suggests that firm suppression of racist outbreaks can have a salutary effect because racist talk can morph into racist action: “Americans, on the whole, remain firmly intolerant of intolerance.” This kind of insight gives a hypothetical Clinton administration the go-ahead to clamp down on hate speech in a way that President Obama, as the first African American president, wouldn’t risk, fearing that he would become the issue. You can hear the Clinton slogan now: No Impunity for Deplorables!

At the same time, relying on a theory of “implicit bias,” the hypothetical Clinton presidency will have the scientific support to use the Justice Department to give leadership in police reform. The Labor Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could tackle structural barriers in employment. And HUD could continue to crack down on mortgage insurance discrimination. The beauty of the approaches to systemic discrimination based on implicit bias is that no one is to “blame”—it’s the system that needs changing, requiring everyone’s commitment.—Spencer Wells