Lorio Forensics

Measuring Racial Bias In Our Criminal Justice System

This is the first of three articles on the topic of racial bias within the criminal justice field. The second will focus on implicit racial bias measurement and comment on their utility in fitness for duty evaluations in civil servants. The third will explore critiques of racial bias measurement.


Over the last decade, police killings of unarmed Black people have resulted in increased media attention and public outrage. Police brutality is connected to overt and covert racial bias that stereotypes Blacks poorly relative to Whites (Chaney & Robertson, 2015). Such events have led to renewed efforts to understand how bias shapes our thinking and subsequent behavior. Implicit and explicit racial bias are manifestations of prejudice—widely defined as negative emotional reactions to a target group based on a stereotype (Taylor & Pettigrew, 2000). 

Since the Civil Rights Era, there has been a decline in overt expressions of prejudice, however, racial inequality is still highly visible in “employment, housing, wealth, health, and criminal justice” (Quillian, 2006, p. 299). Scholars suggest that prejudice has taken on covert forms, making it difficult to clearly identify and quantify using existing methodology. This creates a variety of complex questions: 

  • How can we measure a hidden phenomenon? 
  • How do we identify prejudicial beliefs in people who won’t admit them? 
  • Further, how might we uncover implicit racial bias that operates out of a person’s conscious awareness?

Following the death of George Floyd and the widespread cries for reform that followed, the question of how to measure prejudice has gained prominence. Racial prejudice is an institutional problem that can have deadly consequences. Yet, information on how to measure racial bias in law enforcement officers and other civil servants is dangerously sparse. 


The literature on individual differences in racial bias has attempted to quantify racism through varied methods. Research on racial prejudice was initially characterized by self-report studies examining explicit attitudes of White Americans toward Black Americans. This methodology persisted for nearly a century with trends indicating decreasing negative attitudes and stereotypical beliefs toward Black Americans over time (Amodio, Harmon-Jones, & Devine, 2003).  

Around the 1950s, researchers began to question if the reduction in negative racial attitudes reflected improved race relations or a shift in societal norms after World War II.  Alongside changes in social norms that discouraged overtly prejudiced attitudes, researchers noticed White participants were increasingly hesitant to verbally endorse racial prejudice (Ito & Bartholow, 2009). This hesitancy made them more likely to misrepresent (either intentionally or unintentionally) their level of prejudice (Devine, Plant, Amodio, Harmon-Jones, & Vance, 2002). Evidence demonstrates that when using explicit measures, participants are impacted by social desirability effects and conceal their negative racial attitudes and reporting more favorable ones (Amodio et al., 2003). Critics of the self-report approach agree that societal pressure to appear non-prejudiced biases self-report data.  As a result, over the last thirty years, there has been “dissatisfaction with survey-type measures of explicitly reported race attitudes and stereotypes” (Kubota, Banaji, & Phelps, 2012, p. 940). 


Amodio, D. M., Harmon-Jones, E., & Devine, P. G. (2003). Individual differences in the activation and control of affective race bias as assessed by startle eyeblink response and self-report. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 738.

Chaney, C., & Robertson, R. V. (2015). Armed and Dangerous? An Examination of Fatal Shootings of Unarmed Black People by Police. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 8(4), 45–78.

Devine, P. G., Plant, E. A., Amodio, D. M., Harmon-Jones, E., & Vance, S. L. (2002). The regulation of explicit and implicit race bias: the role of motivations to respond without prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(5), 835.

Ito, T. A., & Bartholow, B. D. (2009). The neural correlates of race. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(12), 524–531.

Kubota, J. T., Banaji, M. R., & Phelps, E. A. (2012). The neuroscience of race. Nature Neuroscience, 15(7), 940–948.

Quillian, L. (2006). New approaches to understanding racial prejudice and discrimination. Annu. Rev. Sociol., 32, 299–328.

Taylor, M., & Pettigrew, T. (2000). Prejudice. Encyclopedia of Sociology, 2, 2242–2248.

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