Implicit Bias's Failure

24 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2017 Last revised: 11 Aug 2017

Samuel R. Bagenstos

University of Michigan Law School

Date Written: August 7, 2017


In the two decades since the introduction of the Implicit Association Test, the effort by many researchers to get policymakers and society to take implicit bias seriously has had many successes. But, this paper argues, that effort has failed in its most important political project.

The political project of implicit bias research responded to the increasing racial conservatism of the period following the civil rights era. In the academy, in the courts, and in public policy advocacy, researchers and activists have deployed the findings of implicit bias research to defend antidiscrimination efforts and to support extending those efforts to new domains. Their political project responded to the increasing conservatism on racial issues by aiming to depoliticize and depersonalize society’s understanding of discrimination.

The first goal, depoliticization, would be achieved by substituting a discourse of science for the then-dominant discourse of justice. The second goal, depersonalization, aimed to respond to the rise of anti-anti-racism. The political project of implicit bias research has rested on at least two predictive premises: first, that scientific proof of the persistence of bias will help persuade moderates and conservatives who believed antidiscrimination laws had already served their purpose; and, second, that implicit bias explanations for inequality will be more politically acceptable to the broader public, because they do not involve accusing individuals of racism.

Although these premises have proven true to some extent, the increasing use of implicit bias language by political progressives has not, in the main, blunted opposition to aggressive antidiscrimination enforcement. Instead, the same battle lines that were once drawn around accusations of individual racism, and later drawn around accusations of systemic racism, are now drawn around attributions of implicit bias.

Indeed, in some ways the turn to using implicit bias language has given the advantage to those who resist aggressive efforts to overcome racial inequality. The focus on implicit bias, as instantiated by the IAT, has given racial conservatives the opportunity to frame their opposition in scientific terms — as questioning the reliability or validity of particular studies or tools — and thus allowed them to draw attention away from the political underpinnings of their arguments. And the repeated invocation of the concept of implicit bias by political progressives suggests that old-fashioned intentional discrimination is a thing of the past, when in fact it may simply be better hidden. Indeed, at a moment in history when overt racism — seen in the reaction among some to the election of a black president, and in a significant part of the movement that elected Donald Trump — once again seems a major factor in our public life, the suggestion that implicit bias is the central problem may be particularly misleading.

Suggested Citation

Bagenstos, Samuel R., Implicit Bias's Failure (August 7, 2017). Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, Forthcoming; U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 564. Available at SSRN: or

Samuel R. Bagenstos (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States


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