This article was originally published in January 2020, as part of our Annual Meeting coverage.

  • Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff of the Center for Policing Equity analyses law enforcement data to help police forces eliminate racial bias.
  • Businesses can tackle racism in marketing or recruiting by measuring racial disparities, analysing the data and changing behaviours.
  • Businesses that don't measure racially disparate impacts face "moral and financial peril."

We can’t fix racism by trying to change “defective hearts and minds” or “combat ignorance,” said Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, a social psychologist who studies racial bias and discrimination, particularly in law enforcement.

When we focus on hearts and minds, he said we "end up distracted by trying to rehabilitate potentially racist actors and ignoring the accumulation of harms that are happening to vulnerable communities right in front of us.”

Fixing racism, whether in a police force or a corporation, requires the measurement of behaviours and action in order to change them, he argued.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Annual Meeting in Davos, Dr. Goff, the co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity in New York, told the heartbreaking and horrifying story of Emmett Till. In 1955, the 14-year-old black boy was falsely accused of sexual harassment by a white woman in Mississippi, then brutally tortured and murdered by the woman's white husband and his white half-brother. Till’s accuser is still alive decades later, and recently admitted to her lie.

“Does that change of heart make it better? Or is Emmett Till still dead?” asked Dr. Goff.

“Because that’s the starkness of thinking about racism as hearts and minds, versus behaviours.”

Rather than thinking about racism in terms of beliefs and feelings, he said we should define racism “as an accumulated pattern of behaviours that disadvantage one racial group and advantage another racial group, as well as the systems that facilitate that.”

“When you define the problem this way, you can start making it solvable.”

Because unlike hearts and minds, patterns of behaviour can be clearly measured – and changed.

How measurement leads to change

Dr. Goff implements this idea of measurement and change in police forces across America, which has a particular problem with police brutality directed towards black men.

The Center for Policing Equity collects and analyses law enforcement data, like locations of burglaries or origins of police tips, and integrates it with data on demographics, education, housing and income, to identify which racial disparities the force cannot control – and which they can.

Dr. Goff worked with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) to try to reduce the racial disparities in the use of force – and specifically, to reduce the shooting of unarmed black men.

In 2010 alone, the LVMPD shot 25 people, killing eight. The U.S. Department of Justice investigated, and “found that an overwhelming majority of unarmed suspects shot by [LVMPD] police since 2007 were black or Latino, and every suspect shot during an officer-initiated stop was a minority,” reported the Las Vegas Sun.

Examining the data, the Center for Policing Equity found a disproportionate use of force following foot pursuits. There’s a scientific explanation for why this might occur: when a police officer is running on foot, the officer’s heart rate and adrenaline rises, leading them to be more aggressive.

This knowledge allowed them to implement changes – like requiring the officer to count to ten or wait until backup arrives before engaging with the individual.

As a result, the LVMPD reduced the use of force in these incidents by 23%, said Dr. Goff in Davos. And in police forces across the United States, he’s helped reduce arrests by 25% and use of force by 26%.

Phillip Atiba Goff, Co-Founder and President, Center for Policing Equity, USA, speaking in the The Reality of Racial Bias  session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, 21 January. Congress Centre - Betazone. Copyright by World Economic Forum/Mattias Nutt
Dr. Goff discusses why we shouldn't define racism in terms of hearts and minds.
Image: World Economic Forum/Mattias Nutt

What this means for business

This kind of measurement is, literally, a matter of life and death in policing. But it can make a real difference in business matters like marketing, recruiting and hiring, too. Like police forces, businesses and organizations can combat racial bias by measuring and analysing data, and then take concrete actions.

“You have to measure the things you care about, analyse them and then optimise for them regularly,” he said to the room full of leaders in government, business and civil society. “It’s called running a business with goals. It’s how every business has ever worked throughout history.”

Businesses need to work backwards from their objectionable outcome – racial bias – and look at what predicts it.

They must also listen to the people closest to the problem. “Resist the temptation of trying to be a voice for the voiceless and speaking for those who aren’t in the room, and find a way to pass the mike,” he told the World Economic Forum in an interview.

Businesses already measure finances and performance. But in the new era of stakeholder capitalism, they must measure values, too, he concluded. If a business “hasn’t figured out how to measure the ways it facilitates racially disparate impacts on the communities it touches, it’s at both moral and financial peril.”

“If you care about racial bias in the organizations you run, measure racially disparate outcomes. It doesn’t mean that when you find them, that you’re bad people,” he continued. “Sometimes, like in any relationship, we don’t ask the questions when we’re scared of the answer.”