We shall not find the solution by acting as if there was nothing to be solved.” Although we are rightly proud of our progress in removing overt prejudice from our written laws, disparity in access and outcomes in our justice system persist. Consequently, scholars have begun to focus on unconscious bias and on laws that appear neutral in text, but result in disparate outcomes when applied. These more subtle forms of discrimination are more difficult to identify, and for some, even to see. But scholarship is expanding what we know about the way our unconscious thoughts are influenced by culture, media, and our social communities; and the way our perception of salient features including race, age, sexual orientation, ability and gender trigger implicit bias that affects behavior, decision-making and outcomes. Talking about unconscious bias implicates history, group identities, and collective and individual memories. It can be extraordinarily uncomfortable. But it is work worth doing.
As a nation, as a state, in our institutions, and in our professions, we hold ourselves to the promises that everyone is equal under the law and that everyone should have access to justice. But overwhelming evidence shows that historically built barriers to equality persist, in subtle and unsubtle ways, and many of our communities struggle to access the justice system. This is particularly true for people with limited resources, with language barriers, and with disabilities. In addition, it is beyond doubt that racially disparate outcomes in our criminal and civil justice system leave some of our communities at far greater risk of social and economic marginalization.
In April 2013, the Gonzaga University School of Law, the Gonzaga University Institute for Hate Studies, and the Washington Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System convened a Pursuit of Justice Conference to engage in a deep interdisciplinary discussion about understanding and eliminating inequality and implicit bias. The scholars published in this issue of the Law Review examine some of the many aspects of marginalized communities’ struggles for justice and equality. These problems require our collective attention. Decision-makers can interrupt unconscious processes that lead to disparate outcomes by identifying and acknowledging implicit bias.Procedural changes can break the link between unconscious attitudes and unintended outcomes.
The conference brought together members of academia, the legal community, government and non-governmental organizations, policy experts and engaged citizens. Let us continue to collaborate across disciplines, professions and social communities with open minds and a commitment to learning the facts. Let us be passionate but not inflammatory, and careful but not defensive. There is room for reflection and for sharing about experiences, for empirical inquiry, and for education and policymaking. But there is no room for compromising the promise that all are equal under the law.
Justice Steven C. González
Washington State Supreme Court