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Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association talks implicit bias

July 30, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association hosted a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar, hosted by two of its own members on Wednesday afternoon, about implicit bias.

In front of a record crowd of close to 100 attendees on Zoom, Judge Joanne Quinones and attorney Betsey Jean-Jacques spent an hour talking about what implicit bias is exactly, how to recognize it and how to correct for it.

“This implicit bias CLE is a relevant topic and an important one so I’m glad that two of our members agreed to give this presentation,” said Natoya McGhie, president of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association.

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Implicit bias occurs unconsciously and involves our attitudes towards people based on stereotypes that we unknowingly or knowingly associate with them. According to Judge Quinones and Jean-Jacques, everyone has implicit bias and it’s important to recognize it and be aware of it.

“Awareness is the first step in combating our implicit biases,” Judge Quinones said. “When we are aware of our biases through self-awareness, or if they have been brought to our attention by others, we are motivated to correct them and compensate for their effects, so you should become more conscious of your subconscious.”

Judge Joanne Quinones, acting justice of the Supreme Court, Criminal Term.

Judge Quinones and Jean-Jacques have given a similar CLE before, and their experience was clear as they walked participants through hypothetical situations based on real-life events to demonstrate how implicit bias impacts a courtroom.

One of the five scenarios was based on a real-life situation involving Judge Quinones, when she misidentified a Black supervising attorney as a witness at a trial. She said that although there were reasons she made that connection, after thinking about the situation it became a learning experience for her.

“I’d like to justify my actions to say that I was inquiring about her witness, and she said he’s here, and I assumed that the man was the witness,” Judge Quinones explained. “Is that what happened or was my implicit bias surfacing? Was there something unconscious that got in the way of me associating Black men with supervisors?”

While going through the scenarios, the two presenters sought and got feedback from the attendees about whether the situation needed to be addressed directly. While most of the participants suggested that each scenario should to be addressed directly, Jean-Jacques pointed out that it often depends on the situation and a person’s comfort level with the others involved. She admitted that it can be tough to confront certain situations.

“It’s something that you are reacting to, so depending on your age, who you are and where you are in your career, sometimes it’s hard to say I’ll speak up and it’s hard to take the direct route when you know you should,” Jean-Jacques said. “Sometimes you think, why didn’t I say something?”

Betsey Jean-Jacques, principal law clerk to Judge Francois Rivera.

Included in the materials for the CLE is an implicit association test that the attendees could take in their own time to help them recognize some of the unconscious associations they may not be aware of. Recognizing those, and taking time and being deliberate about decisions and actions, are two of the best ways to avoid implicit bias, Quinones and Jean-Jacques explained.

“An effective tool is to slow down and to engage in deliberative rather than intuitive thinking,” Quinones said. “Deliberative thinking leads to conscious, reasoned decisions. Intuitive thinking, on the other hand, results in quick, spur-of-the-moment decisions and that’s where our implicit biases sneak in without us even knowing it. Attend training sessions and seminars that bring these issues to life.”

One thing that Judge Quinones and Jean-Jacques requested that people pay attention to is who they are hiring and who they are mentoring. Judge Quinones explained that judges are both in charge of hiring and appointing people to certain panels, like the Criminal Justice Act panel in Federal Court, or the 18b homicide panel in state court.

“These are the panels for court-approved attorneys who are eligible for appointment to represent indigent defendants in Criminal Court cases,” Judge Quinones said. “On both panels, there is a dearth of attorneys of color, and I can count on one hand the number of women assigned to the 18b panel in Kings County. It affects who gets more lucrative cases, and as judges we all need to do a personal inventory and audit our attorney appointments to make sure that it’s not just people who look like us.”

The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association’s next event will be Lunch with a Judge with Judge Heela Capell. That will take place at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 5.

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