During a recent Honolulu Police Commission meeting, police Chief Susan Ballard downplayed the role that implicit bias plays in Hawaii. She said she thinks people in Hawaii have less unconscious racial stereotypes, noting that Hawaii residents don’t hesitate to talk about race.

“Does it affect us here in Hawaii?” she said of implicit bias. “I mean it does, but I think a lot less so than on the mainland.”

That’s not the case, according to University of Hawaii researchers who have studied race in Hawaii.

“If anything, implicit bias in Hawaii is just as strong as on the mainland,” says Justin Levinson, a professor at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law. In one study, he found participants who were Hawaii residents had far more anti-Micronesian bias compared with non-Hawaii residents. Anti-Blackness is present here too.

“A lot of people here think that we are exempt from being affected by anti-Black or negative African American stereotypes but the research indicates that that’s not at all the case,” Levinson said. “In the limited research that I’ve done, people in Hawaii have similar anti-Black negative stereotypes as compared to the mainland.”

HPD Chief Susan Ballard speaks at a press conference in mid-April at Honolulu Hale. She proposed reviewing HPD’s use of force policy but opposes broad-based reform. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

As Black Lives Matter protests continue nationally, more people are paying attention to the role that implicit bias plays in perpetuating systemic racism in the American criminal justice system.

Hawaii — with its distinct racial makeup compared with other U.S. states and majority non-white population — is often perceived as an exception. It isn’t, says Daphne Barbee-Wooten, a civil rights attorney and member of the African American Lawyers Association of Hawaii.

“There is a history of race discrimination in policing and in the judicial system in Hawaii, starting with the Massie case,” she said.

She was referring to the famous 1932 trial of local men accused of raping a white woman, adding that Native Hawaiians are still overrepresented in prisons. Barbee-Wooten also noted that just four years ago, Honolulu taxpayers paid a $4.7 million settlement after three HPD officers — a Black man, a Hispanic man and a white woman — sued alleging years of racial discrimination at the hands of their fellow officers, who included Asian American and mixed race commanders.

During the police commission meeting last week, Ballard said she is considering holding implicit bias training for HPD officers once the pandemic is over. Yet she said there’s a question about whether implicit bias exists. Whether it does or not, she said, she’s willing to conduct whatever training might help.

Levinson says research shows implicit bias does exist, though there is debate about what behavior it predicts. And although racial dynamics in Hawaii differ from the mainland, people still harbor negative stereotypes toward dark-skinned people and communities.


“The same factors influence implicit bias here that influence implicit bias everywhere,” said Kristin Pauker, a University of Hawaii associate professor of psychology who co-authored a study in which Hawaii participants who were exposed to pro-white clips showed more pro-white bias.

There’s not as much data about race in Hawaii’s criminal justice system compared to some other states, but limited data from the Honolulu Police Department suggests that Black, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander communities are disproportionately affected by police use of force.

Pauker emphasized that implicit biases aren’t static and can be changed once they’re recognized.

“It’s important for us to understand that they exist and why they exist in order to change them,” she said. “When we know about our biases there’s the potential to work on them, there’s the potential to change them.”

Study Findings

In a 2007 study, Levinson asked Hawaii participants to read a story about a case; the main character’s name was changed to indicate if they were white, Black or Native Hawaiian. Participants included students who were Japanese American, white, Native Hawaiian and mixed race. The results showed they were far more likely to recall aggressive behavior described in the story if the main character was Black.

The findings in regard to Native Hawaiians were mixed. Participants were still more likely to recall aggressive behavior if the main character was Native Hawaiian compared with white. But they’d also more easily remember forgiving behavior that suggested the main character was provoked if he was Native Hawaiian than if he was Black.

Levinson wrote that it’s possible local participants simultaneously held mixed unconscious stereotypes about Hawaiians — considering them aggressive as well as more likely to be provoked due to their history.

In a 2010 study, Levinson and his colleague Danielle Young showed participants images of a burglary suspect. In some pictures the suspect had light skin, in others he had dark skin. Participants were far more likely to judge a crime suspect as guilty and evidence as indicating guilt if the subject was presented as dark-skinned than if he were light-skinned, even if they were only shown the photo briefly.

“Skin tone alone, without group identification, led to these effects,” Levinson and fellow researchers wrote in a later summary of the analysis. “In Hawaii’s diverse environment, there is little reason to believe that these effects are limited to some darker skinned groups but not others.”

Study participants reflected a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds — including white, Japanese American and Chinese American— but had no statistically significant differences in their implicit bias.

In a 2015 study, Levinson compared Hawaii residents’ biases toward Micronesians and Japanese Americans to non-Hawaii residents. He found that study participants who were Hawaii residents harbored negative implicit biases against Micronesians and positive implicit biases towards Japanese Americans. Non-Hawaii residents had slightly negative stereotypes against Micronesians, but those stereotypes were much stronger among Hawaii residents.

The same study found local attitudes toward Native Hawaiians and white people were mixed and weren’t statistically significant. Hawaii residents seemed to implicitly prefer Native Hawaiians compared with white people, but implicitly associated Native Hawaiians with negative attributes and white people with more positive attributes.

The biases that Levinson found reflect the color gradient that to some degree maps poverty in Hawaii.

A 2015 state analysis of Hawaii data found that communities with average or below average poverty rates tended to be East Asian or white. Black, Southeast Asian and Indigenous communities were more likely to have above average poverty rates.

Hawaii’s Black community had high rates of employment in that analysis, particularly government employment, and a higher per capita income compared to many other communities. Still, that socioeconomic status hasn’t precluded negative racial stereotypes against them.

Barbee-Wooten has seen it firsthand: she often represented African American clients as a former Hawaii public defender, including one Black client who had been beaten by several Honolulu police officers.

“There has been a lot of prejudice spoken by people who are of color against African Americans in Hawaii and that includes the police,” she said. “There’s also bias against browner people. Go to prison and see who’s in the prison and it’s kind of shocking. It is primarily brown skin and dark skin people who are incarcerated. Why is that?”

Ballard implied last week that Hawaii’s diversity diminishes racial bias.

Pauker from UH says it’s possible that exposure to diversity and friendships across races can break down implicit biases. But she said the fact that are there relatively few Black people in Hawaii could mean there are relatively few opportunities to form relationships with African Americans.

In the absence of interpersonal interactions, “you’re more likely to be influenced by broader representations that are in the environment,” such as news media and entertainment, Pauker said.

Data Shows Disparities

Darrel Stephens, a former longtime police chief in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida and former head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, says understanding implicit bias can help improve policing.

“I think a lot of times people assume that police officers are profiling or they’re making decisions based on a racist attitude,” he said.  While that’s the case for some people, what happens more is unconscious bias, he said.

This is where training is important. “Understanding that allows you to manage it,” he said.

The Honolulu Police Department is an extremely diverse police force compared with police departments on the mainland. White officers make up less than 12% of the force, according to 2020 data from the agency.

But HPD’s data still shows racial disparities in police use of force. For the past 10 years, Hawaii’s Black community consistently was the subject of about 7% of HPD use-of-force incidents annually. They make up just 2.2% of the state population, or about 3.8% if you include people who are part-Black.

Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders were the subject of 33% of HPD use-of-force incidents in 2018. They make up about 10% of the state population or as much as 26% if you include people who are multiracial.

In contrast, Asian people were far less likely to be on the receiving end of police force in Honolulu compared with their proportion of the population. Whites faced some higher rates of force, but it fluctuated greatly by year and wasn’t consistently disproportionate over the past decade.

There are important caveats to this data. The numbers come from annual summaries of how HPD officers use force, and a Civil Beat investigation found that these datasets are missing crucial information, including multiple in-custody deaths. Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard has acknowledged that the reports are inaccurate and pledged to improve them.

Still, for 2018, the summaries drew from more than 2,000 use-of-force reports that officers are supposed to fill out whenever they use force beyond routine handcuffing. Nearly half of the 2018 incidents involved physical confrontations; about a quarter involved simple physical contact, such as touching someone; still others involved unholstering weapons.

In an interview with Civil Beat, Ballard said one problem with the use of force data is that each incident doesn’t refer to a single person. It’s possible that police officers filed multiple reports for multiple encounters with the same person, which she said might skew the race data. HPD is reevaluating how it calculates and presents the data as part of a broader internal review of its use of force policy.

Levinson said the data from HPD isn’t surprising, but it’s unclear whether force is used more frequently with certain communities because HPD is interacting with them more often or because they are more likely to be aggressive with them.

“There’s reason to believe that racial disparities in Hawaii in the criminal justice system are a major problem,” he said.

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