THE PROBLEM WITH SEEING BLACK MEN AS BAD DUDES

One year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. Barclays Center, Brooklyn.

This post was originally published on SocialPsyQ.com.

Today is September 21, 2016. Keith Scott is the latest Black man to be shot and killed by the police. Scott was killed on September 20, 2016, in Charlotte, NC. Terence Crutcher was killed the day before on September 19, 2016, in Tulsa, OK. These men are just the last two to make the news.

Most of these men are unarmed. All of them are black. In fact, black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed by police. For Scott’s and Crutcher’s deaths, police officers justified their decision to shoot by claiming that the individual posed an “imminent deadly threat” (in the case of Scott) or used factors such as the man’s appearance, “That looks like a bad dude, too,” (in the case of Crutcher) to warrant further investigation.

I shouldn’t say claim. I’m sure the officers really believed they were under imminent threat or that Crutcher really was a bad dude. And that’s exactly the problem. Their minds made a split second survival decision to protect themselves and do what they swore to do as a police officer. They made that decision while operating on high alert, unknowingly under the influence of their implicit biases. Those split-second decisions are not the cause, but rather, the symptom of a larger graver issue. Of institutional racism and prejudice that has been with America since before its founding. Many of you reading this already know and accept this. For those of you who don’t, please keep reading.

These split second decisions are killing black people, especially men. If you can stomach it, watch the footage of Philando Castile’s shooting. The officer doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s shot Castille. He’s still standing there at the window in shock, cursing. The actual decision to shoot and the aftermath all seemed to happen so fast. Situations like that are why implicit racial stereotyping and lack of awareness of how to de-bias are so deadly.

We’ve covered implicit bias on SocialPsyQ before when discussing last year’s triple homicide in Chapel Hill, NC, but never in the context of police shootings. As a refresher, implicit biases are automatic (i.e., below the surface of consciousness; not being aware of it) stereotypes or prejudices that people hold, almost always without being aware of them.1 Social psychologists have been studying implicit biases and their effects on behavior and society for years. These biases are deeply ingrained and automatic and yet may still guide our actions and behavior.2 As one researcher said, “the characteristic in question (skin color, age, sexual orientation) operates so quickly…that people have no time to deliberate. It is for this reason that people are often surprised to find that they show implicit bias” (Jolls & Sunstein, 2006, p. 975).

In a 2011 study, Kahn and Davies found that the more stereotypically black a person looked (e.g., darker skin, broader nose, fuller lips) compared to a less stereotypically black person or white person, the stronger a participant’s implicit bias was in a split-second “shoot/don’t shoot” situation. In other words, participants were more likely to shoot these people the “blacker” they looked. And not only were they more likely to shoot them, they were also quicker to make the decision to do so, because of the stronger implicit bias.

In a similar 2006 study, Correll, Urland, and Ito found that participants (98% of whom were not black) playing a video game “shot armed black targets more quickly than armed white targets and decided not to shoot unarmed white targets more quickly than unarmed black targets.” This biased behavior pattern was especially true for participants who had reported a stronger association between violence and black people. The findings of these studies, conducted in lab settings, are a disturbing and sickening parallel to what is literally happening across America.

The shootings are the worst escalation of this implicit bias, but there are many other seemingly milder situations of black people being stopped by police and treated suspiciously or unfairly compared to non-black people. Consider this: compared to a white person stopped for a seatbelt violation, a black person is 176% more likely to have their vehicle searched. As you can see below in this table from Open Data Policing, except for driving while impaired, black people are more likely than white people to have their vehicle searched for any violation. Did I mention this is real data from 2015 stops within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police’s jurisdiction?

2015 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Search by Stop-Cause: Black vs. white. Open Data Policing NC.

And for those of you reading this who still want to resist these stats and claim that officers are shooting white people, too, I say, yes, you’re right. Police officers are shooting and killing white people (and other people of color, for that matter), but these situations, though unfortunate and not excusable, are generally proportionate to the number of white people in the U.S. In other words, the stats on those situations don’t point to white people being singled out, whereas they do for situations of black people being killed. Terence Crutcher was having car trouble when he was approached by police. The threshold for perceiving a white man as “posing a deadly and imminent threat” is substantially higher than perceiving a black man as such, as Kahn and Davies and Correll and colleagues found. Consider Dylann Roof, the white terrorist who killed 9 black people attending bible study in Charleston last summer. Not only was he arrested alive, he was given a bulletproof vest for protection. The hypocritical double standard is nearly laughable if the consequences weren’t so grave.

You might also want to say that the police overall aren’t bad people, they’re trying to do their jobs. Or, there are just a few bad apples. Again, I agree with you. There are probably a few bad apples, and I don’t even necessarily believe those are the ones who have committed fatal shootings of black men. And I would agree that most police officers aren’t bad people.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not just about the actions of an individual police officer (although they do need to be held accountable).

Here’s another thing: making a terrible decision under pressure doesn’t make you a bad person. How you respond to and accept responsibility for that decision is another story.

These shootings represent a heightened state of racial tension in this country. They represent implicit racism that is so deeply deeply ingrained in the American psyche and the justice system that many don’t even recognize it as such. White people continue to try and make justifications and rationalize these killings. Why? Stop. It’s over. You’re wrong. Nothing you say changes the fact that 194 black people (in 2016 ALONE) are dead.

What is there to do? Some police departments are considering implicit bias training, but using these trainings as a one size fits all isn’t necessarily a good idea. Instead, Destiny Peery, a law professor at Northwestern University, urges comprehensive multi-pronged approaches like Campaign Zero, which are likely to be more effective in protecting against bias.

It’s a start.

Black lives matter, y’all. Say it and do something about it. I’m talking to you, fellow white people. Are you going to stand by? Educate yourself, regardless of your profession. We all hold implicit biases. We’re still accountable for them. We don’t have to be beholden to them.


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If you’re a white person interested in offering your support and solidarity in the wake of the recent shootings, consider looking up your local Standing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) chapter. Or take an anti-racist training, like this one or this one.

1 — Devine (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 5–18.

2 — Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner (2002). Implicit and explicit prejudice and interracial interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 62–68.

3 — Kahn & Davies. (2011). Differentially dangerous? Phenotypic racial stereotypicality increases implicit bias among ingroup and outgroup members. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14, 569–580.

4 — Correll, Urland, & Ito. (2006). Event-related potentials and the decision to shoot: The role of threat perception and cognitive control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 120–128.

5 — Jolls & Sunstein. (2006). The law of implicit bias. Faculty Scholarship Series, Yale Law School. Paper 1824.http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/1824/