I Didn’t Have A Chance To Teach Tyre King

Image courtesy of nydailynews.com

I try to keep my posts on this publication light, but sometimes such an approach equates negligence. I teach at a community college less than a mile from where 13-year-old Tyre King was killed by a police officer. I don’t know how to deal with this incident as a parent, but I do know how to address it as a sociologist, so that is the approach I am going to take.

Much has been said regarding the abuse of young African American men at the hands of police officers by Black Lives Matter, and I am not sure how much I can contribute to their already capable voice. and other organizations. However, when this horrid social phenomenon strikes where your community, it takes increased personal significance. It goes from an abstract political anger to communal tragedy. That is not to say that it is not without anger, but sadness adds complexity to what was previously particularly resonant rhetoric.

The Individual Tragedy

Based on who he was, there was a very good chance Tyre could have been one of my students in a few years. Tyre King was a black child living in a gentrifying, but still relatively poor, part of Columbus, Ohio. Police were investigating a call regarding an armed robbery (Washington Post 2016). Upon arriving on the scene, they encountered three individuals. Two fled. The remaining individual, Tyre, was perceived to have a lethal weapon. He was subsequently shot by police. That gun was found to be a BB gun after Tyre died. A 13-year-old died because he was holding a toy.

Yes, there are more details to this event than those I have included. However, many of them are contradictory, and none of them are relevant to either the injustice of Tyre’s death, or the greater problem. Just as it does not matter if Michael was fighting a store clerk before he was killed. It does not matter if Tyre touched his BB gun before police killed him.

The Larger Phenomenon

To understand this incident, we must look at the racial breakdown of the United States.

This information was pulled from the last major US Census. It shows us that Africans and African Americans make up about 8 percent of the US population. In a “normal” situation, we could then expect 8 out of every one 100 people who are killed by police to be African or African American. However, the killing of unarmed black people is grossly out of proportion from such incidents with whites.

One incident is a tragedy; and every one is. However, we are not going to prevent future tragedies without recognizing the larger trend. Something in our society is broken, and young African American men are the victims of that broken societal mechanism. The above bar graph speaks for itself, but let me reiterate it simply. Those three colored bars indicate systemic racism in terms of who police kill and they do not kill. If these decisions were not determined by race, we would likely see three bars at equal height to the blue colored bar labeled “White.”

What is broken?

I firmly believe that most police are good, moral people. However, they are still people, and they still make mistakes. Some of those mistakes and some of those mistakes are rooted in unconscious racism. Unfortunately, when police make mistakes, people can die.

One cause of those mistakes are caused by what Ohio State’s Kirwin Institute calls Implicit Bias. To put it very simply, everyone (regardless of race) possess some degree of prejudice (Kirwin, 2016). This prejudice could surround sexual-preference, sexual identity, race, class, regional identity, or almost any other identity. If you have ever accidentally said something racist (or another kind of “ist”), It was likely due to Implicit Bias.

Most people in our society report to not be racist, and most of those people earnestly believe that to be true. However, on a subconscious level, a degree of racism remains. To make things worse, people who possess subconscious racism manifest that racism in moments of stress. Such a manifestation could occur on a particularly awkward date, or in a dark alley when you are holding a gun.

What is to be done?

The solutions to this problem may seem simple, but the first step is quite difficult. We need to come to grips with our individual prejudices. You can start here by taking your own Implicit Bias test.

If you take the test linked above, you will likely find some ugly things about yourself. That is okay. What matters is what you do about it.

Some actions that can be taken to reduce implicit bias include:

  • Try thinking about members of stigmatized groups in positive ways
  • Try to judge people who are members of discriminated groups based on their own merits, rather than relying on gut feelings.
  • Expose yourself to the culture of that particular group. Once you find things you like in that group, you will start to see more good both on the conscious and subconcious level.

These may seem overly simple, but social science has conclusively shown that such steps do help reduce this phenomenon.

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Jeremy is a stay-at-home dad and sociology instructor. He also writes and edits for Parenting Snack Mix on Medium and conducts a bit of his own sociological research. If you would like to learn more about his other projects, check out his website: www.ProfJeremyBaker.com