By Jeff Thomas
You how you hear about a police shooting of an unarmed black man and you wonder if rioting will result. Or if you hear that a white man shoots a black man but wonder why black people don’t get upset when black people kill black people? Or you hear that a black baby was killed by a black man, yet nobody is protesting in the street? Why is that the case? Part of you feels like some of these police or aggressive whites are so biased that they don’t care about the people they are injuring, but another part of you says that these black guys are out here doing bad things and drawing the attention of well-intentioned police. What is the reality? Which point of view is accurate?
Confirmation bias and implicit bias color all of our perceptions and musings about the events around us. We hear about Joe McKnight being unarmed and killed by a white guy and the police not arresting the perpetrator and immediately you react. If your bias leans toward favorable treatment of whites in the criminal justice system then you will immediately believe that the sheriff’s department let the white guy go free simply because he was white. If your bias leans more toward black men being unpredictable and dangerous, then you probably believe that the white guy was justified in protecting himself from injury or death. As people go about their daily lives, we must search for facts unobscured from the biases that limit our interpretations. How can we overcome our biases?
Overcoming Bias is Hard
Unfortunately biases occur automatically. They are unconscious and are based upon our experiences. And, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we confirm our biases and act as if our bad information is accurate. So even though the fact that statistically 90% of black men are law abiding citizens, too many people still subconsciously believe that most black men are criminals or predisposed to criminal behavior. The evidence shows that constant and regular information and training helps, but “the evidence in other domains is mixed, at best. Research on the cognitive foundations of both science and religion indicates that implicit biases tend to intrude unconsciously in on-line cognition in ways that can sometimes supersede the influence of years of education — whether scientific or theological, respectively.”
History is Important
While uncomfortable for some, the history of police abuse of African American men is undeniable. Police originated as slave catchers in America, and their primary purpose was to disrupt freedom seeking African men. In fact the biggest expense plantation owners had was the constant replacement of free labor because black men sought freedom with relentless regularity. Poor, resentful and mean spirited whites often felt better about themselves by brutalizing unarmed black men. Jim Crow laws in the Deep South legalized and formalized this savage terrorism.
Recently, poor black men have terrorized communities with brutal cold blooded killings that occur daily across America. Whether drug turf wars, inane arguments, or long standing disputes, the black on black murder rate is a factor that fuels the confirmation bias that make many regard blacks as inherently violent.
Distortions in Reporting
We are all subject to the biases of the media. Run by humans, the “if it bleeds it leads’ policy of local media over time creates an impression of an inherent black male criminality. While 155 murders a year is 155 too many, accompanying stories that examine poverty, lack of access to capital, limited economic opportunity by the media might shed some light on the circumstances surrounding the majority of these killings. Instead we are barraged by constant stories of black male criminality, while the actions of white males is overlooked and considered trivial.
Black on Black Crime Valid?
Blacks kill other blacks all the time is the common white comeback about African American outrage over police killings or white men who are not charged after killing an unarmed black man. There is a major difference. Blacks are not only incarcerated for non-violent crimes, but are quickly and immediately locked up if suspected of murder. The black community suffers mightily as families lose bread winners and fatherly presence and love and support because so many men are imprisoned. So with arrests and imprisonment routine often for non-violent offenses in the black community but especially for violent acts, seeing others go unpunished for the ultimate criminal act is the reason for condemnation. With little recourse, African Americans utilize the best known change agent in this country – disruption. No justice- no peace.
Cops Are Afraid
“Part of the reason these white cops are so abusive, the shootings and all that kind of stuff, is that they are afraid,” said a prominent NOPD officer who asked to remain anonymous. “These guys aren’t from here and don’t empathize with the citizens. They see criminals or potential criminals.” Better training and more community involvement could help. While biases are hard coded in people’s minds, according to Professors Rachel Toup And Laura Godsil, “SImply making people aware that they have the potential to be biased is not enough; people require specific and tailored forms of intervention.” If cops perceive all unknown black men as threats, a change in approach is required. “Rather than aim to be color-blind, the goal should be to “individuate (link is external)” by seeking specific information about members of other racial groups. This individuation allows you to recognize people based upon their own personal attributes rather than stereotypes about their racial or ethnic group.”
We All Want to Live in Peace and Harmony.
Most police officers don’t want to be on the news and become notorious. Most black men do not want to be the victims of police abuse and do not wake up trying to break laws. The serious implications of interactions between black men and police officers mean most officers need better training to understand their own biases and limitations. Improved economic opportunities for men of color will decrease the necessity of entering criminal markets for income.
So if you cringe the next time you hear about people in the street protesting, think. You might be biased.
We need to give all people who want to make a difference in the lives of all people every tool they need to be successful.