Last week, a video showing Phoenix police officers drawing their weapons and threatening to shoot a black man and his pregnant fiancée in front of their children — on shoplifting charges — went viral.

The video is horrifying and has provoked a lot of anger online. It’s clear that we would never see such an escalation of violence on a minor charge if the couple in the video were white. The actions of the police officers were way out of line and the consequences seem obvious — they should face disciplinary action and possibly be fired.

The problem with police brutality and racism, as they almost always go hand in hand, is that a lot of the time the situation isn’t quite clear.

Next time you get a chance, search “Project Implicit bias test" on the web. One of the search results will take you to a series of surveys run by Harvard, which test your implicit bias in a variety of areas including religion, gender, race and age.

The key word here is “implicit.” The surveys don’t really test whether you are racist, sexist or explicitly discriminatory in one area. Instead, they test how fast you can associate specific terms with a type of person. For example, the Gender & Career IAT tests how much faster you associate the words “office” and “career” with male names verses “home” and “family” with female names. The results give a good indication of how much automatic and subconscious bias your mind harbors.

I took the Race IAT, which tests implicit bias towards white and black people. I would highly suggest taking this test on your own, as the results are often unsettling.

I have always considered myself to be alert to racial bias and definitely not a discriminatory person. My results told me that I have a “slight automatic preference towards European Americans as opposed to African Americans.”

Do I believe the results of the test? Absolutely. The point is that I can be both a proponent of equality and subconsciously, automatically prefer white people. Implicit bias doesn’t come from our active thoughts and actions; it comes from the way that we’re socialized to think, and for that reason it’s harder to pin down and eliminate. Almost everyone demonstrates implicit bias, even the people being biased against.

So, what happens when someone — probably mostly a good person, but possessing a small or large amount of implicit racial bias — is put into a position of power? What happens when they’re forced to make snap decisions about others? What if those decisions are made in life-or-death situations?

In his fascinating book, "Blink," journalist Malcolm Gladwell details the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, an innocent black man fatally shot by four plainclothes police officers one night. Diallo was standing outside his apartment when the officers drove by and thought he looked suspicious. The officers were not uniformed, and Diallo spoke poor English, so their exchange was confused. Diallo reached into his pocket to pull out his wallet and was shot 19 times.

It’s clear that the officers are guilty here. Diallo was unarmed and doing nothing wrong when he was stopped and questioned. Police officers should never let such a benign situation escalate so dramatically and so fast. Amadou Diallo was innocent, and he was murdered by police officers who should have been protecting him. 

The more you look into the history of the officers and the details of the case, as Gladwell does in his book, the more it becomes evident that it’s simply not true to say that the officers shot Diallo because they were racists. And it’s also too easy to say that the solution was to fire them and to stop hiring racist cops. In the dark of the night and the adrenaline of what they thought was a dangerous situation, the police officers were making split-second decisions that forced them to rely on their gut reactions. Unfortunately, our quickest gut reactions, as demonstrated in the implicit bias surveys, are almost always prejudiced.

So, where to now? The innocent black people being killed and harassed by our police officers deserve better than the type of justice being served now. Yet making decisions in an instant and relying on instinct are often integral parts of police work, and it would be impossible to find a police staff completely free of subconscious bias.

The first task is to appropriately discipline officers who demonstrate explicit racism and disregard for the dignity of the people they’re apprehending, such as the cops in the Phoenix altercation. Sometimes the situation really is just black and white, such as when a police officer is willing to shoot an unarmed black couple in a low-risk situation for shoplifting. That police officer should be fired.

But the rest of the work here is more difficult and much more important. Police departments need to make racial bias training a priority and actively seek out and eliminate prejudice from their work. This can be done through workshops and training programs as well as by holding officers more accountable for the bias they demonstrate — even the bias they show without knowing it.

We need to step up as individuals and make change, too. This goes for everyone, but my fellow white Americans, I’m mostly referring to you. The way pop culture portrays black people matters. Black representation in government matters. The way that we speak to our friends and family and children about black people and bias — that really matters.

Mitigating preexisting racial bias is great, but the only real solution is to prevent it from being instilled in us in the first place. So, let’s take that to heart and use our privilege to implement change. Let’s raise future generations to have no bias at all. Let’s change our society so that black people don’t have to fear being killed because of a minor traffic violation or shoplifting or even something as unremarkable as standing in front of their own apartment complex.

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Letter to the Editor Submission Link

(1) comment

Steve Gregg

Eileen, You’re a silly, naive liberal spouting nonsense, and a racist to boot. Let me plant some facts on that empty noggin of yours. In 2015, cops were 18.5 times as likely to be killed by black males than unarmed black males are killed by cops. Seventy percent of the black males killed by the cops prompted their deaths by first opening fire on the cops. Of the remaining 30%, many of them were killed after attacking cops without guns. For example, by ramming them with cars or striking them with blunt objects or using the cops own equipment against them, ie nightstick and handcuffs. Black males compose about 7% of the US population yet compose 42% of all cop killers. Look up the homicide map of Washington, DC, or any big city. Where ever the homicides are clustered, that’s where black people live. Where ever no homicides happen, that’s where white people live. It’s that freaking simple. And, you think it’s the cops who are the problem, you racist. They are part of the solution, you bonehead. I live next to New York City where blacks compose 23% of the population yet perpetrated 71% of all gun violence in 2016. Whites compose 34% of the city population but commit less than 2% of gun violence. A black person in New York City is fifty times more likely to shoot somebody than a white New Yorker. Amadou Diallo was not shot by racist cops. The cops were searching for a violent rapist who resembled Diallo. It was dusk and they cornered him next to a stairway. He was standing in an area surrounded by a short lip of concrete. One of the officers stumbled over that lip and accidentally fired his gun. The flash reflected off the black lacquered wall behind Diallo as he reached for his wallet, giving the appearance that he had fired on the cops, who were given a split second to react. It was a tragic accident, not racism as you ignorantly imply, you racist. It’s worth pointing out to adamant cop-haters like you that police departments that are majority black, such as Detroit and Riker’s Island, have the same issues with black people that majority white police departments have. It is the roles, not the race, as ignorant liberals and Al Sharpton would tell you. Simply put, it is not the police who need reform, but the ghetto. The reason why so many white people are biased against blacks is that so many white people have negative experiences with blacks. Way back when at Iowa State, I naively let a black guy use the phone in my dorm room. He ran up a hundred bucks in charges calling home to Florida and refused to pay me back. A black football player on my floor stole everything that was not nailed down, including an aquarium. A girl I knew was raped by a black basketball player. Downstairs in the old Knapp Hall at the Towers, there was a cigarette machine with a deep dent in it from where a black thief robbing the vending machines shot an ͏RA͏ who stumbled upon him in the middle of the night. When I went to Marquette in Milwaukee for grad school, a black bum killed a coed. She was walking home from the bars, said goodbye to her girlfriend, and went to walk the half block to her apartment. Half a block. A black bum living in a box confronted her, stabbed her in the heart with a paint scraper. She bled out in the police station. She returned home to Missouri in a coffin. The girls at school had an implicit bias against black men after that. Do you understand why? Do you think that those girls were just racist for no reason at all? The trucker’s union at my Dad’s company went on strike. One night, at 2 am, a black guy called from south Chicago and told my Mom he was coming to rape and kill her. When my Dad told his boss that, he replied that the same black guy had called all the managers’ wives and threatened to rape and kill all of them. I was driving in a traffic jam one Saturday night in Dallas, TX when a car tapped me on my back bumper. When I got out, there was a black kid charging me at a full sprint. When I stood my ground, he pulled up short and began loudly cursing me. I was not impressed. When he finally ran out of breath, I calmly told him that he rear-ended me so it was his fault. “BUT YOU STOPPED,” he screamed and began a second round of wild cursing. I walked away from him, saw my bumper was not damaged, and drove away. However, that demonstrates a common black strategy: No matter how much you are obviously to blame, furiously blame the white guy until he throws his hands up and walks away. That was OJ’s strategy. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson make a living doing that. That is what reparations are all about. My girlfriend was mugged, beaten up, and sent to the hospital by a black thug. Every 30th time I ride the subway, some black guy tries to pick a fight with me. I almost got mugged myself by a couple black guys in Central Park, when I foolishly ventured to the Harlem end of it. Over in New York, if you walk into a grocery or drug store, you’ll find that all the black beauty products are kept locked up. You have to ask a clerk to get them, because they are too often stolen to just leave them on an open shelf, like white beauty products. An old girlfriend in Fort Worth had a daughter who began waitressing in the local TGIF. The clientele was mostly white but she found the few black patrons were trouble. They dined and dashed, running out the door without paying. She was on the hook for their dinner tab if they didn’t pay. Pretty soon, she did not want to wait on black customers, just like the rest of the waitresses, who did not want to work for free, paying for the dinners of black thieves. You might say she became biased against black customers and for good reason. However, if you are an ignorant liberal from Tiny Town, IA, where the only black people you see are on TV, it’s pretty easy to believe everyone in the world is nice just like white Iowans and blacks are just innocent victims of Evil White People. Once you pull your head out of your tiny town and see the world, you’ll learn different. You might even become wary of blacks after a few bad experiences, bad experiences which are inevitable the more you travel. It’s not just in America, either. Once, when I was in the Philippines, I got a ride on a jeepney (a Jeep taxi cab, it’s a real Pinoy thing). There are two kinds of Philippinoes. The majority are a caramel-colored mixture of Chinese and Polynesian. The minority are the original Philippinoes, the Negritos, who are short, wiry black people from the mountains. My driver was a Negrito. He took one look at me over his shoulder and said, “Thank god, you’re white.” Where did THAT come from, I wondered. Then, he went on a long rant about black passengers stiffing him his fare, which is to say, black enlisted men. They’d hire him to go to some phony destination near their real destination, then run away without paying. By contrast, white riders paid their fare. By the way, even black taxi drivers in America don’t want to pick up black fares for the same reason and the threat of robbery. Contrary to what dopey liberals feel, the problem is not evil white people being racist. The problem is that there is a large fraction of black people who are dysfunctional and criminal, much more so than any other race or ethnic group in America. There is a reason why everyone knows about Iowa Nice in whitey white Iowa, but nobody has heard about Harlem Nice or Detroit Nice or Chicago Nice or East St Louis Nice. Simply put, black ghetto dwellers who are murdering their neighbors and the cops and making their neighborhoods a living hell, should raise their morality up to the standard of Iowa Nice, where they respect their neighbors, are polite, and obey the law.

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