Racial bias, police brutality, and the dangerous act of being black

Protests have erupted in Ferguson, and Ferguson police have responded in a way that reveals the tension between the police and Ferguson’s black residents. Video has been circulated depicting a police officer calling the crowd "f–king animals." When a few hundred people gathered in the middle of the day to speak their concerns, they were met with a SWAT team, an armored car , and men in camouflage pointing snipers at the crowd. The police have gone to great measures to avoid any media coverage, as if they have something to hide. Two prominent credentialed journalists who tried to report on the event were arrested.

In a town where over 65% of the residents are black, Ferguson’s police force of 53 officers includes only 3 black men. Residents report long-standing issues with the police and racial tension. Mike Brown’s death was a tragic catalyst for people who have long felt mistreated. And yet, some people still question – how can this be about race?

In perhaps the most stark example of racial bias this year, a young father named John Crawford was shot and killed last week for holding a toy gun inside Walmart . . . an airsoft gun that he planned to purchase.

As I wrote out the stories above, I was tempted to look for information to make these people more human . . . details to show that their lives had value. But here is the thing:THEY ARE ALREADY HUMAN. Their lives already have value. We shouldn’t need to know that they are going to college or whether or not they smoked pot or had children or worked full-time. One of the things that I found most profoundly disturbing in the case of Trayvon Martin was the way people assassinated his character as if some found defects were proof that his death was justified.

And I believe this is the root of much of the racial bias. I believe that we live in a country in which black people have been systematically dehumanized . . . and I believe we are still living in that legacy. (This reality is well documented in the book The Condemnation of Blackness.) But you don’t have to believe my opinion. Nor do you have to believe the anecdotal opinion of African Americans (though you should – because they are the only people who can speak with authority on the experience of black Americans.) The bias inherent in law enforcement has been well documented with empirical research as well. In repeated psychological tests conducted by the psychology department at the University of Colorado, researchers illustrated the implicit suspicions people hold against people of color:

Participants shoot an armed target more quickly and more often when that target is Black, rather than White. However, participants decide not to shoot an unarmed target more quickly and more often when the target is White, rather than Black. In essence, participants seem to process stereotype-consistent targets (armed Blacks and unarmed Whites) more easily than counterstereotypic targets (unarmed Blacks and armed Whites).

We will never solve this by pretending that there aren’t racial elements to these events. Nor will we solve it by pretending that we’re "over race." The only way we can address this is by acknowledging the racial bias in our society and working to solve it, and by demanding accountability from law enforcement when it comes to the treatment of black Americans.  And we can start by watching what is happening in Ferguson right now, and speaking up about it. Their residents have a right to be angry, and they have a right to answers, and they have a right to be heard.

Further studies on racial bias as it pertains to law enforcement: