Prosecuting police is not going to stop them from disproportionately shooting and assaulting black men on its own. That isn’t to say that justice isn’t due when police officers break the law. Instead, I mean to echo Leonard Pitts at the Columbian when he asserts that police brutality has at least as much to do with a reflexive fear of black men in society as it does with explicit, knowing malice towards Black people by individual police officers. The challenge we face as civil rights advocates isn’t just combating explicit prejudice (although that remains a goal), but naming and working against the implicit discrimination that drives people who wouldn’t describe themselves as racists to live out and reinforce American society’s racist (and sexist, and other discriminatory) attitudes.
People who discriminate are often either unwilling to say they do or unable to see that they’re doing so. Academics work around this using the Implicit Association Test, which aims to measure people’s biases even when they won’t or can’t name them. It’s a testament to the deep roots of discrimination, racial and otherwise, in American society that regardless of their explicit beliefs, a majority of white adults and 40% of black adults show a preference for white people on the IAT and are more quickly inclined to see black people as dangerous, which has dangerous consequences in a country where the law empowers citizens to gun each other down for perceived threats. The indoctrination starts early: white children, as well as black children who say being well liked is important, show the same preference for white people when tested.
The implications go beyond the criminal justice system and the street violence its officers dole out disproportionately against black people. We must consider the role implicit attitudes play in the disproportionate suspension rates and instances of physical restraint suffered by black (and Native American, while we’re on the topic) students in schools. When raising children or mentoring young people, we have to make hard choices about what to tell them about the fact that hiding their race, gender, or sexuality can help them avoid implicit bias when applying for jobs (or fellowships, or loans, etc).
As civil rights advocates, we must stress that arbiters of our institutions, be they teachers, police officers, or judges, are not immune to unconscious bias, no matter their race or how well meaning they are. We have to build awareness of efforts to combat implicit bias as well as explicit discrimination in those institutions, and promote private sector initiatives like the one at Google aimed at fighting implicit bias in hiring. If we’re ever going to develop a society that values people for their real potential, we have to own our own biases as well. Don’t assume you’re exempt– take the test and be aware of the biases you bring to any situation as well.
About the Author
Emile Session lives in Brooklyn, NY and works for Achievement First, a network of high performing public charter schools. He has worked as a math teacher, education researcher, and classroom observer, and is a graduate of Cornell and Columbia University.