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When Prejudice is Holding a Gun

Kyle Roberts

Schilling Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
August 3, 2017

This is the second installment of an ongoing three-part review of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (Mariner Books, 2015, revised ed.)

Philando Castile, an African-American man from St. Paul, MN, died in a hospital on July 6, 2016 from a gun wound inflicted by a Roseville, MN police officer during a traffic stop. Video of the immediate aftermath of the shooting was live-streamed on social media by Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. [Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter charges in June 2017.)

The video, which showed a wounded and bloody (and dying) Castile, went viral and further fanned the flames of tensions over a rash of highly publicized incidents of police shootings of black men. In Reynold’s account, Castile, who had informed the officer he was carrying a gun for which he was licensed, was reaching for his wallet when he was shot by the officer. The video showed the officer still pointing his gun through the car window as Castile slumped over, bleeding.

The public will probably never know what happened before or after the shooting, and we’ll probably never have any wider perspective than what that troubling video provides. That’s the nature of it—even a video captures only a standpoint, a perspective. Nonetheless, this incident rightly raised public consciousness about the devastating consequences of systemic prejudice in policing. And it spurred calls, once again, for systemic change.

“Would this have happened if the driver were white, if the passengers were white?” His own answer was, “I don’t think it would have.”

The day after Castile was killed, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton asked, “Would this have happened if the driver were white, if the passengers were white?” His own answer was, “I don’t think it would have.”

Dayton was pointing out the problem of prejudice. We’re all prejudiced. But when that prejudice affects something as serious as police work and when lives are at stake—when prejudice is holding a gun—the results can be tragic.

Categories vs. Stereotypes

In Mistakes Were Made, Tavris and Aronson point out that prejudice is a natural result of human information processing. The mind sorts out data and experiences into categories. The term, categories, they say, is just a “nicer” synonym for stereotypes.

Stereotypes (or categories, if you prefer the nicer word) are “energy saving devices” which,

Allow us to make efficient decisions on the basis of past experiences; they help us quickly process new information, retrieve memories, identify real differences between groups, and predict, often with considerable accuracy, how others will behave or think. We wisely rely on stereotypes and the quick information they give us to avoid danger, approach possible new friends, choose one school or job over another, or decide that that person across this crowded room will be the love of our lives. (75)

Stereotyping is natural and inevitable; we’d have a difficult time living in a complex social world without them. And we’re hardwired to split up the social world into categories, positioning ourselves in relation to others. Tavris and Aronson assert that “Us is the most fundamental social category in the brain’s organizing system…” (76).

The downside of categorizing is that stereotypes don’t always work and can turn out to be downright false. False stereotypes are perpetuated through socialization and the false narratives we tell each other, even in the face of contradictory evidence.

 

Research performed through the Yale Child Study Center recently showed that preschool teachers are biased to expect bad behavior in black children more than in white children. As researcher Walter Gilliam put it: “What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs. Teachers looked more at the black children than the white children, and they looked specifically more at the African-American boy.”

No wonder black children are 3.6 times more likely to be expelled than white children.

The study reveals the pervasiveness, effectiveness, and troubling consequences of implicit bias. In this case, the expectation of bad behavior in black boys led them to “find” that bad behavior precisely where they expected it, even though their actual behavior did not differ from that of the other children in the study. No wonder black children are 3.6 times more likely to be expelled than white children. The expectation, the bias, creates the reality, which leads to a vicious cycle of confirmation—with unintended but nonetheless unfortunate outcomes.

Those who unreflectively rely on stereotypes live in an “us versus them” (or “us versus not-us”) world, accepting uncritically the categories that have been created and handed down. Their prejudices emerge from and serve to confirm the way the social world has been categorized and narrated.

When enough people with similar prejudices and overlapping false narratives about the “us” and the “them,” have designed the architecture of an “us versus them world,” genuine differences are flattened out and those who have been designated the “not-us” often find themselves swimming upstream, on the out, or looking at the barrel of a gun that should never have been pointed at them.

Prejudices, biases, self-delusions, and so on, take time, intentionality, and work to deal with as individuals.

To stop and think reflectively on inherited stereotypes takes time and energy. Such reflection raises the prospect of cognitive dissonance, when our natural assumptions, beliefs, and prejudices bump up against alternative evidence and counter-examples. The tension created by the input of new (often better) information causes an experience of cognitive dissonance, which will only be resolved by either ignoring the new information and retreating to the old stereotype, or by changing one’s perspective.

To be fair to the situations that police officers sometimes find themselves in, they don’t have the time and energy, in the heat of a potentially volatile moment, to do that critical work. There isn’t often time or energy for cognitive dissonance to play itself out.

That work must be done before that moment. Prejudices, biases, self-delusions, and so on, take time, intentionality, and work to deal with as individuals. Imagine the kind of work it will take to change a flawed system.

Training Law Enforcement Against Prejudice

But that’s exactly what Tavris and Aronson suggest, as they point to the project of law professor Andrew McClurg, who proposes a plan for training law enforcement rookies which utilizes the research on cognitive dissonance and which calls on,

Their own self-concept as good guys fighting crime and violence. He proposes a program of integrity training in dealing with ethical dilemmas, in which cadets would be instilled with the values of telling the truth and doing the right thing as a central part of their emerging professional identity (199).

If an officer can be motivated to act on the basis of his or her “own self-concept” as a good person, then any action that would run counter to that (thereby raising cognitive dissonance), such as shooting an innocent person for no good reason, should be avoided at all costs.

As part of preparation for being a good officer, one should also seek to make untrue and false biases known and to correct them with better information and more adequate narratives.

Too Heavy a Burden

But, on its own, that proposal seems naïve, as it shifts too heavy a burden on the police officer. If implicit bias runs that deep in the subconscious, can we really expect that anti-racism and other bias-uncovering training can solve the systemic problem? Such efforts need to be accompanied by other more drastic and material measures, including stricter gun control legislation, a de-militarized police force, and the incorporation of mental health care and social workers in situations of crisis and potential conflict.

The system needs change. It needs to reckon with the innate human tendency to create stereotypes and our propensity to act on the basis of those (false but unchecked) stereotypes. And it needs to account for the tragic consequences that too often occur when prejudice is holding a gun.

About the Author

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