". . . the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs." --W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
The nation's focus on the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri confers yet another opportunity for deeper racial understanding, but like other (too many other) teachable moments arising from the tragic loss of young black life, the opportunity is fleeting and frail. To make the most of it, the nation will need to embrace decades of research about how unconscious biases continue to shape how black males are perceived in public, and impede their access to opportunity and even threaten their lives.
The African American community has a deep and painful understanding of the negative assumptions about black people -- particularly black males -- that can distort their encounters with strangers. The expression of these assumptions has changed over time, but honest reflection about the trail of deaths of unarmed young black men counsels us that harmful stereotypes continue to corrupt these interactions with grievous consequences. In earlier decades, black Americans were openly warned about the consequences of breaking the unwritten discriminatory rules that governed their daily lives. Not infrequently these warnings came from members of police forces themselves -- "Don't let the sun go down on you here, boy." -- through unwarranted stops, arrests, threats, beatings, and worse.
Today, we have a broadened acceptance that the Constitution's equal protection guarantees demand better treatment of African Americans and a more elevated racial discourse. This is real racial progress. It is why when an NBA team owner is taped warning his mistress not to bring black men to his team's games, the nation has no trouble denouncing him. But it would be a grave disservice to ourselves and the nation we aspire to be to extrapolate from that consensus that chance encounters between black males and others are governed by fair treatment and mutual respect. Unconscious bias research shows that black men and boys are quickly, automatically and routinely linked in the human mind with violence, crime, aggression and danger. Neurologists have documented that the amygdala, the part of the brain that registers threats and fears, is activated in the same way when observing images of unfamiliar black faces as when observing images of snakes and spiders. The result of millions of on-line takers of the "Implicit Association Test" designed by Harvard researchers show that the vast majority of test takers are able to link positive words and attributes more quickly with whites than with blacks, and to link negative words and attributes more quickly with blacks than with whites. This extensive IAT research has uncovered a pro-White/anti-Black bias in most Americans regardless of their racial group. "Shooter Studies" revealed that police participants in a video game simulation who were instructed to "shoot" individuals who wielded a threatening object (gun or other weapon) but to refrain from shooting individuals holding innocuous objects (cellphone, wallet, etc.), were found to mistakenly shoot more unarmed black targets than unarmed White targets, and to fail to shoot more armed white targets than armed black targets.
The implications of unconscious bias research are never graver than when thinking about the quickly unfolding interactions that occur each day between black males and the police, such as that between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown in Ferguson last week. Researchers are exploring ways to build new, better cognitive associations that align more closely with our desire to view and treat others fairly irrespective of race. To get there will demand many things, including: a willingness to face our implicit biases with honesty and self-reflection, and a resolve to diversify our spaces of consequence -- our workplaces, schools and neighborhoods -- so that through increased meaningful contact with each other, stereotypes can give way to deeper understanding and mutual regard. Black Americans know this and are raising their voices with calls for change. The appropriate response from our police is transparent accountability, not military tanks, and the hoped for response from our fellow citizens is one of solidarity and a singularity of purpose to get to that better us.
Sharon Davies is the Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute at The Ohio State University, and author of Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America.