There is an ideological war brewing about racial bias in this country in which the most valuable things we need to learn and acknowledge may be lost. Insightful books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi call our attention to systemic racial biases in this country that are so thoroughly embedded in our cultural conditions that it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch for an alien visitor to suspect that the viral ingredients for racial discrimination might be in the water we drink.
A conservative backlash is smoldering and manuscripts are being hurried for publication that claim antiracism has become a religion of the extreme left and an organizing principle of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Conservatives are characterizing this as a war against wokeness.
Being an ex-cop with an insatiable interest in this subject, my stake in this clash is simply trying to call attention to a double standard in the treatment of African Americans by police officers, some of whom are indeed overtly racist.
I firmly believe most white police officers are simply relating to Black people as being different enough to be treated differently. The history of how Black people are treated in this country by white police officers is horrific. If you don’t believe it, do some research, and unless you are a sociopath, you will become numb and fatigued by disgust from a myriad of examples so morally repulsive that you must take long breaks to keep going.
What is about to happen is an emotional battle in which the gist of the argument is based on who is a racist and who isn’t. Not only will this dispute be a waste of time, it is also likely to increase the ideological distance between the left and right.
It is hard to resist writing in all caps that you don’t have to be a racist to do things that have a racist result. All we must do is make assumptions, giving credence to the stigmas that we grew up with that have swayed our judgment. We do this with intuition via our subconscious that comes to us in milliseconds. Then, if it feels a little politically incorrect when we say it out loud, we are fortunate to have been born to a species that can rationalize an opinion in the blink of an eye so effectively that more often than not we fool ourselves as to our reasons for having done so.
I am weary of making the point that bias is what brains do: It’s how we have survived as a species. We categorize and sort people, places, and things, from birth to death, and we are biologically predisposed to favor the familiar over that which is different. We readily recognize the faces of our own race and have difficulty distinguishing the faces of others. We grow up making assumptions about millions of circumstances, while forming opinions that we remain unaware of until we have a compelling reason to offer a judgment. If a race or group of people has been subject to stigma for centuries, it is almost impossible not to have been influenced as a matter of degree. This is so racially forceful that even those stigmatized often internalize biases against themselves.
Slavery, Jim Crow laws, separate but equal, legal redlining, and discrimination in healthcare and employment have resulted in the forced creation of low-income communities from coast to coast in which the residents from the very beginning of policing have experienced extraordinarily aggressive policing and harsher punishments by the courts. To ignore this history and claim that has had no effect on the economic inequality experienced by African Americans is ludicrous.
There are correlated elements involved in the double standard treatment that African Americans experience by law enforcement. One element is ensconced in tradition; it’s related to the same mentality in which a training officer tells a rookie to forget what they learned in the police academy because “this is how we do it here.”
Minority communities have been policed more aggressively than affluent neighborhoods since the very first officer donned a uniform and any seasoned police officer when asked and given time to think it over, if they are being honest, will admit that it is tradition. Most will not likely acknowledge that a major reason for the longevity of the practice is rooted in the fact that these communities have traditionally lacked the economic and political power to push back.
That we have some overtly racist police officers in uniform today is a certainty, and they urgently need to be fired for the cause of being unfit for public service. My focus is on the behavior of well-meaning police officers who, while not intending to let their past subconscious assumptions wrongly influence their behavior, nevertheless exhibit the influence of implicit biases.
I don’t want us to get so distracted by an ideological battle that is likely to get us nowhere that we don’t see what is at stake: Racial bias in policing has more to do with socialization and how our minds work than whether or not we are conscious racists. New sparkplugs won’t help fix your car if the problem is a bad radiator hose, and if our sole focus is on what is in our conscious minds and we ignore the influence of our subconscious we are similarly flummoxed.
Contempt, animosity, and hatred are not necessary to be considered the other when the other merits different treatment. That global cinema gives us movies and dramas that depict black men as being exceptionally dangerous is a given.
In a nutshell, the double standard in the treatment of minorities by police officers has less to do with hatred than the simple cerebral categorization that happens automatically when we aren’t paying attention. The key to mitigating implicit bias in policing is thoughtfulness on steroids.
Charles D. Hayes