In the minds of many Americans, there’s no longer any difference between a black person and a thug. And as long as public officials equate the two, unarmed black lives will be the accepted collateral damage of our biased quest for “protection.”
Michael Brown, 18, is just the latest victim. A St. Louis County police officer shot and killed Brown after an alleged altercation in a police car.
Also last week, John Crawford, 22, was shot dead by police at an Ohio Wal-Mart. The state Attorney General’s office has said that the gun Crawford was carrying was an MK-177 BB/Pellet rifle, also known as a “variable pump air rifle.” Another words, Crawford was carrying a toy.
Eric Garner died July 17 from “prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” A friend filmed an NYPD police officer placing Garner in an illegal chokehold as they tried to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes.
Last year, police killed an unarmed Jonathan Farrel while he sought assistance from a car accident. And of course, George Zimmerman killed an unarmed Trayvon Martin.
How did black and Latinos become suspect simply for being alive?
A new study out of Stanford University suggests people who perceive the penal system as more black are more distressed about crime and more accepting of biased policing, which in turn exacerbates the racial disparity. Policy effects negative racial attitudes, and our prejudices clearly create biased policies.
Because of the time it takes to create, racially tilted policing and incarceration policy reveals our conscious biases.
However, the split-second decisions police make in determining an imminent threat involves intuition and assumptions. Researcher Alan Lambert posits that stereotyping is not just a conscious act. Lambert found that bias could be thought of as implicit responses that are magnified in certain social settings through a loss of cognitive control. The disproportionate killing of unarmed black and brown people reveals our collective internalized fears. When threatened by the stereotype, police don’t give killing black and brown folk a second thought.
LeeCee Johnson, the mother of Crawford’s children, explained this phenomenon when she said:
“We was just talking. He said he was at the video games playing videos and he went over there by the toy section where the toy guns were. And the next thing I know, he said ‘It’s not real,’ and the police start shooting and they said ‘Get on the ground,’ but he was already on the ground because they had shot him … And I could hear him just crying and screaming. I feel like they shot him down like he was not even human.”
In his classic essay “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell writes of a colonial police officer in 20th century Burma. The officer is pursuing a rampaging elephant in heat; the beast has already ravaged a fragile village and even killed a man.
The policeman initially intends only to scar the elephant into an unpopulated space. But the pursuit quickly became a hunt. Two thousand members of the small community follow, expecting to see a breathtaking finale.
Eventually the officer sees the elephant grazing peacefully in the clear. But, he still has thousands of people following, expecting action. Quickly, the officer realizes that he’s committed to killing the elephant. The demands from the mob reinforced the commitment.
So the policeman shoots the enormous elephant. He shoots it again, and again, and again.
In cities and towns across the country, we are killing elephants every day. Black boys and girls are the collateral damage of a society wanting action against the menacing threats to community.
In response to flash mobs in 2011, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter admonished young African Americans from the pulpit, “If you want to be aggressive, we’re going to be aggressive…We’ve got the biggest, baddest gang in town…a committed group of citizens and a committed government.”
In Philadelphia and other cities across the country, our rhetoric, policing and policy are forming mobs to eradicate an invisible bully of stereotypes, but it’s our fears that literally blind us to the fact we are killing unarmed men and women.