The “Invisible” Bias In A Culture Of Itchy Trigger Fingers!!!

Opinion

America is a very special place. At this point in time, it is probably the result of a western civilization either approaching demise or just on steroids. It is a place built on the foundations of freedoms and liberties. The face of America is rich in complexion, giving it the strength to be respected by…

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America is a very special place. At this point in time, it is probably the result of a western civilization either approaching demise or just on steroids. It is a place built on the foundations of freedoms and liberties. The face of America is rich in complexion, giving it the strength to be respected by the world over but giving it the weakness to be divided on the homeland. This rich complexion that is used in the design and implementation of a well-structured pecking order with respect to political hegemony and socioeconomics, has led to division that basks itself in different phenomena, in every generation: genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, averse racism, New Jim Crow, reverse racism, etc. — all these in context of its foundational principles of liberties and freedoms.

Recently there has been a spate of police brutality and killings. Here we see police persons mostly white, brutally manhandling civilians, mostly black at a disproportionate rate. This was never a new phenomenon, but with the advent of appropriate technologies and the change in zeitgeist, people are beginning to notice and are expressing different opinions based on their different worldviews the world over.

At the time of this writing barely two weeks has gone by since two black men were killed by the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Saint Paul, Minnesota and two acts of alleged retaliation by an army trained black sniper killing five policemen and another black gunman killing three police persons and injuring others in Dallas, Texas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana respectively.

This has led to a public discourse about the function and public perception of police in America, what it means to be black in America, the merits and demerits of the Black Lives Matter Movement, White privilege and Whiteness.

At this very point in time, technology affords everyone an almost equal chance to have their voice heard. Everyone that has something to say or has to say something is indeed saying something; and this “something” everyone is saying, just like the complexion of America, is rich and diverse. They border on grief, sedition, anger, racial superiority and inferiority. All these going on in a time, unlike any in recent history, where the electioneering process for the November 2016 elections is showing the “true colour” of America and Americans, one can only hope with pessimistic optimism that the situation does not degenerate into racial wars of the conventional or guerrilla kind.

But the current events cannot be seen as standalones. Understanding the culture of policing in America, blackness, the politics of the post-slavery America (the reconstruction), ethnic and racial implicit bias within its historical and contemporary contexts shed more light on the problems of America with respect to its complexion, focusing on the American culture of “itchy trigger fingers” by men of the law.

Police brutality

Police brutality is the unwarranted use of excessive force by a law enforcement officer on a civilian or criminal when doing his or her job. This excessive force could result in psychological or bodily harm and in some cases may be fatal.

It is important to note here that police brutality is not the killing of alleged victims. Killing a victim is a result of some form of brutality. The story of Alex Landau in Denver is just one of the many. Recent research released by Ronald Fryer Jr. a professor of economics at Harvard also shows this. The study looked for racial difference or bias in the use of force by police in ten major police departments, on a spectrum of “putting hands on victim” as least lethal to “shooting victim” as most lethal. Here we see excessive racial bias in all forms of force on the lethality scale except the “Shooting victim”.

Police brutality has always existed in America, since police departments came into existence. But racially bent police brutality in America came to be after the liberation of blacks from overt slavery — it was no longer legal to own a person of colour.

The job of the police is to enforce the constitution/law. Therefore, the dominant group of people in the police would always enforce the law in the most brutal manner on the other people, disadvantaged by the law.

The thirteenth amendment in all its glory did not end slavery in its entirety. It just made slavery legal under certain circumstances — “prisonhood”. This law ratified in 1865 made slavery and involuntary servitude illegal except when used as punishment for crime. Prisoners enjoyed no protection from slavery. This led to the unlawful arrest and prosecution of freed slaves. It was at this point that there became a political (in the former confederacy) and economic reason to increase the population of incarcerated individuals. Here plantation owners began to rent prison labour. It was until the end of the 20th century that this process lost momentum. This, in my opinion was the beginning of Mass Incarceration (New Jim Crow).

How a system was designed to keep Black America Impoverished

Slowly, laws and policing that targeted black communities in the most adverse ways began to find its way into American mainstream consciousness. The New Deal programs, redlining (National Housing Act of 1934), War on Drugs, to mention a few.

Redlining is the practice of purposefully discriminating against a certain group of people with respect to access to services like insurance, banking, mortgages, supermarkets. This could be done by an outright refusal of providing access to those services or through price discrimination.

Between 1934 and 1962 the federal government backed over $120 billion in housing loan, of which over 98% went to whites. This led to the disinvestment in Inner city communities, segregated America till this day and brought about urban decay. This I would argue was the beginning of the covert institutionalized racism that has led to a lot of problems today.

Why do I say so?

In America homeownership is generally the major source and form of creating wealth. Most people have their net worth tied almost entirely to their homes. The Housing Act of 1934 provided access to wealth, but mostly to whites. This led to the creation of mostly white neighbourhoods with houses that increased in value creating more wealth as the years went by and urban centers, with predominantly black people, left to dilapidation as the years went by. By design whites were set up to be and stay wealthier than blacks.

Wealthy neighbourhoods, means high valued houses which means higher property taxes. So why are property taxes important? In America property tax is used to pay for schools, maintenance of public roads and parks, public safety, libraries, police, etc. Therefore wealthy neighbourhoods tend to have cleaner environments, state of the art schools and learning facilities, and be relatively safe. But the reverse is the case in the inner city ghettos.

Now, inadequate access to standard education leads to lesser economic opportunities. Which many blacks in the inner communities begun to face. When people cannot fend for themselves economically they resort to other means, because people have to eat. This results in health and social problems like depression (mental health issues), teenage pregnancy, disease epidemics, domestic violence and crime. The system from the onset was engineered to put black people in a cycle of poverty. The “black on black” crime apologists always seem to forget to mention this part of the story in their rhetoric.

Implicit bias

The problem is, only this unavoidable bad outcomes, by design, make the news. And the country as a whole feeds on this kind of stuff spewed by the media. Unfortunately the economics of discrimination did not become a real thing until the late 1960s thanks to Gary Becker. So the whole story is never really told. Only the outcomes.

Therefore, all the average American sees when he or she turns on the news is the black kid that killed another black kid, the pregnant teenage girl with HIV that died due to unsafe abortion practices, the police officer who got shot in a black neighbourhood. At least now, America’s “war on terror” and its atrocities in the Middle East help spice things up a bit.

75% of White Americans do not have a Black friend, and for those who do, they have one black friend in ninety one white friends, in a 100-friend scenario. As a 2014 study by the Public Religion Research Institute showed. A direct result of redlining, leading to segregation in housing and automatically, schools.

Therefore the only experience with black people one third of White America has is what they get from the media. And it is through the media that stereotypes are designed. Why do most Americans think all Africans live on trees, have tails or are extremely poor? The Media. Why do Americans think only white Investment bankers are competent? The media. Why would a white woman become uncomfortable walking on the street at night on sighting a black man approaching? The media. Why would anyone think men do not cry? For heaven’s sake! The Media.

And Stereotypes according to Patricia Hill Collins “can serve to hide or to normalize oppression by making it seem something that the oppressed person wants to do or something that comes from the oppressed person’s nature”.

Now with this kind of limiting information about a certain group of people, unconscious bias becomes a reality. We now know, based on over 30 years of research in neuroscience, social and cognitive psychology that people with good intentions could discriminate against other people.

“We believe our decisions are consistent with our conscious beliefs, when in fact, our unconscious is running the show”Howard Ross.

A 2013 New York Times Article by David Brooks does a good job in summarizing this concept.

“Sometimes the behavioural research leads us to completely change how we think about an issue. For example, many of our anti-discrimination policies focus on finding the bad apples who are explicitly prejudiced. In fact, the serious discrimination is implicit, subtle and nearly universal. Both blacks and whites subtly try to get a white partner when asked to team up to do an intellectually difficult task. In computer shooting simulations, both black and white participants were more likely to think black figures were armed. In emergency rooms, whites are pervasively given stronger painkillers than blacks or Hispanics. Clearly, we should spend more effort rigging situations to reduce universal, unconscious racism”

One is probably cordial to a different group of people because the laws and zeitgeist prevent you from overt discrimination. But that does nothing to the unconscious biases you already have about such people, and they show forth in microaggressions, cultural taxonomy and our topic for the day, police brutality. You would find yourself acting differently in the situations when the variables are changed with respect to the group of people involved. For example, Police officers going the extra mile to deescalate situation involving a white person than that same situation involving a black person without even knowing he or she was consciously discriminating.

This is not just seen in law enforcement but in the entire justice system. Which began from the days of overt racism till now. The Cory Batey and Brock turner case bears witness to this. Both were star athletes at elite Universities, committed the same crime, but the only variable that was different was their race. We all know how that turned out.

The Blue wall of silence

Since joining the police is like joining an elite group that has different privileges from the general public, there are likely to abound unwritten codes of conducts within this group. The blue wall of silence is one of these unwritten codes. This code stipulates that no officer should snitch on his or her fellow officer — in a nutshell.

Police officers have huge discretionary powers in performing their duties, and in some cases are faced with situations that put them in a moral quandary. Therefore how they react or respond to such situations is left to interpretation. But most times the only witnesses at the scene of this situations are the police officers themselves. And since the testimony of an officer in court is powerful, observing the code of the blue wall of silence, an officer is less likely to implicate his or her fellow officer in any wrongdoing.

This is an interesting phenomenon because, since time immemorial, since the policing of minority neighbourhoods began, police men have always expressed disgust at the unwritten “no-snitch” codes in those neighbourhoods. The quintessential “remove-the-log-from-your-eye-before-removing-the-speck-on-someone-else’s-eye” example — hypocrisy at its highest.

Though this code is considered corrupt and seen by the necessary judicial entities as misconduct, most officers who snitch on other officers are ruined professionally by their colleagues. This code is the reason why many police officers involved in misconducts, from police brutality to falsification of evidence go unindicted.

Copcrisis.com says that an American citizen is killed by the police every 7 hours, but they are indicted for less than one percent the killings. According to this website — citing the Department of Justice — 84% of police officers said they “witnessed fellow officers using more force than necessary”.

Multiple Judicial commissions have been setup in different cities to investigate police corruption perpetrated by this blue wall of silence. The Knapp Commission in New York City in 1970, the Christopher Commission in Los Angeles in 1991, the Mollen Commission in New York City in 1990s, etc. And their reports all say the same thing. Systemic corruption based on the foundations of the blue wall of silence.

Therefore, this system historically designed to impoverish a group of people, making them do what they feel they need to do to survive, creating a culture of crime and violence, propagated by the media to the world as stereotypes, finds its way into the unconscious minds of many, including the police, creating fear of a certain type of people, in a police culture that upholds bravery, fearlessness and heroism, would always lead to explosive events like the one we are currently dealing with, until something happens.

What can be done?

To be continued…. ( At this point I feel I have written too much for one article. The sequel to this would include strategies for better policing and policy recommendations. Please share your thoughts in the comments section)

Responses

  1. Dubem
    Wow!!!

    My first degree thesis was titled “public perception of the Nigerian police”

    this is very interesting for me and though it’s been a long time, I’d wanna hear all you’ve got to say.

    Waiting for part 2

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    1. Tam
      Hi Dubem. Would it be too much to ask for a copy of your thesis on the “public perception of the Nigerian police”? The political order of states have always been my interest and I find that the structures of the Justice and law enforcement systems to be an integral part of the socio-political order with states.
      Please let me know.
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