Earlier this year, video went viral of a 62-year-old Black grandfather being chocked and tackled by three White men in Florida, an open carry gun state, after one of them saw a gun in his waistband and assumed he was a criminal. He had a carry permit. Back in August, John Crawford was killed in a Walmart by Ohio police who thought the toy gun he was holding – merchandise at Walmart – was a real one. And less than two months later, police in the same state killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice because they thought his bb-gun was real.
The problem is, Ohio is also an open carry gun state. So even if their guns had been real, police should have ventured to find out if they had carry permits. They did not. These incidences beg the question: why is it that, even in states where guns are allowed, White people automatically jump to the wrong conclusion when they see a Black person with one? But White gun lovers in Texas and other states walk around with rifles and shotguns in brazen exercises of their Second Amendment right, and nobody says a word? The answer has profound implications.
Differences in stereotypes associated with Black people and White people influence how people interpret their behavior. In the mainstream, Black people, men in particular, are seen as aggressive, violent, dangerous, and criminal. These are the images of Black men we see paraded across our television screens daily in newscasts and TV shows. By contrast, White people are seen largely as peaceful, law-abiding citizens. So when Black people commit violent acts, according to the mainstream, it is to be expected. But when White people do the same, the perpetrators are seen as anomalies. Unarmed Black people are judged more likely to be dangerous just by virtue of their color; so put a gun in their hands, and that sentiment is heightened. Put a weapon in the hands of someone assumed to be dangerous, and it will be further assumed that they have that weapon for offensive purposes, or, to use in a crime. They become even more of a threat than usual, even more in need of neutralization, regardless of whether or not they “have a right” to carry it. But put one in the hands of someone assumed to be a law-abiding citizen, and it will be further assumed that that individual has their weapon for defensive purposes. When these assumptions are made by other citizens, they can result in harassment and in the violation of rights, as in the case of the grandfather in Florida. When they are made by law enforcement, they can result in the same and worse – the deaths of innocent Black people, as in the cases of John Crawford and Tamir Rice. The officers who killed John and Tamir, and the errant vigilantes who assaulted a senior citizen weren’t the first to make such hasty judgments, and they won’t be the last.
There needs to be an open and honest dialogue in the political discourse about the role that unconscious racial biases play in the disproportionate number of killings that result for African Americans in encounters with law enforcement, and in how individuals perceive these cases. Even when the Justice Department announced it would not pursue civil rights charges against former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown after the department’s investigation did not turn up enough evidence to do so, many individuals had decided early on that Michael Brown had caused his own death simply because they were so apt to believe Darren Wilson’s story that an 18-year-old Black male was a thug. As much as some like to deny it, there is overwhelming research that indicates that implicit and unconscious racial biases do exist and are prevalent in the American public, and they do influence how people interact with one another. Police officers are not exempt from these biases, and we should not pretend that they are. On the contrary, we should pursue changes to police training, racial profiling policies, and other policies that govern how police are and are not allowed to engage with members of the public.
Until we are willing to have a conversation about race, no progress can be made on these issues, and more lives will be needlessly lost. We can fix this problem, and everyone can contribute. All it takes is a conversation. The time to have that conversation is now.