Sunday, January 4, 2015

Police and the Racism Discussion in the US

In the racial climate of America after Ferguson, after Eric Garner, and after the death of the two police officers in New York, it feels like we as a society are moving further from our country's stated goals of democracy and justice for a diverse citizenry.

There are lots of anecdotes that illustrate this, but I will just use this one I saw this morning as a starting point for talking about what is wrong and how we can become aware of it and improve, together.

According to this article, the photo on the right sparked outrage in the Pittsburgh Police Union. "FOP President Howard McQuillan [said] “The chief is calling us racists. He believes the Pittsburgh Police Department is racist. This has angered a lot of officers.”

Here is what the man in the photo says:
"I was hired to restore the legitimacy of the police department. I did not seek these young activists out. I was stopping for coffee at First Night. Their message is not anti-anybody. It is simply a call for awareness. The photo was a great, spontaneous moment in time. Please join dialogue for community healing."

"A source inside the Mayor Bill Peduto administration has called the photograph potentially very destructive, with no upside."

NO UPSIDE. So one side believes that all we have to do it talk about it, and it will get better. The other side believes that talking about it will only make it worse. Which one is right?


One of the biggest revolutions in Psychology had to do with Freud's idea that the unconscious is actually very powerful, and what we have access to, the conscious, is just the tip of the iceberg. Many psychological studies have then gone on to explore what exactly is happening under the surface, in all kinds of different scenarios and conditions.

One branch of this studies how the conscious tip of the iceberg may not be overtly racist, but we ALL have ways of processing the world according to race under the surface. Why? Well, when we have to react to the world in real time, and the most important thing is avoiding death, our brains have evolved to rely on shortcuts rather than process each person as the individual beautiful snowflake that they are. The people pushing for a conversation about race are hoping that becoming aware of what is under the surface of how our minds process the world will help us to become less racist.

It is important to understand that we are pretty much all racist at some level, and that level is subconscious. In the psychological studies testing this, reaction times reveal that some connections, such as black people and crime or violence, are more quickly made than the same kind of connections with white people. We shoot quicker when we see a black person holding a gun than a white person. We judge an ambiguous shove as more violent when it is done by a black person. And so on. Interestingly, though police officers make the same errors, they generally make them less. A great collection of summaries of relevant studies can be found here:

The lesson to take away here is that admitting that we are racist is a positive first step to challenging these culturally ingrained biases in our minds. It is not an accusation; it is the start of a conversation.

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