We hear the call in demonstrations taking place in big cities and small towns across the country: “Say their names!” “George Floyd!”
And then, “Breonna Taylor” in Louisville. And “Rayshard Brooks” in Atlanta.
And Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile, and Eric Garner, and Stephon Clark, and Laquan McDonald. And so many more.
Beyond the individual deaths, the sheer length of the list of Black people killed by police really stuns. It shows that the central questions should be not just what happened to any individual victim, but why did it happen? And why does it keep happening, across the country, year after year?
The two main drivers of this situation are the twin toxins of race and fear.
Race runs through the American psyche in deep ways, all rooted to slavery, white supremacy, and Jim Crow. Decades ago, research established that the dominant American stereotypes of Black people cast them as criminal, dangerous, and violent. But the last twenty years of work by social psychologists has yielded insights that might help explain why police are quicker to use deadly force in an encounter with a Black person.
It’s now been documented that when people see Black faces, their visual systems process things differently. They become quicker to see (or think they see) weapons, and become more likely to think about crime. Similarly, when scientists prime experimental subjects with suggestions of crime and violence and then show them pictures of groups of people, the subjects’ eyes move automatically to the Black faces. Blackness, the researchers said, operates as a “visual tuning device.”
Similarly, other research shows that when people see Black children, they tend to see them as older, larger, more muscular, and more threatening than white children, uniformly overestimating their age and bulk. For example, the Cleveland officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death fewer than three seconds after driving up next to him described him as approximately 18 years old and 185 pounds.
Add to this the poison of fear—on both sides of any police encounter.
Anyone who speaks with African Americans about police learns that, for most of them, they have either personally experienced or heard repeatedly from family and friends stories of demeaning treatment, physical abuse, guns pulled, or “less than lethal” weapons used on them, often for small matters or nothing at all. Black parents, knowing that a traffic stop can morph into a deadly encounter in a heartbeat, teach their children how to survive these incidents in “the talk” given to every child of color before parents allow them to drive. For some Black Americans, the threat and danger posed by police in even the most routine matters means they hesitate to call the police when most white people would without hesitation.
But why would there be fear on the part of the police? After all, they display bravery and physical courage all the time; as former President Barack Obama said, they are the ones who “run toward the danger.” Most of the rest of us run away.
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