As a black woman, my heart bleeds for the Michael Browns, Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants, Eric Garners, Ezell Fords and every other unarmed black man who will find himself at the end an officer’s gun barrel. As I see the names of slain black men in articles and the faces of the murder victims on t-shirts, I cannot stop myself from thinking that any one of these victims could have easily been my grandfather, my father, my brother, my boyfriend or my son.
I feel a connection with the families of the victims, and I have lived in a community where constant fear of police brutality is present. I see myself in this equation of racism and police brutality, but my fear is that white Americans, and even Stanford students, do not.
According to Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 80 percent of black Americans believe that the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri raises racial issues; however, that number is a dramatic contrast from the 37 percent of white Americans who believe that race is a central issue in Ferguson, and the 47 percent who believe that race is getting more attention than it deserves.
Jennifer Eberhardt, Stanford Associate Professor and recent winner of the MacArthur “genius” grant, works on the association of black men with criminal activity. Eberhardt’s research stems from the question, “Can simple exposure to black faces lead people to see weapons better? Is the association between blacks and crime so strong that it can literally guide our vision?”
To test her questions she conducted a study that used subliminal priming to test racial association with crime objects. Her research revealed that when primed with a quick flash of a black face, white participants in the study identified subsequent flashes of crime objects much faster and more precisely than if a white face flashed. This suggests that exposure to black faces helped detect crime objects but exposure to white faces, conversely, made it more difficult.
Furthermore, University of Colorado Ph.D. student, Joshua Correll set out at the turn of the millennium to see if race played a role in the way law enforcement determined when to open fire on suspects.
Using images of white and black men, each gripping a cell phone, wallet or handgun, Correll devised a video game that required split second judgments. The participants had to assess if the man in each picture was carrying a gun, and they had to do so within 850 milliseconds. From their assessment, they had to choose: shoot or don’t shoot.
Correll’s results revealed that participants shot more unarmed blacks than unarmed whites, and they failed to shoot more armed whites than armed blacks. In 2006, Correll monitored the game participants on a neuronal level, and it was revealed that P200s, a neuronal voltage jump associated with threat responses, “tended to be bigger for black faces than for white faces.”
The research is clear. There is inherent fear around black men in the America, and men in police uniforms are not the only ones who feel it. The apathy around Ferguson from white America shows a disconnect from the hunting of black bodies that is going on in this country. The hunting started with lynch campaigns in the south, and now the hunting continues by men in uniforms. Two black men a week were killed by white officers between 2005 and 2012. Many lynchings were spurred by the motivation to protect white women from black men who were seen as dangerous; today, police shootings similarly spur from the (il)logic that black men are dangerous – even if they are unarmed.
White America needs to stop ignoring the fact that they are involved in this demonstration of systemic murder. The inherent association of black men with dangerous criminals is deeply internalized, and it is magnified by white Americans in uniforms. As soon as every white officer acknowledges this ingrained racism, there can be actions and trainings aimed at correcting the consequences of slavery and Jim Crowthat have manifested in recent shootings.
White America needs to be honest, and so do Stanford students. Do you grip your purse tighter when you see a black face walking toward you on the street? Does your heart beat faster when you see a black man walking toward you in the middle of the night and he is not wearing Stanford apparel? These are very real questions that we all need to answer truthfully before we can find solutions to racially biased police brutality.