On 8th March 2013, 16 year old Kimani Gray was shot and killed by two plain-clothes New York City police officers. According to the only eye witness to come forward, Tishana King, Kimani was shot seven times whilst he lay helpless on the ground. His last words were reported to be "Please don't let me die."

I used to reside in a suburb of L.A. called Riverside, and I still have a good number of African American friends and former colleagues who live in California. Whenever I hear or read news footage of another unarmed black man wantonly gunned down on the streets of America by police officers, I find myself responding perhaps somewhat irrationally, by being grateful that at least on this occasion the victim is someone who is not personally known to me. 

But is this really such an irrational response? After all the stats don't lie. Sam Sinyangwe a researcher with the Mapping Police Violence Project reveals that in 2014, 1,149 people were killed by police in the United States of which at least 304 (26%) of them were black. Deaths, which included that of Michael Brown, killed in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner killed in New York, Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio to name just a few. According to data published by the project, in spite of the fact that black people represent only 14% of the population, they were three times more likely than whites to be killed by the police in 2014, with 40% of all unarmed victims in 2014 being black.

So what are the reasons if any, behind this disparity? Whilst I acknowledge that there will invariably always be a small number of 'rogue cops'. Reprehensible men and women, evil, racist, bigoted, hate-filled individuals intent on meting out the ultimate punishment on the object of their ire. Nonetheless, I sincerely believe that the vast majority of police officers involved in these incidents, some of whom were also African American, are very much like you and me. Ordinary individuals making extraordinarily uncharacteristic judgements which sadly prove to be wrong, when viewed in the cold light of day!

Lorie Fridell, an Associate Professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and a former director of research at the Police Executive Research Forum, sets the context well when she says this:

"I'm a white, middle-class professional woman. I enjoy a great deal of privilege. And I certainly have the black crime implicit bias. I am more likely to see threat in African Americans than I would Caucasians.

"Racial profiling was the number one issue facing police [in the 1990s] and I came to understand two things. Bias in policing was not just a few officers in a few departments; and, overwhelmingly, the police in this country are well-intentioned.

"I couldn't put those two thoughts together in my head until I was introduced to the science of implicit bias. We all have implicit biases whereby we link groups to stereotypes, possibly producing discriminatory behaviour - even in individuals who are totally against prejudice."

For a long time, it has been a widely held view in society, that stereotypes and biases were the traits of a minority of bigoted people. However, the explosion of research into the workings of the unconscious mind over the past two decades has revealed the uncomfortable truth that we all use biases and stereotypes all of the time. And all of us do so without realising that we are doing it. In other words, to be human is to be biased!

Erich Fromm, the German psychologist and psychoanalyst stated that "Our conscious motivations, ideas and beliefs are a blend of false information, biases, irrational passions, rationalisations, prejudices, in which morsels of truth swim around and give the reassurance albeit false, that the whole mixture is real and true."

Bias has been defined as 'a particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question.' As early as 1906, William Graham Sumner, the first Professor in Sociology at Yale University, identified the phenomenon of "in-group/out-group bias," writing that "each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exists in its own divinities, and looks with contempt on outsiders." The phenomenon is amplified when the "in" group happens to also be the dominant group or majority culture in a particular situation.

The word prejudice stems from the Latin noun, praejudicium, meaning a precedent or judgement based on previous experiences or decisions. Allport, in his seminal book "The nature of prejudice" describes it as either "thinking ill of others without sufficient warrant" or "a feeling, favourable or unfavourable, toward a person or thing, prior to, or not based on actual experience."

There are three steps in the formation of prejudices. The first step involves the automatic cognitive process of categorisation, where we differentiate people by whether they belong to our own in-group or to an out-group. In the second step we attribute particular characteristics or stereotypes to people on the basis of their group membership and the final step involves a positive or negative evaluation of the group. Generally speaking, society tends to assess members of the dominant in-group positively and members of an identified out-group, negatively.

As I reflect on the definitions of bias and prejudice, my mind goes back to the countless journeys I've made on the London underground during peak rush hour. Imagine the carriage absolutely 'jam-packed' with commuters all jostling for a pocket of fresh air, and the only spare seat in the entire carriage happens to be the one next to a black man. One after another, white folk get on, look intently at the empty seat before lifting their eyes in his direction, and in nano-seconds, a decision is made deep within the innermost recesses of their sub-conscious. Apparently they don't need the seat after all, and would in fact much rather prefer to stand.  

The centuries' old adages' "Birds of a feather flock together" and "Great minds think alike but fools seldom differ" resonate with meaning for me when viewed within the context of modern day racial prejudice and bias. What these proverbs exemplify is an underlying human predisposition or bias towards safety in numbers, or in corporate-speak 'group think', and an irrational but very real discomfiture when confronted with the unfamiliar. 

Law enforcement does a difficult and oft-times dangerous job policing our streets and maintaining law and order. It is undoubtedly a fact in America today that per capita, African American males are more likely to commit and be arrested for crimes of violence than any other racial group. They are also significantly more likely to be profiled, arrested and incarcerated than white suspects committing similar offences; receiving in general up to 20% longer prison sentences than whites who commit the exact same offence.

The presumed innocence of the suspect has been superseded by the stereotype of the criminal black man as a "myth-like race/gender image of deviance," and given the steady stream of reported incidents involving police infractions of civil liberties concerning young black men and women, one can't help but place credence, on the increasingly popular view that this is the contemporary default mind-set of policing in America, when dealing with young black men.

Police officers involved in this kind of tragedy, are very likely confronted with rapidly unfolding, potentially dangerous situations, requiring split-second decisions, within an 'information bubble' which, sadly has become conflated with their own prejudices. In such circumstances, one school of thought postulates that the unconscious mind wrestles control from the rational mind, for the material moments leading up to and including the pulling of the trigger.

A minority of officers, many of whom perhaps had never previously exhibited any racist inclinations, suddenly and overwhelmingly succumb to their  personal 'bias demons.' Prejudices, which had previously been inert, suddenly become active and highly volatile, leading to a level of 'error-prone light-headedness,' precipitating a loss of control and restraint. It is probably this 'Jekyllian' cocktail of bias, prejudice and conjecture,  elegantly served with a sprinkling of impunity, which today poses the gravest threat to the life prospects of young black men and women.


About the author

Glanville Einstein Williams, Diversity & Inclusion Specialist