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Commentary: Shooting of Black police officer begs the question of benefit of the doubt

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 8, 2009 - The recent shooting of the Black NYPD officer Omar Edwards by a White officer Andrew Dunton has sparked discussions of race on a number of levels. Most generally, talk has centered on the split-second mistake, which some have argued would not have occurred if Edwards had been White. Edwards was off duty when he witnessed someone rummaging through his car and subsequently pursued the thief. The assumption was that Edwards was the cause of the problem, and unfortunately the mistake was fatal.

The link between Black men and crime is a common theme. Whether it is the over-representation in the media of Blacks as criminals, the disproportionate number of crimes committed by Blacks or the fear instilled in us through socialization, Black men are the enemy. They are not to be trusted and are assumed to be up to no good. They rarely get the benefit of the doubt.

Most of us have such a bias, which can be measured by implicit associations. If you’re interested in testing yours, you can do so at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/ .

A recent article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology used this paradigm of unconscious attitudes and linked it to conscious judgments. Participants in the study were asked to shoot people who were holding guns and refrain from doing so when the person was deemed safe (i.e., holding a benign object). The target was either Black or White, and the decision was made quickly. The researchers found that people who had a stronger association of Blacks with weapons were more likely to shoot armed Black men faster than armed White men. What the findings suggest is that the participants might have taken more time to decipher what the White target was holding - giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Another example comes from the ABC segment “What Would You Do?” Hosted by John Quinones, the show creates simulations to observe what people would do in various uncomfortable situations.

Initially, they set out to see how people would react in a park to three White and then three Black young men vandalizing a car for a three-hour period. The results are an alarming one 911 call to report the White vandals compared to 10 to report the Black youth. In addition, only in the comments regarding the Black youth – not the White young men -- did respondents mention the fear that they boys might have a gun.

What is most alarming was the unintentional result. While the White youth were vandalizing the car, there were two 911 calls to report “suspicious African Americans sleeping in a car.” The family of one of the actors who would take part in the second simulation was waiting for him in a car taking a nap. I’ve heard of“driving while Black,”  but this example is the first I have heard of highlighting the dangers of “sleeping while Black.”

One other issue brought up by the shooting was whether police officers should be required to live in communities where they work. In this case, Dunton lived in Long Island and the shooting took place in Harlem. I am in no way suggesting that people in Long Island are inherently biased in a way that others are not. What I am suggesting is that if you live in an integrated neighborhood where there are Black men who are doctors, lawyers and storeowners in addition to thieves and criminals, you might be less likely to err on the side of assuming that all Black men are the latter.

Another article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that being exposed to White faces can, for some, lead to more negative attitudes toward Black faces. Segregation has lasting effects that are not immediately seen.

No amount of effort can change the tragic course of these recent events. Therefore, I believe our best homage is to learn as much as we can to avoid repeating our mistakes. Being aware of our implicit biases can help us extend the benefit of the doubt beyond our initial inclinations, which in some instances can be life changing.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.