If The Driver Had Been White…

As the nation reels after multiple shootings of civilians by police and the subsequent attack on police officers in Dallas, Texas, the words of Minnesota’s Governor that, “Would this have happened if those passengers would have been white? I don’t think it would have,” bear examination. Was he guessing? Condemning a specific police officer? Or simply suggesting that an implicit bias caused the officers to perceive a threat when none was present?

The word “bias” needs explication, in particular as “cognitive bias.” “Cognitive bias” does not connote prejudice, an overt and explicit hatred of an individual or group. Instead, it is a psychological term and means that hidden cognitive processes drive what we see and our interpretations of those observations.

That racial bias can affect how information is processed cannot be doubted. Study after study has shown that respondents will judge the same scenario differently depending on the name of the suspect; for example, more people were likely to vote for the death penalty when reviewing a case file if the name of the defendant was “Darnel,” “Lamar,” or “Terell” rather than “Andrew,” “Frank,” or “Peter.” (see Glaser, Martin and Kahn, “Possibility of Death Sentence Has Divergent Effect on Verdicts for Black and White Defendants, June 2009, Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1428943). The most obvious explanation is the correlation between name and presumed race.

The same biasing effect is found in policing. But don’t take my word. This precise phenomenon was the subject of a major article in the February, 2016 edition of Police Chief Magazine. One conclusion? Police officers, like others, “have a Black-crime implicit bias producing greater perceptions of threat from Blacks than from people of other races.”

These biases are not immutable, and training and education can reduce their impact. But recognition of their prevalence and power is essential. Until we do, a police stop of this 63 year old white male will not result in a gun being pulled if I reach for my wallet, cellphone or glove compartment; but the same response can’t be counted on when the driver is Black or Hispanic.