Society nurtures the implicit biases between black men and police

Society nurtures the implicit biases between black men and police
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“You’re a black man,” my mother would emphasize. I can still hear her voice as she explained necessary things about how American society would view me. She was a typical African-American maternal figure, quick to remind her children and grandchildren that they were not yet grown, no matter how many trips around the sun they had experienced. Yet when she would talk about issues arising from systemic racism, she always called me a man — even if my lanky frame, hairless face and mouth full of metal screamed otherwise.

I was reminded of all this recently while reading Michael Fletcher’s article on racial profiling and police traffic stops in National Geographic’s April 2018 special edition on race in America. And I thought of it when protests erupted after the officer-involved shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento. He ran from police to a place where he probably always felt safe during his childhood, his grandparents’ backyard.

As a black person in America, you learn early on that many mitigating factors for force won’t necessarily save you. Your youth won’t save you. Running with your back turned won’t save you. Even being female won’t save you. I realize now that my mother predated all of the modern research about how society views black boys and girls. Recent research shows that police officers tend to view black children as older, less innocent, and to some degree, less human than their white counterparts.


My mother was trying to tell me I didn’t have the luxury of behaving like a boy and acting my age, the way some of my white friends did. Horsing around in public spaces could result in someone calling the police, and they would treat me like a man. A man in this context didn’t mean one with dignity; it meant being subjected to mistrust and consequences that most people would consider unbefitting of a child. It meant that youthful indiscretions, mistakes and the old adage “boys will be boys” didn’t apply to me.

In the eyes of many police officers, I would be a threat to be neutralized, despite my clean record and slightly above-average grades.

In her wisdom, my mother never spoke about “racist white cops.” She recognized that stereotypes about black men are ubiquitous and internalized not only by whites. The genius of Dave Chappelle’s skit, “Clayton Bigsby: The Black White Supremacist,” is that if many black people didn’t see themselves as potential victims of state-sponsored violence, or had gained enough acceptance and social capital to ignore microaggressions, some of them would hold extreme views about people of color — because society nurtures those ideas.

The biggest issue is not bad-apple officers or hateful individuals who ride in their patrol cars waiting to do harm to a black kid with a toy, or to shake down an elotero man. Law enforcement is a system that, unlike other public service sectors, is at times extremely resistant to reform and taking active steps to address implicit biases based on race, ethnicity and class. It is a system that enables someone with rank such as Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who ignored a court order and racially profiled brown people.   

When we make police brutality about individual officers, rather than policing culture, we let a failing system off the hook. Systems are put in place in public service to mitigate human error or misuse of power and should be constantly under review.

In my experience, black police officers have treated me with the least amount of respect. More than 50 percent of the Baltimore Police Department are people of color, yet 95 percent of those stopped 10 times or more by police are African-American. Despite the fact that blacks are stopped more often than non-blacks in Baltimore, the police are far less likely to find contraband.  There is reason for our wariness: A 2017 Connecticut study showed that officers are more likely to pull over black and Latino motorists during daylight hours, when they can see who is behind the wheel.

Those who want to think of these issues simplistically will not understand how systemic racism and white supremacy function. These do not require personal animus or hatred. Many officers who have had brutal, or even fatal encounters with suspects of color, have commented that they did what they were trained to do. I believe them.

In this debate, the police sometimes are correct. Local officials in cities around the country campaign on the promise of reducing crime. Once elected, they order police to engage in aggressive tactics to stop the flow of drugs and violence. However, as a police executive friend of mine once told me, “You cannot arrest your way out of a social problem.” If you want lower crime, improve schools, housing, labor participation and health care, using law enforcement as a Band-Aid to fix longstanding, underlying issues only makes people in low-income, high-crime communities resent their presence.

Pumping up police presence or police powers doesn’t make people feel any safer; they just feel as though they are being contained, rather than protected. However, it is important to say that there are police organizations that are working diligently to better community relations.

I have always advocated for police and teachers to be paid more money than they make on average. With more pay comes higher expectations, close community engagement and relationship-building, and possibly more intense training.

Black parents talk to their children about drugs, alcohol and personal responsibility, like any other American parents. But they have the added burden of delivering the “how to stay alive” talk. I truly hope for a day when communities of color can have a conciliatory conversation with police, rather than talking about them. I hope for a day when black boys and girls can be boys and girls, and feel safe enough to run toward the police at the sign of trouble and not away from them.

Jason Nichols is a full-time lecturer in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Follow him on Twitter @RealDocSoos.