Turns out I have more in common with Eric Garner than just the initials E.G.
Earlier this year, I wrote about how I was confronted at a car rental facility
near a major airport in Kentucky.
I simply wanted an upgrade on my car. And while I admit to being slightly
aggressive with the manager, I didn’t expect him to call for police backup.
BART cops in Oakland shot Oscar Grant. So I knew airport cops were a lot more
than glorified security guards. When they came for me, they were for real, twice
my size, and armed. And it wasn’t just one cop.
There were at least three of them in two different vehicles.
Already you can sense a slight overreaction.
But I’m not a 350-pound African American like Eric Garner.
If I were, maybe I’d be dead now.
Perhaps the cops were slightly more restrained toward me because while I am a
Filipino American, a tad taller than Manny Pacquiao, the police weren’t exactly
quaking with fear of my left hook.
I was lucky. My image clearly didn’t trigger a negative stereotype that could
have brought on a much more aggressive police response.
I kept thinking that as I watched this video again and again. It was uploaded by
the bystander who captured Garner’s exchange with the NYPD officers last July.
It’s the prelude to the tragic chokehold takedown that’s at the heart of this
haunting race tragedy.
By now, you know the grand jury in New York City, nearly five months after the
death of Garner, has declined to indict the police officers involved in the
One might conclude that Lady Justice isn’t just blind; she also doesn’t mind
holding her breath until she turns NYPD Blue.
One also might conclude that giving the police body cams isn’t going to be an
answer to anything.
No, the core question should really be what a white police officer, or anyone
for that matter, sees automatically when approaching a black man who may or may
not be a suspect.
In this case, Garner was suspected of selling loose cigarettes, a minor
violation of tax law.
But if you’re a white cop and the image of a black man communicates negative
feelings, then the strength of the automatic bias in the cop could determine
In truth, automatic bias is present in all of us.
To what degree? You may be able to tell by taking an online
test from Harvard’s
The Implicit Association Test (IAT) on race will reveal to what degree you have
an automatic preference between blacks or whites.
You’ll be asked to sort pictures of whites and blacks, and based on the speed by
which you sort them, the test determines your race preference.
No preference and you’re a saint. Maybe not even human.
Any preference, and you’ve uncovered your bias.
Doesn’t make you Adolf Hitler, but the range runs from “little or no
preference,” to slight, then moderate, followed by “strong,” for the real
racists among us.
“How implicit associations affect our judgments and behaviors is not well
understood and may be influenced by a number of variables,” the test results
page says. “As such, the score should serve as an opportunity for
self-reflection, not as a definitive assessment of your implicit thoughts and
feelings. This and future research will clarify the way in which implicit
thinking and feelings affects our perception, judgment and action.”
So let’s not judge. Let’s do what the deaths of New York’s Garner and Ferguson’s
Michael Brown are compelling the whole the nation to do—reflect on our biases.
The test showed I had some.
I took the test Monday and had a slight preference for European Americans
compared to African Americans. But then I took it again on Thursday after the
grand jury announcement on Garner, and guess what? My preference had risen to
Maybe it would have been different had I just seen more positive images in the
news and the movies, or lived in a less segregated community that is more than
70 percent white.
Is it possible that simply being exposed to positive images of minorities would
change a negative stereotypical attitude? The studies suggest that it could.
They show that being allied with or seeing a person of color do something
simple, like helping you, or something extraordinary, like saving your life, has
an automatic impact.
Makes every black man Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington.
Certainly, it makes the case for making diversity a priority or promoting more
programs of inclusion.
Which brings me back to my airport encounter with the police.
Clearly, the white cops weren’t fearful of an Asian American of Filipino
descent. I didn’t even rate any “martial arts” respect.
But something else could have been at play.
Project Implicit has a short test comparing the public’s preference for seeing
Asians as Americans or Asians as foreigners.
I joked earlier about how not being an African American may have saved me in
Kentucky. But what if the cops thought they were called to rein in an unruly and
potentially dangerous Asian foreigner cum martial arts expert? It might have
been a different situation altogether.
I took the Asian test myself on the IAT site, and it revealed I had just a
moderate automatic association of Asian Americans with Americans, and European
Americans as foreign. I was among only 6 percent of all test takers.
Slight, moderate to strong automatic associations of Asian Americans as
Americans were a minority totaling 17 percent.
But the vast majority who have taken the Asian IAT showed that 60 percent were
on the “strong, moderate to slight” side seeing Asian Americans as foreigners.
That’s some strong automatic bias we’ve got to fight.
In retrospect, I’m probably lucky to have gotten out of that rental car place
If we want an honest discussion of race in America, we’d better own up to our
own automatic biases and realize how these feelings are more fluid than we
think. Sure, they all can be manipulated by the images and stereotypes we see in
society and the media. But they all can be undone by working hard to be
inclusive and respectful of our common humanity.
[For more on the IAT and how police are using the research techniques to foster
unbiased police work, see this Mother Jones