Racism, Eric Garner, and that videotape
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 case.
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 what happens.
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 Project Implicit.
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 “moderate.”
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 unscathed.
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 article.]