The summer has been filled with news of tragic deaths of unarmed African American men and boys at the hands of the police. Most recently, the shooting of Michael Brown by Missouri police officer Darren Wilson and the subsequent heavy-handed and violent response to overwhelmingly peaceful protests in Ferguson, Missouri have shocked our nation’s conscience, and led to yet another round of questioning how our society relates to Black men and boys.
While the news in Ferguson has gotten progressively better over the day, with the Missouri Highway Patrol taking over policing duties and the Federal Government opening an investigation into the shooting, the fundamental problems that caused the shooting remain. This is not only about a few bad cops and a few tragic victims. It is not only about the militarization of the police, or about lack of training. This is about all of us. It is about how our society treats Black men and boys, and how even the majority of people who believe in racial equality, can be betrayed by the automatic processes of their mind.
At the heart of these tragedies lie our automatic subconscious associations between African Americans and harmful stereotypes that lead to mistaken and pervasive perceptions of Black criminality. Indeed, even as the streets of Ferguson have calmed down, the Ferguson police department sought to take advantage of these associations by releasing surveillance photos from the night of Michael Brown’s death showing a young man who may or may not be Brown (and appears to have a different build and clothes) shoplifting from a convenience store. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the Ferguson PD seeks to brand Brown a criminal in our minds a thousand times over, and distract from the issue at hand, namely the killing of an unarmed young man at the hands of one of their officers. For even if Brown had shoplifted a box of cigars and shoved a store owner, these are hardly offenses that warrant his death.
These kinds of tactics have proven extremely successful at manipulating the public in the past. Their success is only possible because of our mistaken perceptions, and the way our assumptions about each other become hardened by media portraits that misleadingly associate African American men with criminality.
Last year, the Perception Institute released its landmark report Transforming Perception. In this report, we detailed how subconscious processes work to reinforce and undergird structural barriers to equality in the criminal justice, education and health care sectors. These processes— particularly implicit bias, stereotype threat and racial anxiety— are both an individual and collective challenge.
In September, the Perception Institute will issue a follow up report, focusing on education and health care. This report contains several key findings, including that
Alongside these findings, the report will also outline and detail empirically tested interventions that give us hope for reducing the impact of bias on our daily lives and decision making.
The work ahead requires operationalizing what the scientific community is telling us about how the mind, race, and society interact. The Perception Institute will contribute to this work through trainings, advocacy, continuing to connect advocates and researchers and a new conversation hosted on our website bringing a diverse group of voices together to answer the question: What does it take to transform perceptions of Black men and boys?
We all have a role to play in preventing further tragedies and removing the day-to-day obstacles and challenges our young men of color experience. Although these issues have been with us for a long, long time, the work continues. In some ways, it has just begun.