Thinking about Ferguson and Unconcious Racial Bias


Like many people, I have had the strife in Ferguson very much on my mind, heart, and soul.  Many people have written much more insightfully about it than I can (like Leonard Pitts, Jr and an acquaintance,  Pastor David Swanson).

What I haven’t heard spoken about is the role that unconscious racial bias plays in situations like the killing of 18 year old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.  What I’m going to do, is re-post pieces of a facebook discussion I’ve been having about this.  Yes, you can have constructive conversations on social media.  So here are snippets of that conversation.  These are only my words so that I don’t infringe upon the anonymity of my conversation partners.  And I hope to elaborate upon this soon.

“…I don’t think that very many people are asserting that Michael Brown was killed just because he was black. I don’t think that too many people see this as an explicit situation where Wilson is a “Klan member” who is just looking for a black man to shoot. I think it’s more complex. When someone acts in fear, their unconscious bias can easily take over. We are all socialized into a racialized society and have stereotypes and unconscious prejudice lurking in the dark recesses of our minds. when we act on instinct, oftentimes these fears and unconscious demons direct our actions. So, the suspicion is that this was another case of someone–usually white– feeling threatened by a big, scary, black man and using lethal force (like the autopsy doctor pointed out–six shots from long range? when Brown was unarmed? really?) when one can rightly question whether or not such force could possibly have been justified. One example comes to mind that might help illustrate the point. When in 2012, a white man, James Holmes, shot up a movie theater, killing 12 and wounding at least 58, and who was a serious threat to police and everyone else, he was taken alive. Brown, an unarmed black man (not to mention the man with the toy rifle in Walmart in Ohio and many others) ends up dead, killed by white police officers. If it’s a pattern, and it is, there is something lurking beneath the surface. Many people see that something as unconscious racism…”

“…to my knowledge there are very few people who are claiming that Wilson is a white racist, evil cop. I highly doubt he is a Klan member, to exaggerate a bit. But that doesn’t mean that race is not involved here. It’s the pattern of white police killing black men mixed with the documented reality of unconscious bias/prejudice mixed with what Larry Wilmore calls in the clip, “the benefit of the doubt.” Yes, he’s a comedian but he’s also a good satirist who illustrates the racial dynamics involved better than most others. And split second decisions, especially if in a situation in which fear is felt, rationality often goes out the window…”

“… about unconscious racial bias. This is not calling someone a “racist” in the sense of a moral judgement on that person’s heart and soul. Especially since many white people know at least one person who is an explicit racist, it helps to clarify this. Unconscious racism is a description of reality. We don’t choose to be unconsciously racist, it just happens to us. It’s so saturated in the culture that from a young age our minds are influenced and our souls marred by this evil. For example, i do not choose nor want to have racist thoughts. But I do and the seed was placed in me against my own choosing and before i was able to form and control rational thinking. I can point you to a study that documents how very young children (of all races) who are too young to have formed conscious opinions demonstrate preference in favor of all things white and against all things black. This seed was planted in me not by explicitly racist people but just by the fact that racism is saturated into the air we breathe. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I notice this especially in prayer and meditation when my mind just works and throw up what it throws up with little direction. I can go more into detail (as you can tell, unconscious bias and racism is a huge concern of mine) …And, just for the record, it is not about me calling a white person a “racist” as an explicit choice and intentional way of living. we all know that these people exist and that most white people are not them. However, I include myself (and most white folks, as well as people of color but for a different reason) as under the influence of an evil called “unconscious racial bias.”  It’s similar to when king started to wonder, toward the end of his life, if  all white people are unconscious racists…


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