Monday, April 28, 2008


In 1999 Amadou Diallo was a 22 year old black West African immigrant. While he was standing on the front steps of his apartment he was shot down in a hail of gun fire. 41 bullets were fired by 4 white police officers, who indicated that Mr. Diallo appeared to be reaching for a gun when the shots rang out. Mr. Diallo was unarmed and apparently reaching for his wallet. The 4 officers were acquitted of all criminal charges.

On November 25, 2006 Sean Bell was leaving his bachelor party, with 2 friends. A confrontation with 5 undercover officers escalated and Mr. Bell, a black man, was shot and killed. 50 shots were fired by 3 officers. 31 shots were fired by one of the officers, a white detective. While questions as to whether the officers reasonably believed that Mr. Bell, or one of the other 2 men with him were armed, it turned out they were not. 2 of the officers were black. All 3 officers were acquitted of all criminal charges.

The implicit association test is a tool developed by social psychologists to try to help measure subconscious triggers that affect behavior. The test involves split second associations. It is the subconscious universe and its profound effect on decision making that is the focus of these investigations. 'The implicit association test measures the thumbprint of culture on our minds' (Washington Post, january 23, 2005). The most prominent of these tests is the one that measures bias on race.

What the results reveal, not surprisingly, is that 88 percent of white people had a pro-white or anti-black implicit bias. But what the test also found was that 48 percent of blacks showed a pro-white or anti- black bias. In addition to the more readily acknowledged bias that whites hold against blacks, these results demonstrate that black-on-black bias is also prevalent in our society.

A 2002 article on "the Police Officer's Dilemma" examined the effect of ethnicity on shoot/ don't shoot decisions. In the 'shooter test' application of the implicit association test, a video game served as the mechanism to analyze bias. Both African American and White targets appeared on screen, either holding guns or holding other objects (items like a cell phone), in complex backgrounds (in front of an apartment building, in an office building, in a park like setting etc). Participants were told to 'shoot' at armed targets and 'not to shoot' at unarmed targets. The results of the test showed both that the participants made a faster decision to shoot an armed target if the target was black, and decided not to shoot an unarmed target more quickly if he was white. In addition, the study found that there were equal levels of bias among both black and whites who participated in this test. (The Police officer's Dilemma: Using Ethnicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 2002 volume 83, No. 6).

Reverend Al Sharpton is leading a protest designed to question the propriety of the court's decision in the Bell case. He is asking for a Federal investigation, hoping to bring into focus the question of what is perceived as excessive force that is used on a continuing basis against blacks. It is an unfortunate reality of our society, that even if our intention is to be even handed in the way we approach split second decisions involving whites and blacks, we have not evolved in our thinking to where this is a reality. The shooter task clearly suggests that those split second reactions, by both blacks and whites alike, will be similarly biased against blacks. For the police officers, both black and white, popular culture and attitudes have very likely ingrained in their subconscious a bias that even they may not know exists. Until these biases disappear, we seem doomed to repeat the tragedies like those involving Mr. Diallo and Mr. Bell.

No comments: