If Michael Brown had been happy walking on the sidewalk, instead of wandering in the middle of the road in Ferguson that fateful Saturday of Aug. 9, he would probably still be alive today.
But if the young man had white skin, rather than black, he would also maybe still be alive. In any case, the chances of surviving an altercation with police would have been infinitely better.
Numerous studies demonstrate it: When you cross paths with a police officer in the United States, the color of your skin might make all the difference. In equal circumstances, the police officer will have the tendency to think they’re more in danger if they’re facing a black suspect than a white one.
In the evidence before the grand jury, which has finally decided to not indict him, police officer Darren Wilson tells how he felt helpless before the 18-year-old youth, who was out walking with cigarillos stolen from a convenience store, after having approached from his car.
The young man was as massive as wrestler Hulk Hogan, the officer remembers. His stature is such that before him, Darren Wilson “felt like a 5-year-old.” A little further on in the interrogation, the officer tells how Michael Brown resembled a “demon,” his face twisted by “an intense aggression” when he appeared to charge into Wilson.
Darren Wilson isn’t what would be called a puny man. At 6’4” and 210 lbs, he has no reason to be jealous of young and unarmed Brown. But over the course of their confrontation, the police officer claimed to have been scared for his life. To the point of shooting at him, aiming for Brown’s head.
Would Darren Wilson have done anything differently if he found himself face-to-face with a white person? It’s possible. In a study on the relations between black people and the police, the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the University of Ohio cites a troubling experience.
Police officers are asked to play a video game in which their mission is to shoot at characters they believe to be armed. And save those who are not.
And guess what: When the characters are black, the study’s subjects have the tendency to think they’re armed. And the opposite; when they’re white, the police officers don’t see firearms when there is one. In one case, they overestimate the danger. In the other, they underestimate it.
This margin of error is accentuated when the police officers must make a decision very quickly, or when the situation is ambiguous, explains Cheryl Staats, researcher at the Kirwan Institute. “That’s what we call implicit bias, which makes us unconsciously associate black men with danger.”*
Implicit or explicit, these biases create unbearable distances in Barack Obama’s country. With a demographic weight of 14 percent, black citizens represent 40 percent of America’s incarcerated population. One in three black people can expect to spend one day or another in prison.
This injustice begins early: Black students can expect more severe punishments than white students. “Implicit biases” hit everywhere: from preschool to court, including infractions in the road. Studies cited by the American Civil Liberties Union show that with equal behavior, black drivers receive more tickets than white drivers.
And finally, face-to-face with a black suspect, police officers are more likely to fire more quickly than with a white suspect. Even if they invoke a legitimate defense in completely good faith to justify their gesture, their evaluation of danger will be distorted by a biased perception of the danger they’re facing.
There is nothing unusual about a black person being killed in an incident that starts with routine police intervention, laments Nusrat Choudhury, lawyer for ACLU, in an article published the day after Michael Brown’s death. “Ferguson,” she writes, “is Everytown, USA.”
It’s against that background of tenacious, systematic discrimination, which survived the election of a black president, that the town of Ferguson burned after the death of Michael Brown. And that it’s been set ablaze again after the announcement of the grand jury decision on Monday. A town with a population 70 percent black, but where the police force and political representatives are almost all white …
None of that justifies violent misconduct. But it shows the path that remains to be taken in order to heal the wounds of slavery and a long history of institutionalized racism.
*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.
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