NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has expressed unambiguous concern since news broke of some of his cops wrongfully slamming former tennis star James Blake to the ground outside his Manhattan hotel on Wednesday.
The officers had been on the lookout for someone else for cellphone-related crimes before a co-operating witness misidentified Blake as the criminal. The police then tackled and temporarily detained Blake, causing him to suffer cuts and bruises as a result of the incident.
Bratton has called the alleged incident “very disturbing” and said Blake “has a right to be upset about it.” The NYPD’s Internal Affairs division has since begun an investigation, and one of the officers involved in the incident has been placed on modified assignment. Bratton wants to apologize to Blake personally. “I will not tolerate any type of excessive use of force on the part of my police,” Bratton declared Wednesday.
But during an interview on CNN’s “New Day” Thursday morning, Bratton had a different, more defiant message to impart — one that should rightfully worry any person of color in New York City, as well as all their family and friends.
"Sorry, race has nothing at all to do with this," he said.
"If you look at the photograph of the suspect, it looks like the twin brother of Mr. Blake. So let's put that nonsense to rest right now,” he added.
— New Day (@NewDay) September 10, 2015
In response, we say: Sorry Bratton, you can’t say race has nothing to do with this, and we can’t put it to rest right now.
You can say you don’t think race played a factor, or that you think it’s unlikely it did. You can say that you don’t think the cops are racist, or that the police officers don’t think race played a role in the issue. That would all be, if not fine, at least justifiable.
But to dismiss outright any and all concerns that race played a role in NYPD police officers tackling a black man who was once the No. 4 tennis player in the world — that you cannot do.
Blake, who has a black father and white mother, has downplayed the role race played in the incident, instead choosing to focus on the tactics employed by the officers.
“To me it’s as simple as unnecessary police force, no matter what my race is,” Blake said in his initial conversation with The New York Daily News. “In my mind there’s probably a race factor involved, but no matter what, there’s no reason for anybody to do that to anybody.”
There is no way to definitively state race played a factor. But the likelihood is high enough to necessitate the discussion Bratton doesn't want. Every day, implicit racial biases guide our interactions, police officers included. They alter how we talk to people of other races, how we view them and treat them, especially in moments of crisis.
To act like they don't exist is not only lazy, it is dangerous and a recipe for flawed policy, especially when you run the police department of the country's largest city.
Study after study has shown how these implicit racial biases shape us. Just last month, the Pew Research Center released evidence that nearly half of white people have a subconscious bias toward other white people. A study published in the the American Economic Review in 2005 noted that 61 studies together found a tangible link between these implicit bias and how we act.
There are many more examples of such implicit biases too. Studies have found that “an ambiguous shove” is seen as more violent if the shover is black rather than white. They have found people are more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than an unarmed white person and that they are also less likely to shoot a white armed person than a black armed person. They have found an all-white jury is much more likely to convict a black defendant than a white defendant, and that white people judge black people’s résumés more harshly.
There is also evidence that police officers are prone to use excessive force against black youths in particular. A study published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asked police officers, most of whom were white and male, to take a number of tests related to implicit bias. The researchers found that officers on average wanted to use much more force against black youths than white or Latino youths.
Then, there's Bratton’s “twin brother” comment. Multiple studies have shown that people of one race have more difficulty distinguishing people of another race than they do their own. This bias, known as the other-race or cross-race effect, could easily guide not just Bratton’s assessment, but those of the officers and co-operating witnesses.
In The New York Times earlier this year, the economist Sendhil Mullainathan discussed how moments of panic — like, say, running to arrest an alleged criminal — can lead to some of our most prejudiced decisions.
“To use the language of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we think both fast and slow,” Mullainathan wrote. “When deciding what iPod to buy or which résumé to pursue, we weigh a few factors deliberately (‘slow’). But for hundreds of other factors, we must rely on intuitive judgment — and we weigh these unconsciously (‘fast’).”
“Even if, in our slow thinking, we work to avoid discrimination, it can easily creep into our fast thinking,” he added. “Our snap judgments rely on all the associations we have — from fictional television shows to news reports. They use stereotypes, both the accurate and the inaccurate, both those we would want to use and ones we find repulsive.”
These biases are everywhere and in all of us, including within the officers who took down Blake on Wednesday. To ignore them, to not even discuss them, is to ignore the truth. And to admit them, or to at least admit they could exist, is not to admit to racism. It is to admit that the only way to reduce bias is to struggle with it.
In 2013, Forest Whitaker was frisked down by a New York City deli employee who wrongly believed the Academy Award-winning actor had shoplifted. The following month, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The New York Times about the inherent danger in “the idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society." The lesson in these moments, Coates argued, is not that a single deli employee or police officer is prejudiced. It is that they aren't so different from many of us.
For many white people, discussing racial prejudice is awkward and uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. In fact, it's the exact reason why we should.
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