Implicit Bias

Will America’s Fear of Black Men Ever Go Away?

Another month, another unarmed African American man killed by police. Jamelle Bouie on why we can’t pretend that race had nothing to do with it.

09.17.13 9:45 AM ET

This weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jonathan Ferrell was shot to death by law enforcement while looking for help after a car accident.

Ferrell, a 24-year-old former Florida A&M football player, crashed his car early Saturday morning. After climbing out, he ran to a nearby home for help. The resident, a woman waiting for her husband, opened the door and—realizing it wasn’t him—closed it. She then called 911 to report a man trying to break into her home. Three officers arrived and found Ferrell about a block from the house. During the encounter, according to the police report, Ferrell ran toward them and at least one opened fire, killing him.

Ferrell joins a long, tragic list. This March, for instance, Kimani Gray was shot to death by officers in Brooklyn, New York, after he was confronted for “suspicious behavior.” A year before, in New Orleans, Wendell Allen, 20, was killed in his home by police executing a search warrant for marijuana. And Kendrec McDade, 19, was killed while running from police in Pasadena, California, after he was falsely accused of attempted theft.

Now, it’s tempting to say race has nothing to do with this—that it was a tragic accident, borne of fear and misunderstanding. After all, there’s no evidence of intentional bias; just a young man in the wrong place, at the wrong time. But racism is a cultural force as much as it is a series of beliefs, and as such, it bears on our subconscious as much as it does our actions. For Americans, race has a strong pull on our sense of fear and our perceptions of aggression, a fact that has more to do with the legacy of slavery and our long history of racial demonization than it does any particular set of crime statistics. And in particular, according to a range of surveys and implicit association tests—which measure unconscious bias by flashing faces and soliciting responses—white Americans are more afraid of black men than any other group in the country.

In one such test (PDF), researchers found that black males elicited the most negative reactions from white subjects—simply seeing them was enough to make participants feel uncomfortable. And in a 2009 survey on the question of blacks and violence, drawn from a nationally representative sample of white Americans, more than 30 percent said that blacks were more violent than whites. Respondents were also asked specifically about violence among black men versus white men, black women, and white women. The results? More than 40 percent said that “many” or “almost all” black men were violent, compared to less than 20 percent who said the same of black women or white men, and less than 10 percent who said the same of white women.

No doubt these conscious biases are fed by stories such as that of Aaron Alexis, the man suspected of killing 11 people at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday.

With all of this in mind, let’s return to the Ferrell shooting, with the reality of unconscious bias in mind. When Ferrell knocked on the door, asking for help, did the woman see an injured young man, dazed and confused from a car accident? Or did she see someone who would harm her if she didn’t take action? Judging from her decision to call the police and report the incident as an attempted burglary, my guess is the latter. It’s one thing to ask for police assistance—there’s a good chance I would have done the same—it’s something else to assume malign intent. Likewise, when the police confronted Ferrell, did they see someone who needed assistance, or did they assume—instinctively—that the young black man coming towards them was a threat to be neutralized?

I think we know the answer.

None of this is to say that the men and women responsible for Ferrell’s death are racists. There’s no way to know what lives in their hearts, but my guess is that they aren’t the reincarnations of Bull Connor. They don’t have to be; this is just how racism works. The idea that African Americans are prone to violence has a long pedigree, from antebellum fears of slave revolts, to the 1890s, when white supremacist scholars took crime statistics and twisted them into “proof” of inherent black criminality.

Which is to say that, in writing about Jonathan Ferrell, I’ve tried to imagine a situation that doesn’t end with his death. I can’t. Fear of black men has a tremendous hold on the American subconscious, and it mixes with our perceptions in ways that guarantee tragedy. As a nation, it’s one of our deadliest problems, and I’m not sure we can fix it.