When you ignore human bias, it calls into question every action involving race. And that hurts everyone.
Two cases in two very different parts of the country are part of an ongoing narrative in which the relevance of race is clear to some, denied by others, but always hovering as a possibility.
The immediate arrest of a teenager in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood and the initial non-arrest of a shooter just outside New Orleans both began with conflicts between two people last week, and both stirred conflicts over the role of race in life and death in America.
They are part of the same old story. The details are different and people will argue intensely over those details, but the arguments will also be about race, racism, and the assumptions we make about people, especially assumptions that affect the application of justice.
In Seattle a week ago Wednesday, some people got into an argument over space on a sidewalk. A 15-year-old told police he was walking with friends when another pedestrian cursed and ordered them to make room on the sidewalk. A man driving a van stopped and intervened. The teen, who is black, said the driver, who is white, used a racial slur to refer to him.
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The man told police the teen and his friends were blocking the path of another person. The teen said the driver hit him in the head, and he hit the driver in the face. The driver said he didn’t hit the teen, but that the teen hit and broke his side-view mirror. Police arrested the teen but are still investigating the incident because they don’t know exactly what happened.
The incident near New Orleans, meanwhile, was fatal to one of the participants, former NFL player Joe McKnight, who’s a local hero to many.
Last Thursday, according to police, McKnight and another driver, Ronald Gasser, were driving erratically and cutting each other off when they pulled up to a stoplight in the suburb of Terrytown, La. McKnight got out of his vehicle and walked toward the passenger-side window of Gasser’s car. Gasser raised his handgun and shot McKnight three times. He told police he was afraid McKnight was going to hurt him.
The story went national.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office interviewed Gasser and witnesses, then let Gasser go home. Did I mention that Gasser is white and McKnight was black? There was an outcry against the sheriff’s decision. Four days later, police arrested Gasser but did not concede that letting him go might have been wrong.
Critics of the way the case was handled pointed out an incident last April in New Orleans that also involved a former football player being shot dead by another motorist. But in that case, which happened after a vehicle collision, both people were black, and the shooter was immediately arrested, which seems like what should have happened.
Gasser, the guy the police let go at first, was once charged in another road-rage incident. Police in 2006 said he struck another motorist several times with his fist. Charges were later dropped.
But Gasser said he was afraid of McKnight. The idea that black men are to be feared is deeply embedded in the American mind — has been for centuries — and it affects people’s reaction to black men in all kinds of circumstances, without an individual ever having to consciously think about it. Implicit-bias research has demonstrated the existence and power of bias in decision-making. Studies in other fields are full of examples.
Jurors in our state, for instance, are far more likely to impose the death sentence on black people convicted of homicide than white people convicted in similar circumstances. Across the state and the nation, race has a dramatic impact on how discipline is used in classrooms. The New York Times just published an investigation that found pervasive discrimination against black inmates in New York state prisons.
And just Monday, the murder trial of a former police officer in South Carolina ended in a mistrial. The officer was shown on video shooting a black motorist, Walter Scott, in the back as Scott ran away. The officer, who pulled Scott over for a brake-light problem, said he was afraid of him.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Norman denied race had anything to do with the way the McKnight case was handled. I guess he believes that. He was angry anyone would even suggest that race could be a factor. Sometimes it isn’t, but too often it is, which makes every action subject to question.
Anti-black bias is so normal in America that it is invisible to many people. We have to make it visible if we are to escape this replay loop.