Phillip Atiba Goff: Our brains are conditioned to blame Black people and block change — but we can change that

When I talk to officers about a police shooting, they usually ask some version of the same question: “So, what

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When I talk to officers about a police shooting, they usually ask some version of the same question: “So, what did they do?” The second half of the question — “to deserve it” — is assumed.

Running the Center for Policing Equity means I work with departments that want to reduce bias and violence. Yet the assumption that victims, particularly Black victims, must have deserved their fate is deeply ingrained. Even reform-minded officers start by fitting each shooting into a story they think they’ve seen before: resistant suspect shot by threatened officer. If I begin telling a different story, about the violence of poverty or the fear of police brutality, officers search for the “real” reason — and change becomes an afterthought.

It’s easy to pin this thinking on police. But our history of hand-wringing, inaction and ultimately forgetting after each cycle of racial violence and outrage indicates otherwise. It’s not just police. It’s the nation. And there is psychological science behind why.

The problem begins with how humans see and remember. We navigate the complexity of everyday life by filtering information through scenarios our brains have rehearsed — the cognitive basis for stereotypes. Most of the time, these stories serve us well. Balloons connote a party; a snake’s hiss means danger.

Precisely because they are so often accurate, these mental shortcuts can literally substitute what we assume comes next for what we actually witness. In 1999, after New York Police Department officers shot Amadou Diallo 19 times, they swore they saw a gun where none existed. They may not have lied; the assumption of Black guilt may well have transformed a harmless object into a gun in the officers’ minds.

Bypassing these shortcuts to witness the real version of events is mentally exhausting — like suddenly encountering a lake after living your whole life in a desert. That is why studying for exams requires focus and we feel physically tired after a day of decisions. For too many, bearing witness to Black innocence is like a polar bear in the jungle. It is new, surprising and requires work to understand what is happening.

As a nation, we have been unwilling to do that work.

This is why the tragedies that mobilize protest can feel like an awakening. The heightened visibility temporarily overrides our cognitive defaults. This may explain why, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the percentage of Americans who viewed his death as a sign of “larger problems” surged.

But growing up in the United States conditions most to treat extrajudicial killings of Black people as startling but natural, like lightning strikes in a distant forest. After the initial shock, our brains want to “flood fresh vision with older images.” This, as Walter Lippmann wrote, is both the function of stereotypes in psychology and a blinder to the truth.

Replacing the flawed stories that flood our vision requires bearing witness longer than is comfortable for our national attention span. And so, after each tragedy, we abandon serious efforts to prevent the next one. Just when we start to see reality, our brains tell us to forget.

Following the 1967 uprisings sparked by police brutality, President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission recommended targeted investment “on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems” in the communities where uprisings broke out. The next year, Americans elected Richard Nixon on a law and order platform. When violent protests consumed Los Angeles in 1992, the Clinton administration created a federal community policing program. The 1994 crime bill, a capstone of punitive policing, quickly overshadowed it.

And still, some of us are cursed with vision. Those who loved the victims have no choice but to continue bearing witness — and fighting for change that can never make them whole. In June, I had the privilege of testifying in front of Congress alongside George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, who had buried his brother the day before. He implored lawmakers to make sure George would not become “another name on a list that won’t stop growing.”

The work required to answer Floyd’s call — to bear witness until our default stories change — has always been too much for too many. So we leave the possibility of a just, equitable system of public safety incarcerated in a prison of our mind’s precedent.

After George Floyd’s death, Gwen Carr — the mother of Eric Garner, strangled to death by an NYPD officer in 2014 — offered simple advice to his family: “Don’t forget,” she said, and “fight for your loved one.” Americans from all walks of life need to follow that advice: Resist the urge to forget, and fight — against the mental temptation of the familiar and for change commensurate with the injustices we have witnessed.

Our minds’ default does not have to be our destiny. As cameras retreat from Minneapolis and Atlanta, we can fall back on familiar stories. We can forget, as the country has before. Or, as survivors have always done, we can refuse to look away. We can resist the lure of our minds’ habits — and learn to seek a vision of justice, instead.

Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff is co-founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Policing Equity and a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale University. He wrote this column for the Chicago Tribune.
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