OPED: We must address implicit racial biases

Tribune News Service

Growing up as a child of privilege in a predominantly white community, my parents always taught me that all people were equal. Yet I noticed that adults around me sometimes told racist jokes. The bad guys on TV shows often were black. Most of the black people in my life were either my housekeeper or men on the street who reminded me of the bad guys on TV.

Quasia Carter, 8, of York City, holds up her "All Lives Matter" sign during the anti-violence rally Friday, July 8, 2016, in front of the York City Police Department. Amanda J. Cain photo

I believed the lessons my parents had taught me, but I sensed a different message from society.

The first time I became conscious of the impact of society's messages on me occurred when I read that John Grisham novel about the rape of an African-American girl. In the closing statement, the lawyer asks the jury to imagine the horrible things the rapist did to this innocent child. And then he asks them to imagine she is white. At that moment I realized taking Grisham's suggestion made me feel more empathy. I was shocked. And deeply ashamed. From that moment, I became driven by the cause of racial equity.

Society's terrible subliminal messages are everywhere. And they do so much damage. Many scientific studies have been conducted to measure our implicit (i.e., subconscious) biases and there is no doubt that we, as a society, have absorbed the negative messages about African-Americans we are bombarded with every day.

Our implicit biases provide an important context for the multiple occurrences of unarmed African-Americans being shot by police. Living in this society, no matter what his or her conscious beliefs are, a police officer's subconscious has been taught that black men are dangerous and that black people should be deferential. So rather than viewing the police as explicit racists or viewing the African-American community as hyper-sensitive, consider this possibility:

What if, because of the implicit biases we have all been taught, when the police encounter a black man on the street, they are genuinely afraid? What if they interpret a man selling cigarettes as dangerous and, believing they are acting in self-defense, choke him to death? What if they interpret a passenger reaching for his wallet to show his firearms license as a mortal threat? What if the police pull over a black motorist and she is annoyed and does not treat them deferentially, and somewhere inside, they are offended and the situation escalates?

I believe that the vast majority of people are people of good will and that the vast majority of police are excellent, generous and courageous professionals. So the only explanation of the tragic interactions between the police and African-Americans that makes sense to me is this idea that our actions are affected by the unspoken lessons society has taught us.

When I hear people say that Black Lives Matter, I know they are not saying that other lives do not matter. They are saying that our society is already clear that other ("White," "Police," "All") lives matter, but our society's everyday messages have taught us that black lives do not matter as much, so we need to be reminded that they do. To me, the Black Lives Matter movement is speaking uncomfortable truths that we as a society have not been courageous enough to admit.

This movement is also demanding that we acknowledge our past and our present. Unfortunately, we are often in denial. The Civil War wasn't about slavery, we tell ourselves; it was about states' rights. African-Americans are disproportionately incarcerated, we tell ourselves, because they commit more crimes. The poor neighborhoods of Baltimore, Ferguson and, yes, southern Dallas are dominated by African-Americans, we tell ourselves, because of choices they made — rather than redlining, restrictive mortgage policies or violence from whites trying to keep them out of "their" neighborhoods.

I am grateful to this new generation of thinkers and activists who are helping us acknowledge our history and society's implicit biases. I believe that if we are willing to hear their message and take a hard look in the mirror, all ethnicities will benefit and finally be treated as true equals in our community.

— Peter Brodsky is a businessman and Dallas resident.