Three Guys with Guns

“America is not as divided as some have suggested,” observed President Obama in the aftermath of recent shootings by and of police officers. 

The President, who has previously displayed a deft understanding of behavioral science concepts, perhaps had in mind the availability heuristic—our tendency to estimate the likelihood of events based on their mental availability. Dramatic, vivid events—often those we can picture from news reports—come to mind more readily than statistical facts. Thus risks that easily pop into mind we exaggerate.

Some examples: Seeing Jaws caused many folks to fear shark attacks (despite being vastly more at risk from a car accident when driving to the beach). With images of air disasters in mind, many people fear one of the safest modes of travel—commercial flying. And with graphic videos of the seemingly senseless shootings by two police officers (among the more than 900,000 U.S. law enforcement officers), it is understandable that some people are now feeling heightened fears of all police, and that the ensuing slaughter of five police officers has further heightened our sense of racial division.

Post-Dallas, some folks also are worried about police officers increasingly being killed, allegedly due to President Obama’s rhetoric feeding a “war on cops” . . . although, actually, assault-caused police fatalities have declined under Obama (compared to his four predecessors).

These horrific incidents—committed by but three guys with guns—are likely, as the President implies, being overgeneralized. Yet there is real evidence that racial bias and injustice are, indeed, a continuing social toxin. In a case reminiscent of Philando Castile, Amadou Diallo in 1999 was riddled with 19 bullets while pulling out his wallet, which police misperceived as a gun. Not content to stop with this anecdote, social psychologists have repeatedly asked research participants to press buttons quickly to “shoot” or not shoot men who suddenly appeared on screen, while holding either a gun or a harmless flashlight or bottle. Compared to White men holding a harmless object, Black men were "shot" more frequently (by all viewers, regardless of race). 

So Minnesota’s governor was probably right to suggest that, had Castile been White, he would be alive today. Acknowledging implicit, ingrained racial bias, FBI Director James Comey, in his 2015 report on “Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race,” said this “is why we work to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all.” 

Moreover, while Castile’s being pulled over last week by police is merely a single data point—no basis for generalizing about law enforcement disproportionately targeting Black drivers—the FBI-reported fact is that Black drivers in the U.S. are about 30 percent more likely than White drivers to be stopped by police. And they are three times more likely to be searched. For Philando Castile, who had reportedly been stopped 52 times by police since 2002, this statistic was a lived experience.

So, yes, horrific events that kill people dramatically do distort our fears. And we are, as the President suggested, prone to overgeneralize from such. Three guys with guns are not the best basis for drawing wholesale conclusions about race in America.

Yet, as studies of implicit bias in the laboratory and the real world remind us, the pursuit of racial justice and reconciliation is unfinished business. And if it takes shocking events to make White folks see this, my race-expert colleague Charles Green (who blogs here) wonders: is it because of an unavailability heuristic? For those living in a nearly all-White world, are the everyday economic and social stresses of Black American life largely invisible? And is Green right to conclude that “White Americans are UNDER-concerned about racism” because, apart from dramatic happenings, there are so few memorable examples of racism available in their minds?

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