Of Prejudices And Racial Stereotypes – Stories From An LA Policer Officer and Others

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It’s a staggering statistics. A black man in the United States is twenty-one times more likely to be killed by a cop than his white counterpart. So yesterday, I attended an event organized by Institute for Non-violence in Los Angeles, an organization that aims at restoring peace in communities through dialogue and mediation as opposed to violence. (I am embarrassed to tell you how much longer it took me to find the location because I didn’t have my GPS. Google has indeed dulled me). The event was organized in response to recent police shootings of unarmed black men in the United States, including Michael Brown, to address the outcry and concerns from the black community that their children are targeted merely because of their race. Events like the one yesterday help pacify communities and offer a rare opportunity for both sides to share ideas on how to avoid such incidents in the future; the communities to understand what the police expect of them following a routine stop and search, and the police to understand that a book can’t always be judged by its cover.

Yesterday’s event was eye-opening for me in many ways. I found particularly interesting the contributions from a black LAPD officer, Chris (not real name), who unfortunately found himself caught up between the two sides, being a black and a cop. His stories often told with humor showed that yes, there could be racial bias among members of the police force as can be found in every profession, but then that one couldn’t ignore the unique danger to their lives faced by policemen who work in poor, black, often gang-infested neighborhoods. While their colleagues who work in predominantly white neighborhoods merely go to inquire of their community members how they and their cats are doing, cops who work in inner cities with astronomically high homicide rates routinely respond to calls relating to violence, hence the higher rate of police shootings in those communities. Chris’ easy going disposition helped defuse the tension in an otherwise anger-laden event. Here are some of the stories he and other participants at the event shared and lessons we can learn from them.

A Purse Clutched Tighter
Chris explained that being a police officer didn’t make him any less likely to be a victim of discrimination and racial profiling especially when he wasn’t in uniform. According to him, on one occasion, while off-duty and casually dressed in T-shirts and jeans, he had visited an upscale restaurant in a rich neighborhood with predominantly white and Asian residents. Once he walked into the restaurant, a woman sitting nearby immediately, without any subtlety whatsoever, hugged her purse tighter. Apparently, she wasn’t used to seeing blacks in the neighborhood and probably believed, as portrayed in the media and elsewhere, that blacks were all gun-carrying, purse-snatching bunch of riffraff. Chris, hurt but intending to get some fun from the incident turned to the woman and told her that however firmly she held the bag, he could get the purse from her in a matter of seconds if he wanted to. Chris let the woman panic for a while before revealing to the woman that he was a cop, that he was one of the good guys who would save her from incidents like that and not one to perpetrate that as she erroneously thought .

Your first thought while reading this story, especially if you are black, is to think, yep another example of racism and yet they claim it doesn’t exist in America. But the unfortunate truth is that we all harbor bias somewhere and sometimes misjudge people based on stereotypes we associate we them. Sometimes we hold certain biases even against members of our own race etc. I am aware of a certain bias African immigrants in the United states have against African-Americans.

A Panic Alarm Set Off
Chris also told a story of an occasion where despite being in police uniform he was unfairly treated by a homeowner whose house he had visited following the report of a break-in. According to him, the owner treated him like crap without any respect whatsoever. I don’t remember the homeowner’s race but given the context in which the story came up, it’s safe to assume he wasn’t a minority. Chris said that as fate would have it, months after the break-in incident, the man’s house alarm accidentally set off and the police responded by rushing to the man’s house thinking there had been an intruder. By the time Chris got there, the officers who got to the house before him all had their gun drawn directed at the homeowner. They didn’t know who the homeowner was and had assumed justifiably that he was the intruder. Chris said he had a moment to chuckle when upon his arrival and the homeowner sighting him, the homeowner meekly called out him, addressing him by his name, in the hope that he, Chris, would identify him to the other policemen, he being the only one that would recognize that he was indeed the homeowner given their previous encounter. The once hostile man now had to seek the help of someone he once looked down on. Chris did get the other officers to put down the gun and the lesson was learnt to not look down on people because you will never know where or in what circumstance you would meet them next.

A young white officer who tried to give Chris a ticket knew this and stopped himself just before he committed a faux pas. Chris had been off-duty and was in his parked car when a young enthusiastic chap who apparently was fresh from the academy walked up to him requesting to see his ID card. Intending to mess with the young man’s head, Chris asked the reason for the request despite knowing that wasn’t the right thing to do. Then he told the young officer that his ID was next to his gun at which the cop gave him a bewildered look, alert that Chris must be up to something. Chris did eventually tell him that he was a police officer himself and the young man disappeared seconds later. He knew better than to hang around any further with a man who he must have rightly assumed was his superior.

Often, we judge people based on our misconceived perception of them. What if the lady that had clutched her bag tighter knew better? What if she had black successful and responsible friends (and there are many of them)? Chances are that she would she have known that for every news she sees on TV of a black man robbing etc, there are thousands of untold stories of black people performing heroic actions and being responsible members of the community, contributing in meaningful way to the society. I can’t fault her much though as I have misjudged people in the past. Recently, an acquaintance who is gradually becoming a valuable friend told me how people had misjudged her in the past, nothing to do with morals but her apparent inability to meet certain standards expected of Nigerians in the United States to be successful. I didn’t let her in on my secret which was that the first time I met her, I had the same not-so-impressive impression of her. Of course she has gone on to prove that people misjudged her and some of the people who once spoke ill of her ( that’s why we shouldn’t) now look to her for support.

Perception Matters
While one can’t do much about some stereotypes and the baggage that comes with them, (one can’t change one’s skin color), there are ones one can control to a certain extent. Chris had mentioned during the session that as a black man himself who grew up in inner cities, he could tell more easily if a young man walking down the street had a gun. He did agree to some extent that a young man’s clothing could determine whether he would be stopped by the police or not. A lady in our team mentioned that even though she was black herself, she always felt uncomfortable around black guys with sagging trousers, tattoos etc. A young teenager (he was thirteen) in the group narrated that he and his equally young friends had once been stopped and accosted by policemen who had their gun drawn. The police were in pursuit of some other young black teenagers and had mistaken the young man and his friends for the miscreants they were after. The young man had been wearing a hoodie. Someone mentioned in the session that but for the hoodie, the police probably wouldn’t have sopped him (as his face and features would have been visible from a distance). The young man agreed and said his dad always told him how to dress to stay safe in his gang-infested neighborhood. For example he said, button-down dress shirts on decent jeans make one look responsible as against big white shirts over baggy jean trousers. But a lady in the group, a city attorney pointed out that whites who don’t dress so responsibly don’t get stopped by the police. She thought it was unfair that a person’s clothing should be used to judge them only when their skin color is black.

Lessons Learned
From the session, I now understand the unique challenges Police face by virtue of their job and the need for us to cooperate with them as they put their lives on line everyday to protect us. They could have their own biases as we all do but most times they act with good intentions. Some people in the session inquired of the police the advice they can give young men so that they don’t become victims of police shooting. The police advised that when stopped by a cop, one should be polite, follow the police instructions, keep one’s hands in plain view; there is no way a cop can tell if one is armed or not and fumbling with one’s waistband could make the cop think one is reaching for a gun and that’s usually when they resort to violence to get the person under control. One of the young teenagers in our team admitted that the police once used brutal force on him when he ignored their request to not leave the house after his mother called the police on him. According to him, he had only intended to visit his grandma who lived down the street so that his temper could cool before he went back to his mother. But the police had no way of knowing what his intentions were and had to use force to get his attention. It again boils down to being polite to the police. But unfortunately, because most black men have their own bias against the police and always believe they are just out to get them, they don’t cooperate with them as their white counterparts do and that can account for the disproportionate police shooting of blacks.

Finally, I learnt that we all have implicit bias. We assume that because people look a certain way that they must behave a certain way. Knowing this, we should take more time when we make decisions so that our thoughts and often wrong perceptions don’t reflect in the way we treat others.

Have you ever been a victim of prejudice? Have you ever looked down on someone only to realize subsequently that you had misjudged them? Please let us know in the comments section. There is always something we can learn from you. And as you well know, I value your contributions!

PS: Want to know what biases you may have against people based on their race, weight, religion etc? take this Harvard test and you will be surprised at what you will find.

If you are in the LA area, check INVLA link above to see when they will host the next event. It pays to get more involved in one’s community.

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