Too many black men have lost their lives because of encounters with police officers whose racially charged presumptions about what the men were holding in their hands informed their decision-making minutes before the men were gunned down.
In fact, it’s what Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a Stanford psychologist and one of this year’s recipients of the MacArthur “genius” grant, works on day in and day out: the ideology that black men are associated with criminality. Her studies indicate that if you show people an image of a black man and then immediately show them a blurred image, they will most likely make out a gun, a knife or some sort of object associated with crime, simply because they were shown a photo of a black man seconds prior. That kind of unconscious prejudice toward black men is ingrained in some collective psyches, and it’s time we address it.
To bring attention to those racially charged instincts, here is a list of some of the innocuous objects that unarmed black men were carrying, or going for, right before they were shot by law enforcement.
Amadou Diallo was killed after police fired 41 shots at him in the hallway of his Bronx, N.Y., apartment building in 1999. Police claimed that they mistook Diallo’s wallet—which he pulled out per police request in order to show identification—for a gun. The officers faced second-degree-murder charges but were ultimately acquitted.
2. Toy Gun
John Crawford was holding a toy gun, in that he picked up a BB gun in a toy section filled with toy guns at a Beaver Creek, Ohio, Wal-Mart. Disregarding the fact that Crawford was in an aisle specifically for fake guns, local police shot and killed him anyway. His last words were, “It’s not real.”
3. Driver’s License
After being asked by then-South Carolina State Trooper Sean Groubert to retrieve his license, Lavar Jones turned back to his car to comply. The story should have stopped there. However, Groubert began shouting and firing shots at Jones as soon as he reached into his car. Luckily, Jones survived his injuries.
Nineteen-year-old college student Kendrec McDade had been approached by police as a suspect in a robbery. McDade took off running, holding his right pocket. Police say they believed he was holding a gun; it turned out that it was only his cellphone.
5. Gift-Shop Sword
Just like toy guns, toy swords can also result in the death of a black man. Darrien Hunt was carrying a toy sword when he was shot and killed by police in Saratoga Springs, Utah. Police claim that he lunged at them, but witnesses reported that Hunt was running away.
Black men don’t have to be holding anything at all to be shot. Just by possessing hands, they are considered threats. Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson while reportedly holding his hands in the air.
7. Car Keys
Roy Middleton was suspected of being a thief in his own driveway. Police claim that he lunged at them with a weapon, but Middleton was just holding a flashlight and his car keys—two very different things from a gun. Despite being the target of 15 shots by police, Middleton survived.
Trayvon Martin was holding a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman may not be a cop, but his “shoot first and ask questions later” behavior is in line with many such behaviors demonstrated in cases of police brutality.
9. “Extraordinarily Strong” Bodies
It’s the long-running myth and perception of black men being all-powerful brutes who can’t control their sheer strength. The concept dates to the time of slavery. Being in possession of a black body is reason enough for black men to be shot. Take the case of Alonzo Ashley, who died from his injuries after officers, who were aware that he was unarmed, used a Taser on him. The Taser shot killed Ashley, with the officer claiming that Ashley had “extraordinary strength.”