Two more black men became a hashtag on Twitter last week: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It’s a modern marker of our times, of an unnatural death publicly witnessed through a cellphone-camera lens. They were both killed by police officers for dubious reasons: They owned guns in states where carrying guns publicly is legal, but because of racism, a black person with a gun isn’t seen as a “responsible gun owner,” but as a potential criminal who must be feared and “dealt with.” Therefore, Sterling and Castile were “dealt” death by officers who did not see their humanity.
Shortly after their deaths, a mad man, seemingly fueled by racism, went on a shooting rampage that killed five police officers while wounding seven more and injuring one bystander. Most people respond to the unnatural deaths of African Americans at the hands of police with peaceful protest. But this individual responded with a murderous bloodbath.
It’s too much.
Racism is too much. It is a poison that corrodes every aspect of our society. Which is why we at The Root won’t be silent. We believe we must choose to fight racism on all levels, including among the police—both for our protection as African Americans and theirs.
It starts with better training, and that training starts with tackling implicit bias and teaching police officers how to de-escalate situations before they turn deadly.
Implicit bias is when, on a subconscious level, we hold beliefs of which we may not even be aware, biases that are so baked in the cake of our society that they show up even when people believe they do not harbor racial animus. These are the deeply rooted notions that black people are “bad,” “immoral” or “scary”—images that are fed to us at a very young age and throughout our lives by a society infected with racism.
It is implicit bias when police officers see a white person with a gun and see a lawful gun owner—a citizen simply exercising his Second Amendment rights. It is also implicit bias when police officers see a black gun owner (or even an unarmed black man) in the opposite fashion, as a threat and a potential criminal intent on causing harm.
Further exacerbating this is the fact that far too often, pulling out a gun is the first tactic of an officer instead of the last, making a situation that could be resolved through other means—such as talking or nonlethal force—a deadly one. This “gun first, talk later” approach, compounded by long-held racist notions that blacks are more powerful and feel less pain, creates the potential for a public execution.
De-escalation and implicit-bias training should go hand in hand so officers recognize their prejudices and learn how to use their minds more, and their might as a last resort to defuse conflicts.
We are asking you to join us at The Root, the leading African-American news site, and Bounce TV, the first and only over-the-air broadcast television network for African Americans, founded by Martin Luther King III and Ambassador Andrew Young, in calling on the Department of Justice to make implicit bias and de-escalation training a requirement for all local law enforcement receiving federal funding and military equipment. Call the Department of Justice today at 202-514-2000 or email them now. Tell DOJ officials that it’s time to stop talking about ending racism and to actually start taking the practical steps necessary to cure our society of its original disease.
Currently, the federal government supplies equipment, training and funds to local police departments as part of the effort to fight the war on terror. Arming to the teeth police officers who have subconscious and conscious biases and then setting them loose on communities of color is irresponsible, and the Department of Justice should take the lead on demanding that implicit bias and de-escalation training be part and parcel of any funding that local police departments receive.
We note that civil rights groups like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund pressed for this (pdf) with the Department of Justice—starting its work during the difficult summer of 2014 when Eric Garner was killed by police in New York City and after unrest broke out in Ferguson, Mo.
Join us, The Root and Bounce TV and contact the Department of Justice today. Demand that better training on implicit bias and de-escalation are tied to federal grants and funding for law enforcement.
If we can train our police to confront the biases and fears they have about black people, and to start seeing African Americans as individuals, as human beings, maybe we can start confronting our own fears and biases as a nation. Maybe we can all confront the biases in our hearts that distort how we view the world. If we can train police officers to assess situations and attempt to de-escalate first, only relying on their weapons as a last resort, instead of as a first response, maybe we can prevent more unnecessary killings at the hands of those who vowed to protect and serve.
Nelson Mandela once said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Let’s break the cycle of harm and recriminations. And let’s start this process by eliminating implicit bias and encouraging de-escalation.