The Quiet Bias

How much do deeply embedded stereotypes play into our decisions? On May 28, undercover officer Omar J. Edwards was shot and killed by fellow officer Andrew Dunton. Edwards was black and Dunton was white.

The reports from the scene paint a blurry picture: Edwards was off-duty and in plain clothes with his gun drawn in pursuit of a suspect he believed tried to break into his car. Dunton and two others had arrived on the scene in an unmarked car and had reportedly called out "Police! Stop!" before opening fire. While the autopsy states that the bullet entered through Edwards' back, implying that he had not heard the officers, Dunton and his colleagues claim Edwards had turned to face them weapon in hand.

Either way, things progressed so quickly that it was difficult to discern if Dunton gave Edwards enough time to react before pulling the trigger. There is plenty of speculation about how Dunton could have reacted differently, and Dunton is by all accounts extremely remorseful. But the more difficult question is whether Dunton would have given Edwards more time to respond if Edwards had been white.

The question isn't quite as far-fetched as it may seem. In 2002, Joshua Correll of the University of Chicago began a series of studies inspired by the shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999. Correll created a video simulation designed to test unconscious bias by having subjects play police officers in a split-second decision environment and tracking their decisions to shoot or not to shoot. Over 450 people (270 were police officers spanning precincts from 15 different states) took the test. Correll made two major findings: trained police officers are less likely to shoot an unarmed person -- regardless of skin color -- than laypeople, and a clear racial bias was apparent in subjects' reaction time.

Reporting on the study for Colorlines, Shelley Zeiger summarized Correll's findings on reaction time:"[Subjects] were quicker to decide not to shoot an unarmed white suspect than an unarmed black suspect and slower to decide to shoot an armed white suspect than an armed black suspect. The results, Correll believes, suggest that participants associate African Americans with more violence." The association could have deadly results -- if blacks are associated with more violence, officers are more likely to perceive them as a threat and escalate to more lethal tactics.

This type of racial prejudice is a quiet bias. It doesn't manifest itself the way that other forms of racial aggression do, and it is not as noticeable as overtly racist actions. But this bias still exists, lurking quietly around the edges of our subconscious minds, for civilians and police alike.

As subconscious as it may be, blacks and other minorities are well aware of its effects. And that knowledge fosters a sense of insecurity and tension not just between communities and police but inside the police force as well. As former police captain Eric Adams told The New York Times, "If you speak with nine out of 10 officers of color they would tell you that when they hear sirens, in their head they are thinking: 'I hope these cops know that I'm one of the good guys.'"

However, only considering the attitudes of white officers does not go far enough. Are Asian Americans or Latinos free of bias against black officers simply because they are not white? And vice versa? While most of the studies on racism focus on white supremacy and the impact of white racism on people of color, studies are beginning to emerge focusing on internalized oppression -- when nonwhites begin to believe the stereotypes about themselves and other members of their groups -- and the biases that exist between communities of color. Ultimately, it is the race of the slain victims that is the tell-tale mark.

We do not know what caused Officer Dunton to react in the way he did. Was it his training? A hunch? Or the looming specter of a stereotype that prompted him to pull the trigger? But one thing is clear -- we need to have effective discussions about race and bias on the police force, especially in the larger context of societal prejudice and unequal power structures. While people like Attorney General Eric Holder have hinted at the need for a deeper conversation, historically, the country has shied away from systemic discussions of race, preferring easily quantifiable examples of personal bias. It is critical that we find a way to move these kind of conversations into mainstream discussions before yet another person is subject to a bias test at gunpoint.