Blue on Black Violence, Racial Bias, and Societal Psychosis

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Racism causes racial bias and derangement of mind.
Racism can make a large portion of society crazy.
Now I know that many people who either suffer from mental illness or have loved ones who suffer from mental illness will not appreciate the use of the word “crazy.” I know that when we look at the reality of mental illness that causes great stress on individuals and families that the idea of racial bias as a societal psychosis may seem as if it is a stretch. I want to use this disturbing word because it is this craziness that creates a life and death situation when African Americans meet police officers who misperceive them as a threat, and in a matter of seconds may shoot them dead, or choke them to death or beat them viciously by the side of the road.
And the crazy is so crazy deep that many people affected by the crazy do not realize how crazy they are. The insanity causes us to misperceive reality, so we see what is not really real and do not see what is really real.
In the current discourse around the rash of police killings of unarmed African-American men and the failure of two grand juries to indict the police officers, we are necessarily having a conversation on race. This essay is about societal mental health. These killings are a result of how too many white police officers perceive and misperceive African-American men. When people have limited contact with members of another group they very often see members of that group through the lens of stereotypes. The super-physical black man is one stereotype of African-American men. He is the large, brute Negro who is capable of doing physical harm. In some circumstances even small African-American men are perceived to be larger and stronger than they actually are.
A recently published psychological study demonstrates this racial bias. This study – “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perception of Blacks” -published in Social Psychological and Personality Science describes five studies and their results that support the idea that very often European Americans often misperceive African Americans as either subhuman or superhuman but not as human. And when they do perceive African Americans as superhuman it is not a favorable perception.
I say this distorted view is the content of a societal psychosis. It has made crazy ordinary.
The study was designed to test whether or not “Whites implicitly and explicitly superhumanize Blacks to a greater degree than Whites” (2). Here superhumanization means that African Americans are seen as having supernatural, extrasensory, and magical qualities. The consequences of these perceptions often lead to the notion that such superhumans are moral agents who do not feel pain. In this context “moral agent” is one who is capable of helping or harming others as opposed to a “moral patient” who is capable of receiving help or harm. (2) The study says:

“Thus if people see Blacks as superhuman, they may perceive them as moral agents, also leading them to perceive Blacks as less capable than Whites of feeling pain. This is important because failure to recognize someone else’s pain likely reduces empathy and justifies withholding aid when aid is needed” (2).

The article reports on five studies. Study 1 showed “participants associated superhuman relative to human words more quickly with Black targets relative to White targets” (3). The results “suggest that Whites appear to superhumanize Blacks implicitly” (3). The results of Study 2a showed “reaction times were significantly faster for superhuman than human words following Black primes, suggesting superhumanization” (3). Study 2a “extends the findings of Study 1 and provides evidence for the simultaneous subhumanization and superhumanization of Blacks” (4). Study 2b expanded upon 2a “by including a subhuman category absent of words with any ostensible supernatural connotations” (4). The results showed “very consistent evidence for the superhumanization of Blacks and suggest superhumanization is a distinct process from subhumanizations” (5).
While Studies 1, 2a, and 2b were designed to measure implicit attitudes, Study 3 was designed to test whether or not European Americans superhumanize African Americans explicitly. The results were the same: “people significantly superhumanized Blacks compared to Whites” (5). Study 4 measured superhumanization and racial bias in pain perception. The result: “superhumanization appears distinctively associated with the tendency to overlook pain in Blacks relative to Whites” (6). These studies “provide evidence” of superhumanization bias, that this phenomenon is associated with”diminished recognition of Blacks’ pain”, and that Blacks are dehumanized through being perceived as superhuman. This superhumanization bias does not correlate with otherwise positive perceptions of African Americans. In fact the perception is quite the opposite. The article concludes:

“Superhumanization of Blacks might also explain why people consider Black juveniles to be more “adult” than White juveniles when judging culpability. . . perhaps people attribute enhanced agency to Blacks thereby judging them more culpable than Whites for their actions. . . . Relatedly, superhumanization of Blacks may contribute to Whites’ tolerance for police brutality against Blacks. . . perhaps people assume that Blacks possess extra (i.e. superhuman) strength enables them to endure violence more easily than other humans. For now, the present research provides evidence of a superhumanization bias that, despite its ostensible distinction from other forms of prejudice, may be just as dehumanizing and consequential” (7).

I say this superhumanization bias has already proved deadly.
When Darren Wilson described his encounter with Michael Brown, he referred to Brown as “it”, “demon”, and “Hulk Hogan.” Wilson said that he felt as if he were a child facing Hulk Hogan. He said that even after Brown had been shot more than once that Brown charged him. Here we see Wilson giving Brown superhuman powers. Gun shots do not render Brown weaker according to Wilson’s perception. Wilson thought his life was in danger from an unarmed man who had already been shot. This is why he continued to shoot Brown. And the entire encounter took less than three or four minutes.
In the case of Eric Garner, a group of New York City police officers used excessive force – including an illegal choke hold – to take Garner to the ground and handcuff him. They did not take Garner seriously when he said “I can’t breathe” eleven times. The police assigned superhuman agency to Garner. They did not see him as a human being who needed medical attention, so they failed to call for medical help that might have saved his life.
In the case of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old child killed by police in Cleveland, police did not perceive the reality of a child minding his own business playing alone in a park with a toy gun. Rather they saw a dangerous individual with a gun. They made this assessment in under three seconds. (one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.) Then they fired shots that resulted in Tamir Rice’s death.
This is crazy mad racist psychosis, and an innocent child is dead because of it.
Some commentators such as Megyn Kelly on Fox News want to say that these police killings of unarmed African American men have nothing to do with race. This is delusional thinking. In the case of John Crawford III, a twenty-two-year-old African American man shot dead by the police in an Ohio Walmart, two customers saw him holding a toy gun that the store sells and called the police claiming that he was pointing it at customers. He had been playing video games and was on the telephone with the mother of his children. He tried to tell the police officers that the gun was a toy, but the police officers shot him. Meanwhile, European Americans who want to exercise their 2nd amendment right to openly carry guns, walk around stores with real guns.
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is working to persuade retailers to prohibit the open carry of guns in their stores. However no White person has been shot and killed by the police because he or she was holding a real gun in any of these stores. In other words, a young African America man holding a toy gun that the store sells is considered a dangerous enough threat to be killed by the police while European Americans can openly carry real guns and not be perceived as a threat. This is racial bias at work, and to refuse to see this is crazy.
We have heard people such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani say that the bigger threat to African American men is Black on Black crime. Giuliani must know that when an individual is a police officer, We the People give him or her a badge and a gun. The badge represents the authority of the state. Thus, police officers are agents of the state. When they use deadly force against a citizen, it is as if the entire government, as if all the people were using that force. Further, we pay the salaries of police officers through our tax dollars. There ought to be a reasonable expectation by the citizenry that police will not harass, beat, choke and kill us because of any kind of bias, including and especially racial bias. We ought to expect that our children can play outside without the police rolling up and shooting them in less than three seconds. A man ought to be able to pick up a toy gun in a store that sells it without fear of his life. And, when police officers kill unarmed citizens they ought to be held to a higher standard of justice, not to a lower one.
For Giuliani to fail to see this distinction is crazy.
I say again, racism causes societal psychosis that makes many people see what is not really real and makes others blind to what is really real. The good news is that people throughout the country and the world recognize that “Black lives matter.” They recognize that “All lives matter.” They are marching and demonstrating against the societal psychosis of racial bias. There are practical steps we can take – body cameras; retraining that will include helping police officers understand implicit and explicit racial bias; provision for special prosecutors to prosecute police; and all police officers ought to be told from the moment they step foot in the police academy that they will be held to a higher standard of accountability when it comes to the use of deadly force against the people that they are sworn to protect and to serve.
In my interpretation of just peace theory there are three main moral considerations – truth, respect, and security. It is important in this moment to respect the difficult work that police officers do. At the same time, it is important for police officers to respect the people they police. They ought to understand the truth of racial bias and how it affects their own perceptions. With more respect for people as human beings, not subhuman or superhuman beings, but as persons with the same hopes and dreams as ourselves, I believe it is possible cure the societal psychosis caused by racism and to to establish security, justice and peace.
See: Waytz, Adam, Kelly Marie Hoffman and Sophie Trawalkter. “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks.” Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online 8 October 2014.

Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of and author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.