George Floyd, Racism and Police Violence

The death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in the USA has produced a wave of outrage and protests across the world. This post is not intended to be a complete analysis of the issues, but to bring up some points that I think are important to discuss.

Such waves of outrage are not uncommon. People become aware of an issue, it gets more attention in mainstream and social media, people become more aware, people protest, leading to more media attention – the whole thing becomes self re-inforcing (autocatalytic). One way that we (and other animals) decide what is important, what we become emotional about, is through noticing how many other people are responding, and the way in which they  are responding to a particular issue.

This is not to say that the emotions that people feel are fake – put on just to fit in with the crowd. Such irrational responses have built up over billions of years of evolution. They are an essential part of our toolkit for survival in a very complex world. Although they are often called irrational they are very often rational responses.

Neither am I sitting aloof on a pillar of logical, rational reasoning. I also respond to events in the same way –  which is one of the reasons I am writing this post. This is not something that is necessarily wrong and I make no apologies for it.

However, such irrational (unconscious) responses can lead to undesirable consequences – for example unfair bias and prejudice. This is one of the points I would like to make in this post and in particular the role of the implicit bias we all have.

There are also a few points about police violence and extra-judicial killings in the USA I would like to make.

While these issues are important in the UK context, I have mainly concentrated on the USA since this is where the events happened.

Separating Issues

There are several issues that are being discussed at the same time, and although they are interrelated I think it is useful to distinguish between them to do them justice. For example there is a danger that the message about racial bias is being lost in another discussion about police violence.

  • George Floyd. There is the issue of the incident itself where George Floyd sadly lost his life. It is important that the incident is investigated fully and ‘justice done’.
  • Prejudice, Bias and Racism. The incident sparked many protests. However, the protests were motivated by much more than this one incident, and indeed by more than just the disproportionate number of black people killed by the police in the USA.
  • Police Violence. Even when the racial angle is set aside, the number of extra-judicial killings in the USA overall is disturbing and needs to be discussed further.

Prejudice, Bias and Racism

We are all inherently prejudiced. Most of the judgements we make every second of every day are not based on rational analysis but on evolutionary biologically evolved mechanisms and learned behaviour which are often beyond our consciousness.

It is important to note that the influence of the evolutionary factors are not fixed and immutable. A person’s skin colour, eye colour or sex cannot easily be changed – it is usually fixed for life. However, this is not true of abilities, emotions and behaviour, all of which have a biological basis.

Just because I believe that bias and racism has a biological basis this does not mean that I think bias and racism are alright because they are somehow natural. We are complex social animals and many of our basic emotional behaviours are modified through socialization and conscious decision-making.

Biological Basis of Bias

Human behavioural biology is wide and complex. If anyone is interested I strongly recommend the lecture series by Robert Sapolsky1.

A certain gene or set of genes is not just passed on through the survival and reproduction of the individual. Those genes will also be present in related individuals. There is competition even within species for the continuation of certain genes to the next generation. There is therefore an advantage in helping close relatives to survive and reproduce. Such mechanisms are also present in bacteria. It could be summed up as saying “I would give my life for two siblings or eight cousins”.

In humans this leads to a sense of identity with people in the same group as you. This does not have to close members of your family or tribe.

It is therefore not true that ‘nobody is born racist’. Even 9 and 14-month-old infants prefer individuals who treat similar others well and treat dissimilar others poorly2. Studies even indicate that preference for own-race faces is present as early as 3 months of age3.

People will naturally form groups and associations and have allegiances to those groups – a good example are football supporters. I will not go into a discussion of at what point these allegiances become a problem but note there is a difference between a football supporter and a football hooligan.

As well as the natural tendency to form and show allegiances to groups, there is also a natural mechanism that means we can associate traits and behaviours to people in these groups.

Implicit Bias

People are aware of explicit bias and racism. However, we have been brought up and live in a biased society and therefore we all have implicit bias to some level or another.

I will not go into too much detail here since other people can explain it better elsewhere4.

A couple of the facts are:

  • Black people can show the same implicit racial bias as white people5. Similarly, women are brought up in the same sexist society as men and therefore can show the same implicit bias6.
  • Hurricanes with female names kill more people than those with male names. Even though the hurricanes are named randomly in advance. The reason for this is that people do not evacuate so readily when the hurricane has a female name7
  • Women often need more qualifications or experience to be rated at the same level as men8.
  • There is often a change in an interviewers priorities depending on the sex of the interviewee. If the male has lots of experience but fewer qualifications it is perceived that experience is the most important factor for the job. If the male has less experience and more qualifications, it is perceived that qualifications are the most important factor for the job.9

Effect Of Bias On Black Americans

There is a lot of information about the history of slavery in the USA10, so I will not go into too much detail here. It is useful to note that black slavery has been part of US society longer than it has not (1526 – 1865 vs 1865 to present). Even after abolition there were strong segregation laws until the Civil Rights act of 1964.

That history still has a legacy. Despite being ‘the land of opportunity’ social mobility is limited11 and even declining in recent years12. Black children born today are still suffering from this history of impoverishment.

Judicial System

There is also clear evidence of bias within the criminal system within the USA:

“African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, and they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences. African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites and Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely. As of 2001, one of every three black boys born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as could one of every six Latinos—compared to one of every seventeen white boys. Racial and ethnic disparities among women are less substantial than among men but remain prevalent.”13

There is little difference in drug use between black and white Americans yet black Americans are 6 times more likely to be arrested for it.14 The ‘war on drugs’ is seen by some as a ‘war on blacks’.

Job Market

Black people also face discrimination in the job market:

According to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014 the median adjusted income for households headed by blacks was $43,300, and for whites it was $71,300. Blacks also lag behind whites in college completion, but even among adults with a bachelor’s degree, blacks earned significantly less in 2014 than whites ($82,300 for households headed by a college-educated black compared with $106,600 for comparable white households).15

The hiring discrimination against black Americans hasn’t declined in 25 years16.

Police Shootings

Black people are more likely to be killed during interactions with the police than white people. Nearly three and a half times more unarmed black people are shot by police in the USA than unarmed white people.17

For young men of colour in the United States, police use-of-force is among the leading causes of death, according to a study from the University of Michigan, Rutgers University and Washington University.18

It is also shown that:

“There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.”17

Police Violence

This is where I talk about All Lives Matter. I think this is an important issue, although separate from racial bias and Black Lives Matter.

It is interesting to note that the deaths of white people at the hands of the police is, without exception in my experience, only mentioned when the deaths of black people is mentioned. The people who make such comments have never brought up the subject before. You see a similar thing when violence against women is mentioned. A whole string of comments about violence against men. This is an important issue that needs discussing but again, without exception, this is only brought up when violence against women is mentioned.

In the USA police killed 1098 people in the USA in 201919. If we were talking about other countries these would be referred to as extra-judicial killings.

The majority of the time the police were initially called out for suspected non-violent offenses or cases where no crime were reported19  

So we should ask why police are misinterpreting the actions of innocent people as being so threatening.

Fear Of Attack

One misconception from the public and more importantly from the police themselves, is that the police are at high risk of being killed in the line of duty. Although the risk to police officers is real,  police officers are not even in the top ten most dangerous jobs in the USA.

The people who do risk their lives for you are more likely to be the people emptying your bins or delivering your pizza.20

The actual figure for police officers is 13.7 deaths per 100,00021.

Therefore police officers go into a situation with an unrealistic fear of being injured or killed. This is coupled with the fact that, as mentioned above, everyone (including black people) see black people as more likely to be a threat than white people5.

Accountability

It is rare for police officers to be charged and even rarer for them to be convicted after they kill someone.


One of the problems with getting convictions and police violence in general is that there is a strong sense of being part of the same group by police officers. As I mentioned above we, as human being, have a natural tendency to belong to and have strong allegiances to various groups.

The Use Of Force project in the USA have highlighted eight areas which could decrease the number of people killed by police each year:

These policies often fail to include common-sense limits on police use of force, including:

  • Failing to require officers to de-escalate situations, where possible, by communicating with subjects, maintaining distance, and otherwise eliminating the need to use force
  • Allowing officers to choke or strangle civilians, in many cases where less lethal force could be used instead, resulting in the unnecessary death or serious injury of civilians
  • Failing to require officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers and report these incidents immediately to a supervisor
  • Failing to restrict officers from shooting at moving vehicles, which is regarded as a particularly dangerous and ineffective tactic
  • Failing to develop a Force Continuum that limits the types of force and/or weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance
  • Failing to require officers to exhaust all other reasonable means before resorting to deadly force
  • Failing to require officers to give a verbal warning, when possible, before shooting at a civilian
  • Failing to require officers to report each time they use force or threaten to use force against civilians

Where some of the polices have been implemented they have substantially decreased the number of deaths:

 

 


1 Human Behavioral Biology, Robert Sapolsky (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNnIGh9g6fA&list=PL150326949691B199)

2 Not Like Me = Bad: Infants Prefer Those Who Harm Dissimilar Others, J. Kiley Hamlin, Neha Mahajan, Zoe Liberman and Karen Wynn, Psychological Science 2013 24: 589 (http://cic-psych.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2014/10/Not-like-me-bad-Infants-prefer-those-who-harm-dissimilar-others.pdf)

3 Nature and Nurture in Own-Race Face Processing, Yair Bar-Haim, Talee Ziv, Dominique Lamy, and Richard M. Hodes (http://infantlab.fiu.edu/Articles/Bar-Haim,%20Zov%20et%20al%20PSYSci%202006.pdf)

4 Keith Payne, professor of psychology & neuroscience at the University of North Carolin, Implicit Bias: The Psychology of Ordinary Prejudice in Everyday Lives (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qo2cNam9rXg)
Microsoft Research Gender Diversity Lecture Series 1 Kickoff: Implicit Biases and Stereotype Threat (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXs1s5ddmvQ)

5 Professor B. Keith Payne, Weapon BiasSplit-Second Decisions and Unintended Stereotyping, Current Directions In Psychological Science, 2006 (http://www.psych.uncc.edu/pagoolka/cdps287.pdf)

6 Steinpreis, R.E., Anders, K.A. & Ritzke, D. The Impact of Gender on the Review of the Curricula Vitae of Job Applicants and Tenure Candidates: A National Empirical Study. Sex Roles 41, 509–528 (1999). (https://cos.gatech.edu/facultyres/Diversity_Studies/Steinpreis_Impact%20of%20gender%20on%20review.pdf)

7 Kiju Jung et al. Reply to Christensen and Christensen and to Malter: Pitfalls of erroneous analyses of hurricanes names, PNAS 2014 (https://www.pnas.org/content/111/34/E3499)

8 Wennerås, C., Wold, A. Nepotism and sexism in peer-review. Nature 387, 341–343 (1997). (https://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/mckinley/notes/ww-nature-1997.pdf)

9 Norton, M. I.; Vandello, Joseph A.; and Darley, J., “Casuistry and Social Category Bias” (2004). Psychology Faculty Publications. 2285. (https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/norton%20vandello%20darley%20casuistry_115b1688-4ccd-435d-abc8-78fe39295b2b.pdf)

10 Slavery in the United States, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_United_States)

11 Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults? Lessons from a Cross Country Comparison of Generational Earnings Mobility, Miles Corak, Research on Economic Inequality, 13 no. 1:143–88 (http://ftp.iza.org/dp1993.pdf)

12 State Of The Union: Social Mobility, Michael Hout, 2019 (https://inequality.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Pathways_SOTU_2019_SocialMobility.pdf)

13 Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System. The Sentencing Project, March 2018 (https://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/UN-Report-on-Racial-Disparities.pdf)

14 Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) (https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet) & Demographic Differences in Sentencing., US Sentencing Commission.  (https://www.ussc.gov/research/research-reports/demographic-differences-sentencing)

15 On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart, PEW, 2016 (https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/on-views-of-race-and-inequality-blacks-and-whites-are-worlds-apart/)

16 Hiring Discrimination Against Black Americans Hasn’t Declined in 25 Years, Harvard Business Review, 2017 (https://hbr.org/2017/10/hiring-discrimination-against-black-americans-hasnt-declined-in-25-years)

17 A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States, 2011–2014, Cody T. Ross, PLOS, 2015 (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0141854)

18 Risk of being killed by police use of force in the UnitedStates by age, race–ethnicity, and sex, Frank Edwards,1, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito, PNAS|August 20, 2019|vol. 116|no. 34|16793–16798 (https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/116/34/16793.full.pdf)

19 Mapping Police Violence (https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/)

20 US Department of Labor, 2019 (https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf)

21 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), 2019 (https://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cfoi_rates_2018hb.xlsx)

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