Last night I received a text message from friend that said, “Just watched all of the Tulsa stuff praying for you.” I was unaware of what happened, but my gut told me it had something to do with a black man and law enforcement. Unfortunately, I was right.
When I saw the headline, “Tulsa Police Release Video of Terence Crutcher Shooting Death,” my heart sank and began pounding. I immediately began begging God for answers as the video loaded on my phone. As I watched the footage from the helicopter, the commentary from one of the voices onboard kept ringing in my ears when he said, “That looks like a bad dude too… could be on somethin’.”
Questions flooded my mind. What made Crutcher look suspicious? Why was the inference made that he was on drugs? Why was this person compelled to make such incriminating assertions having arrived only moments prior (a few hundred feet above the scene)? I’m convinced it is because Crutcher was a black man. Please let me explain.
The old adage, “more is caught than taught” is true. Said differently, we learn a great deal more subconsciously than we intend to absorb. This phenomenon works both positively and negatively. On the positive side, if you are in proximity of someone with good habits, they can “rub off on you,” but someone’s bias is equally contagious.
Scripture is clear that people “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). The inference is that we don’t see the world (or ourselves) objectively. Rather, we see the world through lenses that often misconstrue reality. In a culture that shies away from talking about race, it leaves the “lens” through which we understand race (blackness in this case) completely unchecked.
This state of affairs leaves even the most fair-minded person vulnerable to equating blackness with deviance, violence, and lawlessness. While the American racial imagination is shaped by any number of factors, I’ve chosen to spotlight three “tutors” that have stoked the subconscious bias in each of us:
1) Family Background: Our family of origin teaches us more than we can imagine, including lessons about race. An example of this is a scene in the movie 42 when a confused young man watches the negative response of the crowd when Jackie Robinson jogs onto the field. His confusion at the “boos” of the crowd turned into a teachable moment when they were affirmed by the racial slurs hurled by his father. While your parent may not have used such words, this is a sterling example of how a single moment fosters a bias that might take years to overcome.
2) Movies: In general the movie industry plays off of stereotypes. When we don’t have genuine friendships that are capable of disproving negative movie caricatures, we are prone to internalize scenes from movies and begin to respond to those assumptions in the real world. In the end, we find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between stereotypes and reality.
3) The News Media: It is a well-recorded phenomena that crimes committed by whites are underreported, and those committed by blacks are over-reported and are statistically more likely to be accompanied by an image.
These three tutors, especially the third, continually teach viewers to associate dark skin with negative behavior. In a high stress situation, human nature is prone to revert to its most innate assumptions. For those who have been immersed in a culture that continually devalues black people, we all (no matter your race) must sort through our learned and unlearned assumptions about blackness. This is how an observer who is fresh on the scene concludes that a black man on the road with his hands in the air “looks like a bad dude” and “could be on somethin’.”
Although the voice of the man in the helicopter was not the person who pulled the trigger, we would be naïve to think that similar pre-judgments did not play into Terence Crutcher’s death, as well as other incidents in recent months. My prayer is that people from every race would honestly examine themselves and discover the ways that personal bias has shaped your view of others. Admitting to biases is not sinful, but ignoring them is, and the consequences could be deadly.