Bethami A. Dobkin: When unconscious bias becomes deadly

(Tom Fox | The Dallas Morning News via AP) Lynda Menefee, of Fort Worth, makes the sign of the cross after leaving flowers on the front sidewalk of Atatiana Jefferson's home on E. Allen Ave in Fort Worth, Texas, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. Jefferson, a black woman, was shot by a white police officer early Saturday, Oct. 12.

I almost missed it amid the barrage of an impending impeachment inquiry, stories of human trafficking in Utah and troop movements in Syria: news of Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old African-American woman, fatally shot through a window in her home by a Fort Worth police officer while she played with her nephew.

The officer, Aaron Dean, was responding to a neighbor’s call about the front door of the home being open slightly. Dean has been arrested and charged with murder.

It might be easy to dismiss this killing as a horrifying accident, disconnected from other police shootings of black citizens. Regardless of the similarities — or differences — between this and other cases, this one stands as a striking, sobering, even terrifying example of what can happen when implicit bias is paired with the sanctioned use of force.

Last month, Stanford professor Jennifer Eberhardt spoke on Westminster’s campus about her book, “Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do,” as part of our Bastian Diversity Lecture Series. She presented research about police training and asked audience members to participate in a sample session used by some law enforcement departments to uncover implicit bias. We were shown images of people identified as either white or black and asked to determine, as quickly as possible, whether an object individuals were holding was a weapon.

Without fail, and regardless of the race of respondents, people readily and quickly assume that black people are holding weapons rather than white people. We are culturally conditioned, from years of stories and images, to see some groups of people as more threatening than others.

When we endorse words or images that portray groups of people as suspicious, illegitimate or less than worthy of our respect, it infiltrates our assumptions and informs our actions. For those people with the means at their disposal, it can take a fraction of a second to act on those assumptions in ways that can be deadly.

The consequences go beyond immediate tragedy. For groups that are targeted, people who live with negative group stereotypes that permeate our words and images, the killing of Atatiana Jefferson underscores reasons to distrust the very social and political institutions on which they should be able to rely for equity and protection.

Any of us, depending on the context, might occupy one of those groups. All of us need to question our own assumptions about group identities and address the problems that implicit bias can create.

Our ability to work, play, live and love depends on our trust not only of those whom we know, but also those we don’t. Restoring trust in each other requires us to understand both the ways we have learned to respond to people we don’t know or understand and how those insidious implicit biases can creep into our actions.

Restoring trust in our social institutions requires holding people accountable not only for their individual actions, but for the policies and practices that allow biases to flourish.

Bethami A. Dobkin | President of Westminster College

Bethami A. Dobkin is the president of Westminster College, Salt Lake City.