Less than two weeks ago Oklahoma police caught Eric Harris illegally selling guns. As Harris attempted to flee the scene, 73-year-old Reserve Deputy Robert Bates yelled out that he was going for his Taser. Within seconds a single gunshot pierced through the area and Harris dropped to the ground, his back bleeding with a gunshot wound.
Bates was caught on tape stating that he was reaching for his Taser, and did immediately drop his weapon and state “Oh! I shot him. I’m sorry.” Moments after the bleeding Harris had dropped to the ground, officers rushed up to him, pinning the dying man to the pavement. Harris managed to get out, “I’m losing my breath” when an officer replied by to him “Fuck your breath.” Eric Courtney Harris died soon that day at Tulsa Hospital.
One of the first issues to be discussed is the fact that Bates had allegedly confused his handgun for his Taser, raising questions about how often that sort of mistake happens. The police term for this type of a situation is “slips and capture” in which during a high-stress situation, an officer believes they are doing one thing while actually doing another. Even if we are to grant Bates the benefit of the doubt, that he indeed did not intend to kill Harris by shooting him, that doesn’t negate the fact that young black men are shot to death by police 21 times the rate of young white men.
Many of these officers that are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of black men do not necessarily have to be explicitly racist. Recent studies have shown that in those situations where there isn’t enough time for conscious decision-making, implicit associations, such as those based on race, can play a decisive factor in whether or not a gun will be fired. By using an Implicit Association Test, it becomes possible to see how people from various social backgrounds and upbringings will categorize people. In a similar test, participants were shown pictures of white and black men holding either a gun or a harmless item. The participants were then asked to select “Shoot” or “Don’t Shoot”. Both groups of participants, the community group and the officers group, were quicker to “Shoot” when the armed man was black than white.
Whether or not we realize it, biases still exist in our minds, whether consciously or unconsciously. Instead of simply marking ourselves as enlightened and tolerant individuals, it is our responsibility to try to acknowledge any preexisting categorizations and dismantle them. These studies reveal that racism does still exist in our society, even if it exists implicitly in most of the population. Of course, then there is the blatant racism that permeates through our nation as well, individuals who are willing to hold down a dying man gasping for air and say, “Fuck your breath”.
We cannot fall prey to the fallacy of optimistic determinism. Instead of waiting around with the supposition that time will slowly lead to progressive tolerance in society, we must remain mindful of the fact that social circumstances only get better as the result of the hard work and dedication of individuals. Don’t hold your breath waiting for things to get better, because before you realize it, it may be your last.
This article was written by Amar Ojha, founder and writer at dusk magazine.