How Misconceptions Can Kill

Adam Waytz connects his research on the superhumanization of blacks to the Michael Brown shooting:

Wilson seemed to justify his infliction of lethal pain on to Brown precisely because he perceived Brown to be a superhuman threat. It is easy to feel good or indifferent about superhumanization because it seems to “elevate” black people, celebrating their strength and resilience. Some might even argue that superhumanization of black people is our earnest attempt to counteract sub-humanization of black people. But as the case of Michael Brown demonstrates there is a thin line between superhumanization and subhumanization. Both deny black people’s humanity. Therein lies the problem.

A Dish reader made a similar point yesterday. Bouie is troubled by how Darren Wilson described his encounter with Michael Brown:

Maybe Wilson was an ordinary police officer with all the baggage it carries. Maybe, like many of his peers on the Ferguson police force, he was hard on black teenagers. Maybe, like many Americans, he was a little afraid of them. And maybe all of this—his fear, his bias, and his training—met Michael Brown and combined to create tragedy.

If so, the lesson of Wilson is that he isn’t unique. That his fear is common. And that the same forces that drove Wilson and Brown to confrontation can—and will—drive another Wilson and another Brown to another confrontation with the same deadly results.

Emily Ekins hits the psychology books:

Academic research … tells us that more than a police officer’s conscious intentions may influence their judgments and actions. University of North Carolina psychologist Keith Payne (2001) conducted an experiment finding research participants were more likely to mis-identify a hand tool as a gun when they had to respond quickly, immediately after being shown the face of an African-American male rather than a Caucasian male. Particularly, white and male respondents were faster to identify guns when “primed” with a black face versus a white face.

This suggests that police officers like Daren Wilson may have genuinely believed their lives were threatened, and acted accordingly—but that their conclusions were unduly and implicitly influenced by their own stereotypes.