I’ve been afraid of black men.
I’ve braced myself in the presence of unknown black men, felt myself ready for a potential attack even as all they threw my way was a head bob and a “What’s up, brother?”
That’s why I attended the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., in 1995. I needed to immerse myself in a sea of black men gathered for a cause of uplift so that I could alleviate dark thoughts I’d secretly harbored about men who wear dark skin — because I’ve been afraid of black men.
Because I’m a man who has feared black men, despite the gaggle of black brothers and cousins and black father and stepfather who lived in the same house I did and loved me — despite the dark skin I’ve worn since birth.
That’s why I know that the skin color of the police officer who killed Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte in a still-disputed shooting is largely irrelevant, just as it is in most such incidents, no matter what media critics such as Howard Kurtz think.
“Since the anger in North Carolina’s largest city is driven by outrage over a high-profile series of deaths of black men in confrontations with white officers, this would seem to be a highly relevant part of the story,” Kurtz wrote.
I know Kurtz is mistaken because I’ve battled an irrational fear of black men that has, misleadingly, been only attributed to white or other non-black people: Scott was in fact killed by a black officer in Charlotte last week. And a couple of days of violent protests in Milwaukee followed the August shooting of a black man by a black cop in that city.
My own score on the Implicit Association test (a test developed by researchers to test for unconscious racial bias) showed that I found it slightly easier to associate negative things with dark skin — like nearly 90% of white people and almost half of black people.
This is a key aspect of our ongoing national discussion about race that is too frequently ignored.
But it is because I’m aware of my own fear that I know that even “good” cops can kill unarmed black men and millions of non-deplorable people can find ways to rationalize every such shooting. Because the kind of bias that is most pernicious is the subconscious kind. It can seduce us into believing that as long as we think the right thing or try to do the right thing or be the right kind of person, our actions would never be negatively influenced by racist stereotypes.
I’m not a racist. I love people who wear dark skin like I do. I’m married to a black woman who chopped off her long dreadlocks for a short natural hair look, and am the father of a 14-year-old black son and a 12-year-old black daughter. I’ve studied the ugly history of race in this country to teach others. I’ve unflinchingly stood against bigotry and bias and racism in all their forms.
And, still, I’ve struggled with this self-knowledge.
That’s why I know it isn’t something you can pray away or think away or effectively corral without deliberative, purposeful action that must become second nature.
Anything less means that this type of bias won’t be defeated and will continue playing an important role in ugly confrontations between black people and police, no matter how perfectly the black man complies with commands or how closely the cop follows strict training guidelines.
Our country was founded in part on the belief that dark skin denoted inferiority and danger, a message with roots that are now centuries deep. Without systemic reforms designed to specifically combat implicit bias we will continue running in these circles, forever lamenting our fate.
Airbnb, though it is far from the finish line, is beginning to take such steps to fight the bias among some hosts that participate in the home-sharing service. The company is restructuring the way reservations are made and requests accepted. Orchestras combated gender bias in a similar way by switching to blind auditions.
And Drexel University Professor Adam Benforado in “Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice” laid out a series of reforms needed in the criminal justice system that could root out the implicit bias that has helped lead to racial disparities in convictions and sentencing.
Each of those efforts is being designed to make it harder for our brains to automatically rely upon the racist stereotypes floating through our minds that we often aren’t even aware of or pretend don’t exist.
But maybe the most important step is first acknowledging that an individual’s goodness isn’t enough to correct racial wrongs or prevent future injustices.
Because if implicit bias can affect a good black man like me, it can affect anyone — and corrupt every system upon which we rely despite our best intentions.