Suspicious behaviors are often understood within situations and contexts. For example, George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin in part because environmental contextual cues shaped his belief of suspicious behavior. Trayvon, a young African American teenager, wearing a hood may have seemed out of place in a mostly White gated community. His behavior was viewed by Zimmerman within a situational context (gated community) along with Zimmerman relying on a common stereotype of Black youth being criminal and dangerous.
Likewise, Jonathan Ferrell and more than likely Renisha McBride, both African Americans were shot and killed because their behaviors, given the situational contexts and racial profiling, were viewed as suspicious. Both were reportedly banging or knocking on the doors of Whites looking for help and were shot, both Renisha and Johnathan were unarmed. Johnathan and Renisha were involved in car accidents and they were in altered cognitive states more than likely related to traumatic brain injury from the accidents. In Renisha’s case, she may also have been intoxicated from alcohol and marijuana use.
Suspicious behaviors are tainted by our perceptions of race and gender stereotypes. B. K. Payne, a psychologist and social cognition researcher, showed white college students a picture of either a white man or a black man, and then following the priming of either a white or black face then showed another picture of either a tool (pliers) or a gun. Students were more than likely to associate the gun when followed by a black face and the tool with the white face. The article concludes that it is hard to control racial biases under time pressured events. http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/gunbias.htm.
Instead of others perceiving African Americans as needing help we are often placed in historical and situational contexts.
We can’t talk about slavery, unemployment disparities, inequitable wealth distribution, gun violence related to unarmed shooting of whites to blacks, mortality rates, and a slew of other social and health indicators. As African American we are often met with derision when we try to share our sense of feeling unsafe. Our views of not feeling safe are sometimes dismissed as fabrications or that by wanting to talk about them, we are chastised for engaging in race baiting tactics by seeing race when racial issues may not be there. The racist logic goes something like this; Blacks don’t belong in certain neighborhoods, (read White), and if they/we find ourselves in these situations, we should not be confident in the ability of others, when under time pressure, to help us.
The problem with these responses is that science has repeatedly shown that negative, harmful, stereotypes of African Americans play a role in how we are perceived in private and public spaces.
If time pressure events lead us to act on our cognitive biases, then why not count to twenty the next time we face a supposedly suspicious and threatening unarmed African American?