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As a police officer kills without consequence in Ferguson, let’s look at profiling, education’s silent serial killer for black kids

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

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NEW ORLEANS — It took 14 weeks for the Grand Jury in Ferguson to decide no charges will be filed against the officer in Michael Brown’s shooting. St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch noted that numerous eyewitnesses gave different accounts of what happened on August 9, 2014.

But we don’t need a jury to tell us that our perceptions “can mean the difference between life and death.”

The killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson evinces this reality.

If Michael Brown, and the other killings — of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride and Jordan Davis — haven’t convinced you, maybe the science of the mind can.

The Perception Institute recently released The Science of Equality Volume 1: Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat in Education and Health Care, a report that “details how unconscious phenomena in our minds – implicit bias, racial anxiety, and stereotype threat – impact our education and health care systems.” The Perception Institute consciously seeks to break the stalemate between our opposing racial views by deepening our understanding of our unconscious thinking.

Related: The painful backlash against ‘no-excuses’ school discipline

We literally need to learn how to change minds.

Protesters listen to the announcement of the grand jury decision Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed, black 18-year-old whose fatal shooting sparked sometimes violent protests. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Protesters listen to the announcement of the grand jury decision Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed, black 18-year-old whose fatal shooting sparked sometimes violent protests. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

When Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon issued a state of emergency ahead of the grand jury ruling on Darren Wilson, as activists practiced their non-violent resistance tactics in anticipation of a non-indictment, it became clear that concrete political and legal resolutions are not in the immediate future.

We need a new generation of civil rights leaders on the frontline. Ferguson is an uncomfortable place for the pampered usual suspects. Digging foxholes in an already militarized environment will give rise to a new generation of civil rights leaders, but that new generation will still need support (albeit from “safe” confines of the laboratory) in finding causes of racism at unconscious levels.

The aftermath of Ferguson also has the potential to amplify the unchanged narrative that predisposes our firmly held racialized perceptions of who and what is a threat.

But let’s be clear. Structural oppression suppresses black and brown lives. The neighborhood conditions in which poor, black and brown communities reside are taking away decades of life. Profiting from incarceration, limiting economic access to health care and restricting school funding through property taxes are the not so silent serial killers of black and brown communities. Tearing down systems requires the kind of radical responses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated more than 50 years ago. This is why Ferguson and new activist leadership are necessary.

And, we need to address the subconscious thoughts that help maintain these institutional barriers since MLK’s death. If our psychological walls fall, structural barriers are more likely to crumble.

So why do white people fear blacks to such a fatal degree?

Even the most ardent white Obama supporters who point to the first black President as the milestone of progress will clutch their purses when a dark, hooded stranger walks by. The Science of Equality points out that “[b]ecause of continued patterns of segregation, people are particularly likely to generalize from a single act committed by an individual member of a different race to the larger racial group to which that individual belongs.”

Our social vacuums incubate generalizations and we develop “automatic associations of stereotypes or attitudes about particular groups” – implicit bias. In mixed social situations, our racial anxieties betray us and we act differently than when we’re hanging out with our cultural relatives.

For boys of color and girls of any color, racial anxieties have a particular impact on academic tasks. The anxiety from potentially confirming a negative stereotype about her group’s academic potential degrades the performance on specific tasks. Stereotype threat reduces students’ performances on standardized tests.

It seems obvious, but the report rightly brings to surface that schools help maintain patterns of segregation. Intransigent racial demographics have been filtered through the colander of socioeconomic status. Schools are darker and poorer. The document illustrates how school settings are critical in shaping our vallances around race.

Related: Pipeline to Prison: How the juvenile justice system fails special education students

Mix re-segregated schools with the quest for closing the racial achievement gap and you have a recipe for racial anxiety and stereotype threat. Indeed, the black-white achievement gap epitomizes stereotype threat with the passively negative assumption that black should be equal to whites. (Students should reach their potentials.) Entire schools, districts and movements are infected this deficit thinking.

The Science of Equality inadvertently makes a strong case for school desegregation. With the constant efforts to carve out new high-income school districts and/or charter schools, it seems as if we’ve given up on the quest to desegregate schools. But add psychotherapy to the benefits of diversity. Diverse faculties and students disrupt the fertile ground for racial anxiety.

The Science of Equality also gives attention to disparities in suspension and expulsion data that do not reflect suspension-worth behaviors by black and Latino youth. In addition, the report highlights the biases associated with underestimating the ability of members of stereotyped groups. The study elucidates how white teachers often provide less critical feedback to students of color for fear the teacher may be perceived as bigoted. All the aforementioned behaviors stem from implicit bias and/or racial anxiety.

The good news is the report offers empirically based interventions that can alleviate implicit bias, racial anxiety and stereotype threat. Unfortunately, these interventions won’t bring justice for Michael Brown, or hundreds others who have died in anonymity.

We must implement a long-range strategy to honor those who’ve been killed in the blink of an eye and those who are lost through measured discrimination.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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