Guarding your Eyes: The Impacts of Unconscious Bias in Multiethnic Churches.
Author: Oneya Fennell Okuwobi
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On September 19, 2016, millions watched a video showing that Terrence Crutcher was tased and then shot after his car stalled on the highway. He lay bleeding on the ground unattended and later died. Although much uproar resulted from this video, watching black men die is nothing new. On April 23, 1899, two thousand people watched as Sam Hose was brutally mutilated and burned at the stake. We view our modern spectacle of death through dash-cams and cell phone videos rather than at celebratory gatherings, but there is continuity between the two phenomena. Posted in the interest of transparency, videos of police-involved shootings show intimate views of last breaths that will have devastating impacts for modern race relations. As we watch these men die, we dehumanize them and deepen our unconscious biases. In the context of multiethnic churches, these biases result in reification of racial hierarchies that threaten unity within the body.
To understand the possible consequences of these images of death, it is important to recognize that race is not an objective reality, but rather a created one. Race is used to organize social life in the United States by ranking various groups (Omi & Winnant, 1994). In this process, meaning and status are assigned to physical differences (e.g., skin color), not by natural distinctions but by specific action. For example, legal proceedings were used to determine now taken for granted definitions of race. Berkley law professor Ian Haney Lopez’s White by Law (1996) recounts suits brought by Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, and Syrian immigrants attempting to prove in court that they were white and therefore eligible for US citizenship prior to 1940. Various court cases were also used to assign blackness to those with any African ancestry, solidifying what is popularly known as the “one drop rule,” even as other countries developed more nuanced views of black and white.
The formation of racial differences can take forms much more gruesome than court proceedings. In the case of public post bellum lynchings, Fordham University sociologist Mattias Smångs (2016) has shown that these executions were critical “race making” events. These not uncommon occurrences were used to cement racial divisions at a time when freedoms granted after the Civil War could have threatened white superiority in society. The sentiment around lynching affirmed separation of whites and blacks into “us and them,” both politically through the strengthening of the southern Democratic party and legally through the advent of Jim Crow.
So what do lynchings a century ago have to do with our current state of race relations? Race was not created once and for all during slavery or during the time of legal segregation. Race has to be recreated in order for divisions and hierarchies that cast some as less than to continue generation after generation. Public displays of violence have effectively led to racial divisions in the past; the ways in which police-involved shootings of black men are portrayed today are recreating race via unconscious bias.
Unconscious biases are deeply held attitudes that affect decision making without an individual’s awareness (Banaji and Greenwald, 1994). These biases can be positive or negative. Importantly they have no relationship with the conscious attitudes or prejudices an individual holds. A person can consciously desire to treat all people equally, while in actuality treating persons differently by race, class, or gender due to implicit stereotypes.
A common bias is viewing Black men through the lens of criminality. University of Florida law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown (1999) coined the expression criminalblackman to express how myth meshed deviance and blackness into one. Even if you are too PC to actually cross the street at night when being approached by a black man, you probably consider it; this myth is to blame. This myth also makes boys carrying toys- like Tamir Rice and Tyre King- subject to the consequences of grown men. From the time of slavery, black men have been depicted as dangerous to justify violence against them (Alexander 2010). Each time a new video of a police-involved shooting is released, this process continues. If one is already stereotyped as a criminal, simply viewing him in an interaction with the police confirms that bias. Whether accused of a small offense such as selling loose cigarettes [Eric Garner] or a non-offense such as having car trouble [Corey Jones], the dead instantly bears the burden of culpability. This association recreates race by depicting black men as especially, and justifiably, policed.
Beyond the prejudices triggered through images of police interaction, further damage is done by the predictable response post shooting. News outlets and social media posts examine videos, criminal records, and eyewitness accounts, citing this evidence as police action is vilified or justified. The act of analyzing and arguing about the violent death of another image bearer dehumanizes the dead. A recent video has reimagined some images of police shootings with white victims instead of black to jarring effect. To the extent that it is acceptable to view a black victim and not a white one, race is recreated by making the death of one less tragic than the other. As our biases make black men less than human, it is small wonder that Blacks are nearly twice as likely to be killed by police when compared to Whites. Stereotypes of criminality and the process of dehumanization combine through the voyeuristic viewing of shooting videos, recreating racial hierarchies and maintaining a dangerous environment for black men.
Leaders and attenders of multiethnic churches need to be especially watchful of the impacts of bias within their churches. Multiethnic churches tend to handle race by subordinating racial identities to broader identity in Christ (Edwards, Christerson, and Emerson 2013). This enables churches to keep unity, but allows racial attitudes and inequalities already present in society to seep into church operations. Unexamined attitudes are not innocuous, on the contrary, unconscious bias actually has more predudicial effects on the behavior of those who view themselves as valuing all people equally than those who realize that they hold prejudices. (Gaertner, 1973). Not surprisingly, it is difficult to develop deep, reciprocal relationships where unconscious bias creates a barrier (Greenwald, Banaji, and Nosek 2015) To the extent that multiethnic churches are not discussing race, or the dangers of bias, these items remain beneath the surface, hindering the objective of unity.
In addition to unconscious bias, arguments about justification following shootings constitute a dynamic process by which attenders of multiethnic churches can unwittingly subordinate the needs of marginalized groups. Groups with high levels of power tend to avoid conversations that might threaten the existing order (Dovidio, Saguy, and Shnabel 2009). Deflecting questions about racial inequality and replacing them with questions about the individual obedience to law enforcement reinforces the power of dominant groups over people of color. When attenders of multiracial churches respond to police involved shootings without empathy, their power to do so recreates racial hierarchies in the church.
The solution is not to keep videos hidden. Transparency is effecting positive changes by refuting false reports [Walter Scott] and prompting needed prosecutions [Sam DuBose]. Instead, watchfulness is called for. Those who attend multiethnic churches can decide to guard themselves from the dehumanizing effects of these videos by refusing to watch them or argue about them. An alternative to repeated viewing is to mourn each death in solidarity with hurting families and communities. This action creates equality instead of hierarchy. In addition, applying debiasing techniques can be effective at combating unconscious bias. These include slowing down judgment and taking in images that are contrary to commonly held stereotypes. Finally, multiethnic churches should engage in open dialogue about race. This allows divisions below the surface to be made explicit. Examining these differences will result in a more durable cohesion between congregants than ignoring them.
Like too many black men in the past few years, Terrence Crutcher was shot and his death made public spectacle. If we can bear to watch him die again and again, we may have discovered one of the reasons why he did.
Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. 1 edition. New York: The New Press.
Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. 1994. “Implicit stereotyping and prejudice.” In M. P. Zanna & J. M. Olson (Eds.), The psychology of prejudice: The Ontario Symposium (Vol. 7, pp. 55-76). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
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Gaertner, S. L. 1973. “Helping behavior and racial discrimination among liberals and conservatives.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25: 335–341.
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Russell-Brown, Katheryn. 1999. The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment, and Other Macroaggressions. New York: NYU Press.
Smångs, Mattias. 2016. “Doing Violence, Making Race: Southern Lynching and White Racial Group Formation.” American Journal of Sociology 121(5):1329–74.