The Nightmare of Perceptions Clouding Reality

I no longer wonder why myths about there being more black men in prison than in college got so much traction…. Despite the statistics and credible studies, people quickly believe it. In fact, they will fight you on the point. In 2003, according to Justice Department figures, 193,000 black college-age men were in prison, while 532,000 black college-age men were attending college. And a reference to this study from a researcher at Howard University also disputes the myth.

eric1Yet folks are quick to believe it. Some are quick to believe it (and will fight you on the point) because they are racist and have a need to feel superior. But I think the reason most people believe it is because of unconscious bias. Even some black people have unconscious bias towards other black people. Consider this quote from Jessie Jackson…. “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life, than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” Quoted in Chicago Sun Times, Nov 29, 1993.

With weekly stories of police shootings of black men crowding out the commercials on our television sets, the current climate is stormy for many. And with black men recently shooting police officers, the storm is growing to hurricane proportions. Many are taking refuge in the words of politicians that conjure up sunshine in the hate hidden in unknown chambers of their hearts. In this current climate of increasing racial polarization, it seems imperative to understand unconscious bias.

Danalynn Recer of the Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE) explained it well in a recent post to the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association Listserve. This post is shared with permission. Ms. Recer said,

“I think you are assuming the thing that is to be proven — that whether or not police shoot is determined by whether or not the person they encounter actually does have a propensity to violence.

Evidence is mounting that it is the fear of expected behaviors rather than observation of actual behavior that sets off these events. Anecdotally, many of the recent video-taped incidents did not involve objective evidence of violent tendencies or objectively reasonable threat assessments.

More systematic evidence comes from several recent medical studies regarding how implicit (unconscious and unintentional) bias (as distinguished from racial animosity or superiority) changes what we think that we see and how fear changes the brain and skews our reactions. These instantaneous responses to heightened situations are happening at a primal level. The presence or absence of conscious bias or racial animosities is irrelevant and a red herring in the search for answers and solutions. There is an emerging body of data finding little to no correlation between articulated beliefs about race/ethnicity and actual responses to stimuli.

In one fascinating study where real cops were interviewed about their views on race as well as other issues and given psychological testing then placed in real situations using virtual reality goggles and green screens, a cop with explicitly racist views was actually better at de-escalation and slower to pull his weapon on a belligerent homeless guy waiving a bat than a young officer who bragged about his black girlfriend and whose conscious belief system was very “post-racial”. The avowed Confederate redneck talked the subject down and disarmed him without use of violence while the hipster dude gave the subject less than a minute to follow commands before he shot him three times in the head and chest. Exact same stimuli on the screen and in the room.

According to the study, the factor that determined which of the cops (all races/ages/types were studied) shot and how quickly they shot had nothing to do with their beliefs about the subjects (again all kinds were used) they encountered, but was correlated very strongly with their beliefs about themselves, their confidence, their sense of their own masculinity, their comfort making decisions within fluid situations, their need for control, the significance they placed on “respect” and their degree of insecurity about their own abilities.

That’s what controlled outcomes once a cop believed he was in danger.

But whether or not the cop perceived he was in danger in the first place was determined by unconscious associations, not conscious beliefs, regarding the images in front of him –which were all keyed directly to race.

A lifetime of immersion in stories, images, beliefs and assumptions that associate danger and violence and a lack of control with black and brown men imprints at such a subconscious level that even people of color score higher negative associations including crime, violence and danger, with images of black and brown faces than white faces (with no other info other than the face) on computerized implicit bias tests that measure instantaneous reactions unmediated by intention or rationalization.

Back to the original thread — it seems to be true that once an officer believes themselves to be in danger, their ability to manage the situation without loss of life is about them and not the subject, so, yes, all of us should face a similar risk at that point.

HOWEVER, whether or not the cop perceives danger has everything to do with unconscious associations regarding race. This happens at such a primal level we aren’t even aware of it, but it is very real and it means that — all else being equal — a person of color faces far greater risk of being killed by someone who sincerely, but wrongly, mis-perceives them as an imminent threat.

The good news is that most of these studies also show a significant improvement in the accuracy of our perceptions with “priming” by thoughts and words regarding fairness and racial equality. The thing is that most folks do not consciously desire to harm those of another race. In fact, most white folks are desperate to prove how non-racist they are. So when there is a conscious discussion or even thought regarding our aspirations toward racial equality (even something like a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on the screen for long enough to register consciously), those unconscious, implicit biases are measurably reduced for awhile. Apparently, though our conscious belief systems cannot override or correct our implicit biases, our intentional thoughts and aspirations can help bring our actual responses closer to the responses we would aspire to have — closer to the beliefs we articulate. Basically, thinking/talking consciously about how we want to act in the world helps to self-regulate even subconsciously. But it doesn’t last long.

So, one of the best things we can do for ourselves collectively is keep on talking about it — which also has applications in jury selection, BTW, as studies show getting jurors to affirm that they won’t take race into account (as stupid as that may sound) actually reduced their implicit bias and increased their accuracy in assessing facts. People want to be good. We just need lots of reminding to counter-act the racially-coded programming that bombards us from all directions…..

Thank you Danalynn Recer. That was very well said.

I think unconscious bias is even more pronounced when someone does not have interaction with certain people groups or interacts only with a small segment of a people group. For example, if a lawyer only interacts with African Americans who have been in trouble with the legal system, then that lawyer might develop some unconscious bias towards African Americans (biases that make the lawyer think African Americans have a propensity towards being involved with the legal system or a propensity towards violence).   He/she might think that African Americans are throw-away-able (“if he/she doesn’t get popped on this case, he/she will catch some time on the next case”). Such thinking might cause him/her to pressure someone into entering a plea on a questionable case (or might cause him/her not to work as hard on a case).

The problem with not interacting with a certain people group is that it limits the information we receive about that people group. We make assumptions about that group that are unwarranted because our opinions are ill-informed. I remember a story during a jury selection where a lawyer wanted to strike an older white woman who lived in Kingwood because he/she thought she wouldn’t be favorable to his/her minority client. But the client said, “No… I like her. She’s a house wife and probably sits around all day watching Fox News and distrusting the government.” Yeah, I know…. That reasoning doesn’t really make sense, but the lawyer went with his/her client’s desires and left her on the jury. Sure enough after the jury acquitted his/her client that juror was one of the main people in favor of acquittal and told the lawyers about how she listened to hip hop music and did not trust the police. The lawyers’ assumptions about her almost caused them to get rid of a good defense juror.

Likewise, other racially based assumptions we make about people are equally problematic. Much of the rhetoric in our current climate is troubling and is being fueled by unconscious bias. There are so many misconceptions. The following articles contradict some of the more notable misconceptions.

(White men have actually killed more police officer in 2016 (even including the two recent multiple homicides). White men commit the vast majority of violent crimes in America. The numbers on Crime Rates in the Black Community are skewed.


Make no mistake about it, we must stand against oppression and be resolved to fight against it at every level. But until we recognize unconscious, account for it and stand against it; we will keep waking up for the dream of equality with sweats from a nightmare.



About Eric Davis

Eric J. Davis is an assistant public defender with the Harris County Public Defender's Office. He has been a criminal defense attorney since 1997 and was in private practice prior to joining the PD Office. Before his defense practice started, he spent 3 years as a prosecutor honing his trial skills. He has tried over 100 cases to verdict as lead counsel, winning over 80 percent of them. In 2006, Mr. Davis received an "Unsung Hero Award" from the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. In that same year, he received the "Man of the Year Award" from the Houston Business and Professional Women's Association, and helped free a man who had been wrongfully imprisoned for over 18 years. In 2016, Eric received the "Mentor of the Year Award" from HCCLA for his continuing commitment to training lawyers.

In 2003, Mr. Davis received a commendation from the Texas State Legislature for his service as Special Counsel to the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Mr. Davis was lead counsel for the Commission to remove a judge from office who was mistreating citizens by wrongfully jailing them and addressing them in an abusive manner in court.