In 1999, Amadou Diallo, a Black African immigrant was shot 19 times and killed by white police officers after they fired 41 shots at him. The officers claimed afterwards that they thought Diallo was reaching for a gun when it was actually his wallet. Diallo had gone outside his apartment building to get some fresh air and officers believed he fitted the description of a man that was wanted by police for a serious crime.
Diallo’s killing sparked a series of studies to explore whether race played a part in the deadly response of the police officers.
In 2001, researchers set up an experiment whereby white participants were shown a photo of either a white or Black American face. Immediately after viewing the face, they were shown a photo of an object and asked to decide as quickly as possible whether it was a handgun or a hand tool (e.g. pliers). The results showed that the participants were quicker to identify a handgun and also mistook hand tools for handguns more often when the photo of the object was immediately preceded by a Black American face. Conversely, the participants were quicker to identify the hand tool correctly when the photo of the object was immediately preceded by a white face. (Payne, Lambert & Jacoby, 2002).
In 2002, another team of researchers had participants play a video game during which an individual, who was sometimes white and sometimes Black, appeared spontaneously carrying either a gun or a different, non-threatening object. The participants in the experiment were told to ‘shoot’ when the intruder was carrying a gun, but to press another key if the intruder was carrying a non-threatening object. The results showed that the number of times the participants accidentally perceived the object to be a gun when it was a non-threatening object was much higher when the intruders were Black compared to when the intruders were white. The results were similar for white and Black American participants, indicating how negative stereotypes can exist intragroup as well as intergroup. (Correll, Park, Judd & Wittenbrink, 2002).
Researchers concluded from these studies, and many others, that negative stereotypes of Black Americans persisted in American society despite a decrease in expressed racism.
But research is not needed to reach this conclusion. The chilling implications of negative stereotypes of Black Americans is self-evident. Despite only making up 13 percent of the US population, Black Americans are two-and-a-half times as likely as white Americans to be killed by the police. Black Americans are also about 1.4 times more likely to be unarmed in fatal interactions with police than white Americans are. This disparity is such that in eight US cities—including Reno, Nevada; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Scottsdale, Arizona—the rate at which police killed Black men was higher than the US murder rate. Forty-seven percent of unarmed people killed by the 100 largest city police departments were Black. These police departments killed unarmed Black people at a rate 4 times higher than unarmed white people.
Despite these horrific statistics, some white Americans argue that racism in policing is the result of a few bad apples and does not imply systemic racism. This is a falsehood. Systemic racism refers to the manifestation of racism across a society’s institutions and is reflected in racial disparities in wealth, income, employment, education, housing, medical care, the criminal justice system, and other social and political institutions. On each of those measures, the racial inequalities are undisputed. Black Americans are poorer, have lower life expectancies, lower educational outcomes, and experience discrimination in housing, employment, and medical care alongside racial profiling in the criminal justice system, compared with white Americans.
The death of George Floyd and the distress, horror, rage, and frustration that has followed is not solely about a handful of bad apples in the US police force. It is about systemic racism. Justice for George Floyd and for all of the Black American men and women killed because of their race, goes deeper than charging those directly responsible for their death. Although that is necessary for justice, it is not sufficient. Justice will only be served when being Black in America is not, per se, a risk factor for premature death by police brutality or otherwise.
Eliminating systemic racism is challenging. Privilege and power are enticing and efforts to dismantle a system that has advantaged a group of people are typically resisted by them. Racism denial is a manifestation of this resistance and is common in political and social discourse among members of the dominant group. Racism denial can come in many forms including the rejection of racial disparities and the derogation of marginalised and oppressed groups such as illustrated by President Trump’s use of the term ‘thugs’ when referring to crowds protesting the death of George Floyd.
Ultimately, dismantling systemic racism requires a transfer of power. In the absence of force, that requires that members of the dominant group, white people, use their privilege to empower Black American individuals and communities. At work, that means ensuring that Black American employees have an equal chance of achieving success. This starts before employment, ensuring equity in education, in healthcare and in housing. If you are a white CEO or senior executive and don’t have teams across your workforce including the leadership team that represent the diversity of your community and customer base and no real commitment to get there for which you are accountable, you are perpetuating systemic racism, irrespective of your expressed sentiments. Actions speak louder than words.
A final comment, but by no means any less important a message than that above, is that systemic racism is equally as relevant here in Australia as it is in the United States. Racial profiling in policing and deaths in custody are the lived experiences of Indigenous and African-Australian communities in Australia. My call to action for white Australian CEOs and executives is the same as it is for white American executives. Australia’s Indigenous and African-Australian communities are disadvantaged across our social and political systems. What are you doing to empower those groups? What else can you do?
To my Black friends and peers, I see you and I acknowledge your pain. I commit to understanding my privilege and bias, calling out racism at all times, and educating and engaging others to move towards a more equitable and just world where you feel safe, heard and empowered.