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Implicit Bias, the Thomas Theorem and Police Violence

Fear and Prejudice in Police Decision Making

Two articles that appeared in Vox, taken together, were very revealing with regard to the ongoing debate and protest on police violence. The first had to do with explaining the violent responses of police in the field. The second elaborated on a psychological phenomenon referred to as implicit bias. Both were revealing and, as is typical of Vox, not very radical in their approach. Read together against the context of contemporary concern about police over-reach, however, they could be very helpful in understanding police behavior without resorting to finger pointing and vilification.

The first article is, Why Police Officers Often Resort to Lethal Force as a First Response. The author, Dara Lind, attempts to help us understand police responses. After all, police have multiple, non-lethal tools at their disposal, including Tasers, pepper spray and batons. Why resort immediately to the gun? The answer is non-controversial. Police use their guns because they are afraid for their lives. Psychologists might suggest that there are few levels of fear registered by the human mind. To our psyches, those things that make us afraid are perceived, perhaps unconsciously, as threats to our lives. So psychologically, an offender with a gun, or an offender with a knife, may elicit a similar response. And certainly we can’t blame police officers for being afraid. Someone coming at you with a knife or gun or baseball bat is scary and, in a very real sense, life threatening.

According to police experts, though I haven’t seen the actual research on this, an officer or deputy has about two seconds to decide upon a response. Assuming this is true…though I hypothesize that it is not…then resorting to the gun over the Taser is the right decision. After all, you don’t want to be underprepared for a potentially life threatening situation. If more than a Taser is required, and all the officer has is two seconds to respond, then the gun is and should be the default weapon.

So why carry a Taser at all? Well, the article is not clear on this. Lind points out that the Taser was intended to reduce the probability of lethal force being used. However, according to this article, that has not happened. What has happened is an increase in non-lethal force being used. This seems counterproductive, but that is another issue.

The second article is called, Understanding the Racial Bias You Didn’t Know You Had, by Jenée Desmond-Harris. In this article, Desmond-Harris points out that we are all imbued with what psychologists refer to as implicit bias. Despite the psycho-speak, this is a sociological phenomenon. In short, our cultural understanding of subordinate groups in society (those who are not of the dominant group) imbues our assumptions about those groups. In the United States, this includes racial minorities, women, old people and the poor. Since these assumptions are intrinsic to our socialization, we don’t even realize that we are influenced by these biases. People may be convinced that they, “don’t even see color,” but they do. In the United States, they do.

Some questions then arise. Does a police officer’s implicit bias influence how he interacts with black suspects? Do police perceive black suspects as inherently more dangerous and threatening than they do white suspects and, therefore, more likely to use force, specifically lethal force, against them? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the answer to both questions is yes.

We can then address the interactive component of this issue. One should be able to predict that in communities with a history of racial disparities, poverty and adversarial interactions with police that negative perceptions will be mutually reinforcing. Police officers’ perceptions of black males in the community increase the likelihood of violence, which in turn influences how black males in the community perceive police officers. Black males who perceive police officers as motivated by racism or the abuse of power are more likely to resist arrest or to act belligerently toward the police, thus reinforcing the implicit bias of the officer.

This is where the Thomas Theorem, what people perceive as real becomes real in its consequences, comes it. Both sides perceive the other as dangerous, thus responding to each other in such a way to promote these preconceptions. As a counselor, when this happened between individuals, I referred to it as a conflict cycle. I see no reason why the same term cannot be applied to this problem.

So how does one end a conflict cycle? Ideally, both parties should come together and openly decide to end it. However, ending a conflict only requires one side to cease its part and the cycle must end. My rule of thumb is that the agent with the most power has the responsibility to end its part of the conflict cycle. In this case, that means the responsibility is on the police, as the legitimized representative of state power, the agent authorized to use violence, to end the conflict cycle. Policies must be negotiated between the police and the community, with the police taking the lead, that re-establishes the legitimacy of policing while protecting the rights, autonomy and dignity of those subject to police authority.

To that effect, whiny actions like the police turning their backs on Mayor DeBlasio just recently, only further de-legitimizes the police in the eyes of those whom they are expected to serve. It is my experience that crybabies don’t take it upon themselves to resolve problems. They only make them worse.

Discriminatory or Wanton Police Violence is Dangerous

To the Police

Note: I was planning this post for a few days, but in light of the despicable murder of two police officers in New York I feel that a caveat is in order. Violence is only justified in terms of self-preservation or protection of the innocent. And this only if no other options are available. Anger. Revenge. The target had it coming. Or, as a friend of mine once commented on social media, “it’s better to be tried by nine than carried by six.” These are not legitimate excuses for violence any more than is “he reminded me of Hulk Hogan and I was scared” or “a black teen in a hoodie must be up to no good”. The man who killed two police officers in New York yesterday, a man whom I speculate will be revealed as deeply troubled, is not in any way justified in his actions. Any future assaults on police, and I fear that there will be, are criminal acts. Period. They are not a legitimate form of resistance to police exploitation or discrimination. The following post should be read as a sociological analysis and a reason to solve the dissonance and anomie that exists between many police departments around the country and the communities that they serve. It is not a call to justify violence.

Max Weber defined the state as the institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force against a defined group of people. The police are the ultimate manifestation of this monopoly. It is the police who are assigned the task to actually perform the violence required by the state to assert external social control. For instance, if an average guy on the street approaches you, tells you to lean against a wall and then attempts to put you in hand-cuffs, you are probably going to resist. You are going to defend yourself. Whoever this person is, if you do not perceive that they have a legitimate claim to assert force over you, you are justified in defending yourself.

However, if that person has a badge, identifies himself as a police officer, even if you believe that you have done nothing wrong, you will probably submit and allow the officer to cuff you. In most cases, if you feel that there has been some mistake, you know that there are protections for you, so your life is not in danger. There are in place legitimate protections for your rights and a means of redressing any errors that might have been made. We are, for the most part, not in a Kafkaesque world in which one is guilty just by virtue of being arrested.

This legitimacy, in modern society, is predicated on a concept of the social contract that was born three hundred years ago and elaborated by highly regarded founders of modern thought, like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. We no longer talk much about this social contract and what it means, but it is implicit in our understanding of state legitimacy, and consequently in the legitimacy of state actions.

It is clear from the description above that this legitimacy is pretty tenuous. After all, what is the real difference between someone with a badge and someone without? Why is one perceived as a threat which must be fended off, while the other is seen as a valid agent of power, even violent power? That shroud of legitimacy isn’t very thick, and in many communities it is tattered and gossamer thin.

There is a certain amount of flexibility in the system. Communities do account for human error. We recognize that there will be times when violence, even deadly violence will be used inappropriately, be it maliciously or unintentionally. After all, the actors of the state are humans, subject to human error, misjudgment and frailty. When such incidents occur, there is outrage, but that outrage can be addressed and the social contract renegotiated.

However, when there is a clear pattern of long term and systemic exploitation of this social contract, when it is clear that power has corrupted the very agents responsible for its exercise, the legitimacy of the state as an institution is called into question. Racially segregated systems, such as the police force in Ferguson, or inherently exploitative policies such as ‘stop-and-frisk’ in New York will, without redress, undermine the understood legitimacy between the state and people. Patterns of abuse will manifest in the citizen as an expectation of abuse. Then, when asked to lean against the wall and put my hands on my head, I may feel that I am threatened, that my life is in danger. That this exercise of power is not legitimate. I may be inclined to fight, to defend myself or my family as is my right. The authority invested in the badge is validated by the legitimate exercise of state power. Once that legitimacy falls, the badge is nothing more than a thin piece of metal, and the holder is no more subject to deference than anyone else on the street.

That’s why it’s incumbent on the police and on the state to protect that legitimacy. Being a police officer is difficult enough. Without this shroud of legitimacy, policing becomes impossible regardless of how devoted and altruistic the motives of the officer. We must understand that the relationship between the community and the police is an ongoing negotiation. Without open negotiation and a fair and just process for redressing grievances, this negotiation must become adversarial. Adversarial interactions ultimately take on an in-group/out-group manifestation. Each side becomes socialized to believe that it is “us against them,” and consequently, each side entrenches itself for conflict. Interactions become increasingly adversarial, and, consistent with the Thomas Theorem, this contentious relationship shapes and reproduces future conflicts. This is known as a conflict cycle.

We see this in black families who feel obligated to teach their children, especially their boys, how to “survive” an encounter with the police. Clearly the social contract has broken down. Re-establishing that social contract must be the priority of activists and police forces alike. That being said, police, being the representatives of the state and state power, are charged with the responsibility to take the lead in these negotiations. The police represent the state when they pick up their badges and don their uniforms. Consequently, it is the responsibility of the police to serve the community, not to oppress it, regardless of the circumstances, to preserve the validity of the relationship. If that shroud is torn, it is the state’s responsibility to start the mending process.

Added: That’s why I was deeply disturbed when I read the response from the head of New York’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, in response to the shooting. “There’s blood on many hands tonight—those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protests, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.” Comments like this only build walls between the police and the community. More walls are not needed. More doors are needed.

The community counts on the police for protection. The police require the legitimacy of their station as public servants licensed to do violence under very specific circumstances. When that relationship breaks down, as it has in communities all over the country, then both the community and the police are in danger. A state of anomie exists that can be exploited by the unscrupulous both at the community level, the police level and the level of the state. This is the nature of the protests (there is no “guise.” There is legitimate outcry against abuse). Those who believe that this crisis is over Mike Brown or Eric Garner or any of the hundreds, even thousands of victims (not all of whom have died) of police exploitation and abuse, misunderstand the nature of this issue. This is about delegitimizing patterns of systemic exploitation and corruption.

The fact is that the tenuous legitimacy of the police as a valid representation of state authority has been undermined by years, sometimes generations, of abuse. The killings of unarmed black suspects are only the clearest manifestations of that abuse. The increasingly militarized precincts throughout the nation represent further entrenchment and greater dissonance between the police and the communities they serve. Added: If there’s blood on anyone’s hands, it’s on the hands of those like Patrick Lynch who perpetuate an ongoing conflict cycle. It’s on the hands of those who profit from and exploit this dissonance, be it looters or weapons dealers.

It is clear that this breakdown of the social contract is dangerous to members of the community. However, it is also dangerous to the police—even to the great majority of officers who conscientiously serve.


Addendum: Condolences to the family and loved ones of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

Police State Violence on Peaceful Protesters in Berkeley

“Who do you protect!”

Heard from the crowd being attacked by militarized police, “No one is attacking you all. You are not in danger in any way. We are in danger from you.”

Isn’t the police motto “to serve and protect?” I guess we should be more specific with whom is being served and protected.

Prejudice and Obama’s Politics of the Possible

Thank God for those who ask for too much!

This article in The Guardian highlights why it is so difficult for the left to support and sustain President Obama and the Democratic Party. It is the reason why liberals will often not show up for a party and a president who has clearly turned his back on his base—until election time when he applies soaring rhetoric to issues of social and economic justice just long enough to get our hopes up. Since 2009 the left has been left in the dark while President Obama exercises his “politics of the possible” strategy.

On one hand, this pragmatic strategy has fostered some significant gains, healthcare reform, finance regulation, a stimulus. On the other hand, experts agree that Obama’s accomplishments, as significant as they are, just don’t go far enough to level the playing field for the average person who is still experiencing falling wages and floundering prospects for the future while the one percent thrives.

More significantly, every compromise made by Obama and the Democrats to get something done—anything—has made it more difficult to take the next step and to build on small victories. Policy technocracy without vision has eroded the Democratic base, the faith of those who are desperately looking for a voice in what is supposed to be their government.

Sometimes, good enough is just not good enough.

So here were a group of people standing tall before the leviathan of state oppression, teargased, threatened, targeted, meeting with the most powerful man in the world and yet they had, “no faith in anything, church or state.” These are the people abandoned by the politics of the possible, standing on the wrong end of a badge and a gun with bloody examples of what can happen when someone, anyone, runs afoul of state power. Your body will be left in the street, you will be strangled to death, you will be gunned down in a retail store, a plastic toy next to your corps, you will somehow shoot yourself in the chest while handcuffed behind your back…and there’s not a damned thing you can do about.

Justice is nothing more than a slogan pressed into a blood-stained badge.

What does the most powerful man in the world have to say to people who are struggling against state tyranny and injustice for their very survival and for the prospects of their children? According to representatives of the many movements taking place around the country who met with the President, “He cautioned us against demanding too big and stressed gradualism. He counseled us that the wheels of progress turn sluggishly and reminded us of the progress that got us to this point: a room full of black folk in the Oval Office.”

The progress that got us to this point? Does he mean communities of color all over the nation who fear at the presence of the police? Is that what Obama is claiming as progress. That’s not progress. This issue was already put to the test and the good guys won. That’s what all the high school American History textbooks say! This isn’t progress. This is, at best, standing still; at worst it’s regression to the Jim Crow days and Black Codes that were supposed to magically disappear into the ether when good white people passed the Civil Rights Act.

What is this community asking for, what is all sympathetic people with any sense of humanity and justice throughout the world asking for that is “too much?” What are all oppressed people around the world demanding that has not already been determined as their right? It should not be considered too much to ask that my children not be gunned down in the street by representatives of the state.

That this gradual progress lauded by Obama can bring us to the point where a black man can get an Ivy League education and become president of the United States while at the same time leave communities of color living in fear while the death toll of black men to police issue ammunition continues to rise is proof positive that Good Enough simply isn’t good enough.

President Obama has proven to be a “good enough” president. I have personally defended him as such. Our times, however, require a great president, someone who is will to fight for what are universally recognized rights that used to be the foundations of the New Deal Democratic Party so long ago abandoned to the politics of the possible. Freedom to Speak. Freedom to Worship. Freedom from Want. Freedom from Fear. Nobody disputes the validity of these four freedoms, yet President Obama and our current political anomie, cynicism and poll counting, would have us believe that demanding basic human dignity is simply asking too much.

Thank God for those, like Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Howard Zinn, Cornell West, Noam Chomsky and these good people who met with the President on this most pressing human rights issue, who have the wisdom and the courage to ask for too much.

Framing and Unframing Prejudice

My Response to a so-called Heartwarming and Hopeful Photo



My initial reaction to the now famous image of the Sgt. Barnum hugging twelve year old Devonte Hart was probably much the same as everyone else’s. Finally, something good, something hopeful, emerged from the dust of this horrible tragedy. It’s a perfect photo at the perfect time, after all. It’s exactly what we wanted to see. Healing.

Unfortunately, it isn’t what we need to see.

What we need to see is infinitely more complex and insidious. What we need to see is something that cannot be fixed with a hug.

First, Ferguson and now the Garner case and the multiple instances in which African Americans have been victimized by those very supposedly charged with the task of protecting us from the victimizers have gained notoriety in the press. It’s not like this race and class based oppression is anything new. It has simply gotten a voice by an active and angry community and a press that understands that, at least for now, this story sells advertising space.

On the other hand, it is part of the media’s latent function to support the status quo, to allow the foundations of privileged society to be shaken only enough to perpetuate the legitimacy of the press, but not enough to threaten the legitimacy of its elite patrons.

So, yes, the press reports on this issue, but at the same time does everything it can to turn our attention from the real issues, the true, damning reality that ours is still an oppressive, racist, exploitative and barbarically tribal society and that the victims of this barbarism cannot be kept down forever. Nor can they be pacified with a hug. So the press simplifies the story, frames it as a conflict between a man who happens to be white and a man who happens to be black…who may have had it coming to him anyway. Yes, Michael Brown was unarmed and shot dead because, as Officer Wilson admitted, he was big and scary. Cut to the video of Michael Brown being really big and scary, stealing little cigars from a store. Look at him. A big, black man pushing around that little store owner.

Sure, protestors are in the streets, facing a militarized police force, demanding redress, demanding justice. But look, here are some of the protestors looting a store! Look at the burning police car. How are the police supposed to protect us if stuff like this is allowed to happen?

Oh, look over here. Here’s a white person that was victimized by a black person. Yes, the black person was arrested and convicted and, because he’s black, received the highest possible sentence and will, because he’s black, more likely serve his sentence in full, and will, because he’s black, be subject to more stringent discipline while incarcerated, but never mind that. The point is that white people are victimized too, but you don’t see us rioting in the streets.

And don’t forget black-on-black crime. Nobody’s talking about black-on-black crime.

Now, look at this picture of a cop hugging a little black boy. See. Not all cops are bad. How unfair it is to condemn all police for the actions of a few bad apples. A few bad apples who will never even come to trial for their bad apple actions, but I’m sure there’s something else to look at.

In fact, look here and there and everywhere. But whatever you do, don’t look at the larger, more entrenched, more complicated issues. Keep buying our papers, but don’t take what is revealed too seriously. Let us, the fourth estate, do the thinking for you. Here’s a nice, feel good, picture.

Ironically, the larger issues are revealed by a closer, narrower examination of this now iconic image. Take a closer look at Devonte Hart. Look into his eyes. That’s where the story is. I’m sure that Sgt. Barnum is a nice guy and a good cop. Kudos to him for the role he has played. But the truth of this image is in the eyes of a twelve year old kid—a twelve year old black kid, because, let’s face it, it is imponderable that we would see this image, this expression, in this context, on a twelve year old white kid. Outside of the racial context, this image is meaningless. It is the fear, the hopelessness the uncertain yearning for security and stability mingled in the tears of Devonte Hart that is the real story.

The protests, the anger, the riots, the social anomie that is the outgrowth, is not about Michael Brown, or Eric Garner or any of a number of individual victims who have suddenly become newsworthy. It’s not about good cops or bad cops.

The real story, the story we need to see is that represented in the eyes of Devonte Hart. This is where race and class intersect with exploitation and oppression. Where prejudice and racism is incorporated into our social institutions, integrated into our perceptions through generations of social learning, the result will always be the construction and legitimization of the victimizer’s actions toward his victims. The norms that guide our behaviors are the result of hundreds of years of history and social processes. Officer Wilson’s interactions with Michael Brown were almost foreordained. A white cop, ingrained with the knowledge that his authority is to be respected, that black skinned suspects must be put in their place. A black male, knowing that he cannot expect justice from the police, must negotiate a tenuous sense of self and manhood between the conflicting and ubiquitous fear and anger. A community, wanting for economic and political justice, understanding that the police, the elected officials, the so-called justice system, does not exist for their protection. The badges and the guns are there to protect communities that matter, white communities, wealthy communities, from them. If that means a de facto death sentence for shop-lifting, or for just being big and black for that matter, so be it. The result is another black man, laying in the street, police bullets invading his body.

No more! We will take this no more!

Respect law and order despite the incessant disrespect that the law shows for you?

No more!

Protest peacefully despite never living a day in peace?

No more!

So when we look into Devonte Hart’s eyes, we must recognize that he is looking into his own future. We must try to see what he sees, and understand that there is more to this story than a cop hugging a boy or a victim slain. This is the story of oppression, exploitation, the systematic targeting of a community and the theft of Devonte Hart’s future.

That is the real story revealed in this image.


The Privilege of Silence: A Sociopoetic Observation on Race

How Privileged it is to Never Have to Think About Race

I’ve always thought that there’s a great deal of poetry in the practice of sociology, and perhaps an even greater influence of the sociological imagination on the practice of poetry. I’m also a big fan of open mic poetry. So when I find a gem like this, that so richly presents sociological insights through poetry, I just have to share.
I discovered this gem within a gem. Namely, the website If you’ve never been there, it’s an absolute must visit.
Here is Adam Falkner’s The Definition of Privilege