Why Ferguson Reports Changed No One’s Mind (USA Today)
By Gregory Wallance
March 9, 2015
First impressions of blacks and of police set like concrete, no matter the ensuing facts.
Last week, the Department of Justice issued two reports, one on the killing in August of Michael Brown, 18, by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson and the other on civil rights violations by the Ferguson police department.
The first report concluded that criminal civil rights charges were unwarranted because Wilson acted in self-defense at a moment when, based on credible eyewitnesses, Brown posed a physical threat to him. The second report revealed that Ferguson police systematically oppressed blacks — in one incident, officers used a dog to attack an unarmed 14-year-old black boy and then struck him while he was lying on the ground — and its personnel routinely sent each other racist e-mails. Both reports were thorough, balanced, objective and credible. And the Justice Department reports have apparently changed no one’s mind about anything that happened in Ferguson.
Civil rights leaders reacted to the report on the Brown shooting as though a criminal had been let off the hook. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network stated that it was “deeply disappointed” that the Justice Department had cleared Wilson. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., was likewise disappointed that “Mike Brown’s killer” will not face criminal charges. Even though the Justice Department concluded that the physical and forensic evidence demonstrated that the iconic image of the tragedy — that Brown had his hands up when he was shot — didn’t happen, Michael T. McPhearson, co-chairman of the Don’t Shoot Coalition in St. Louis, nonetheless stated that “to me, he had his hands up.”
Law enforcement organizations, on the other hand, either cited the Justice Department report on the Brown shooting as a vindication of the police or declined to acknowledge that the Ferguson police department was a racist agency. For example, Ron Hosko, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and a former assistant director of the FBI, issued a furious statement condemning the Obama administration for “framing law enforcement as impulsive racists who value black lives less than others.”But nowhere did his statement acknowledge that the Justice Department report, in fact, had found “substantial evidence of racial bias among police officers and court staff in Ferguson.” The website of the National Association of Police Organizations, while long having displayed a “Myths of Ferguson” defense of officer Wilson, thus far nowhere acknowledges that blacks in Ferguson have real, deep-seated grievances against the city’s police department even if Wilson acted in self-defense.
The Ferguson shooting was a perfect storm of badly polarized first impressions from which neither side can extricate itself even though the first impressions are squarely contradicted by the facts set out in the Justice Department reports. Research in a variety of social contexts has long shown the entrenched power of first impressions over facts.
For me, several key themes emerge from this research:
- First, expectations influence perception, which is a key ingredient of first impressions. For example, prior experiences with a hostile boss can cause us to perceive hostility in another boss even when that might not be the case.
- Second, the less time we are given to make an informed judgment about a person, the more likely we are to rely on stereotypes based on appearance.
- Finally, first impressions are more negative when they are formed passively, for example, by looking at a photograph or watching an online video, than from personal encounters.
In the Ferguson incident, blacks understandably viewed a white policeman’s shooting of an unarmed black man with expectations based on longstanding bitter experiences with the police. As to the police, their expectations were based on the real threats they face daily and a sense of being besieged by hostile forces. The instant news reporting and commentary, thanks to social media and 24-hour “breaking” news cycles, did not allow for measured, informed judgment. Our information about Ferguson came not from personal encounters but often through online filters, often accompanied by angry shouting from both sides that reinforced everyone’s first impressions.
By the time that the Justice Department released its reports, the first impressions had set like concrete. It takes near superhuman humility, courage and self-honesty to confess that our initial impressions could have been wrong. Perhaps someday, a black leader will acknowledge that a white police officer might have acted in legitimate self-defense against a black man. Perhaps someday, a law enforcement leader will admit that police departments can be bigoted, racist bastions that oppress blacks and other minorities.
Sadly, that day has not yet come.