Bias

In this photo taken by a neighbor Thursday July 16, 2009 Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Jonathan over at Catch a Fire has brought up the topic of racial profiling and the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr, an acclaimed historian, Harvard professor and PBS documentarian.  Jonathan claims:

“What I have trouble understanding is why the police officer found it necessary to arrest the Professor at that point. A little thinking and empathy on the part of the police officer should have told him to have the humility to accept the criticism and just leave it at that. My best guess is that the uniform went to his head and he flipped out on a little power trip. So I totally find the incident absurd.”

Jonathan readily sides with Mr. Gates and suggests that he believes the officer flipped out on a power trip.  Should we jump on the bandwagon or first take a moment to consider the alternate possibility?  Perhaps instead it was Mr. Gates’ status that went to his head and he flipped out on a little power trip himself?  Without considering this alternate possibility how can we be certain we are fairly representing the truth behind the situation?

Having not actually been there we will never know the true details of what happened, though it is worthwhile to hesitate from presuming one thing or another when a lack of evidence is available.  We can seek such evidence by further educating ourselves on the various accounts.  For example we can compare the event as described by the supposed leaked police report and the statement Harvard professor Charles Ogletree made on Mr. Gates’ behalf.  What is rather interesting is the rather stark contrast between these two accounts.  A contrast which suggests that the true history of the incident is blurred somewhere between the two accounts and indeed both interpretations are possibilities so it is very difficult to conclude without seeking further evidence.

What is most interesting and perhaps a more important question to be asked is not who flipped out but rather how we react to such stories.  Our history and experiences tend to guide our perceptions in one direction or another and we in turn end up seeking out information that confirms our beliefs while avoiding information that contradicts our beliefs.  In the field of cognitive psychology this is referred to as confirmation bias.

People holding strong beliefs that racial profiling occurs with great significance are more likely to side with Jonathan and see this incident from the perspective of Mr. Gates while those holding opposing beliefs are likely to see things from the opposing angle.  Which perspective we take guides what information we seek out to confirm our beliefs.  Unfortunately this does indicate that we can be biased when taking positions on nearly any issue and as such should aim to consider the impact of such biases can have on our perceptions in seeking truths.

In the situation of Mr. Gates it is very difficult to make a true conclusion one way or another without further evidence.  Even then a conclusion may not be available.  What is important when dealing with these issues is to always try to recognize areas where you could be biased and try to view things from the opposite perspective to gain insight from the opposing point of view.  By doing so you gain the ability to bring more balance and fairness to your positions and in turn could avoid persecuting the innocent or adding fuel to a bias which may not be fair or correct.

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6 thoughts on “Bias

  1. Hi Denis,
    I think you may have missed a nuance in my comments. While I agree in general that sure, I am inclined to lean towards racial profiling (and I see plenty of evidence of this in the USA as well as Bermuda), I was suggesting that the Gates case was more a stupid situation than racial situation.
    I have read through the rivalling accounts of the incident, and I do feel that Professor Gates is certainly milking it as best he can. What I have trouble understanding is the reasoning behind the police officers decision to arrest Professor Gates. I can quite easily see why Professor Gates was upset – irate even – about the situation, and I am quite sure this led him to accuse the police officer or racial profiling and all that. I am sure he was angry enough to even be insulting and raising his voice to the police officer. I am sure many other people in his situation would have acted similarly. My position was that the arresting officer should have been able to understand Professor Gates action and determine that while he COULD arrest him for insulting a police officer, was it really worth it? Practicing a little bit of empathy would have been the best action in this situation.
    You will note that I had a much bigger issue with the death of Shem Walker than I did with that of Professor Gates arrest. I agree that Mr. Walker’s death is not necessarily a good case of racial profiling by police, but my point was that racial profiling does exist in the USA (and here too), and why does it take a stupid arrest of a Black bourgeois to bring it into the focus of national and international news? Are the hundreds of daily racial harrassment by the police somehow not worthy of discussion? Is it because they involve poor and unimportant individuals of colour? Why is the Gates case so much more newsworthy? That was the thrust of my post.

  2. Jonathan,
    The thrust of my post was to encourage the viewing of things from multiple perspectives to gain a more balanced opinion.
    Did you happen to read the police report? From the Officer’s recounting of the experience, it was far more than just an insult. As I mentioned, the truth likely lies somewhere between each person’s suggestion and thus it is tough to reach a conclusion.
    As for what makes news what about what get’s people to focus on it? How about what gets people riled up? Racial issues like this get a ton of press when other issues are cast aside.
    Charles Payne put it quite well in an interview earlier this week
    “[What happened to Professor Gates] was dispicable. But I wonder in that same day how many black people shot other black people. How many black people sold other black people drugs. How many black kids dropped out of school. That’s what I want us to focus on, that should be the crux of what we are focused on. Then as we become better I think we can fight racism better.”
    Racism is an important issue but I’m concerned that in Bermuda there are many who put it at much higher importance than other important issues.

  3. Hi Denis,
    Yes, I certainly understand the need to think critically when reviewing the different perspectives of the same incident. That is – one would hope – a no-brainer.
    I totally agree that racism can get people riled up. I wasn’t disputing that in the least – my point was why did this make it to the newspages when there are no doubt much more serious cases of police harassing ethnic minorities in the US? I was highlighting the fact that more middle class people can identify with this Black bourgeois who is by all points educated and accomplished. However when it comes to a working class Black they would instead find excuses other than racial profiling – if they bother to notice it in the first place (of course the severity of the case is an issue here, as in Rodney King).
    And yes, of course one agrees with Mr. Payne that there are some massive issues in the US Black community (which he highlights) that need addressed. However these issues – like those of Bermuda – cannot be resolved without taking into account the influence of structural inequalities, including institutional racism, as well as class (and gender too for that matter).

  4. Thanks Sal. I don’t usually pull up stuff like that but I did this time just to see if you were on the mark again.
    And we wonder why out prisons are 99% white………

  5. In truth, underneath the thin veneer, Obama is just like Gates, Wright, EB, etc.
    Reverse racism…or simply stated, racism, as practiced by Obama himself.
    “I may be a little biased here, and I don’t know all the facts, but the Cambridge Police clearly acted stupidly.”
    Black cop in Gates arrest sends letter to Obama about being called an “Uncle Tom”; A black sergeant who was at the home of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. when he was arrested says he’s been maligned as an “Uncle Tom” for supporting the actions of the white arresting officer. Cambridge Sgt. Leon Lashley gave a letter to Sgt. James Crowley to give to President Barack Obama during their so-called beer summit with Gates on Thursday night at the White House. In the letter, which was also sent to CNN, Lashley says Gates “may have caused grave and potentially irreparable harm to the struggle for racial harmony.”
    The Politics of Reverse Racism in America
    http://english.pravda.ru/opinion/columnists/108517-0/

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