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IN THE MAIL: Facing the ‘stereotype threat’

by Kariem-Abdul Salaam —

Per your invitation to join in on the evolving conversation about African Americans and police, I am reminded of my junior and high school days growing up in the Walker Homes community near Mitchell Rd. High School.

At that time, Walker Homes resided outside of the city limits and was considered living in the county (or the country). We were patrolled by the Shelby County Sheriff’s department and most of the officers we knew by name, i.e., William Hughes, Willie Durham, and others.

A thing to note is these officers also lived in the community they served. Their children walked to school along with us. Some of them had spouses who taught at the schools we attended. As a result, for the most part, their relationship with the community was pretty good.

As I grew older, I begin to see that relationship somewhat deteriorate. I started hearing tales from some fellow high school students of being chased by officers after a football game or being caught and had to take some whacks across the knees with the blackjack.

One morning I woke to hear the news that a fellow student had been shot and killed by the police two blocks down the street from my house climbing out of a window at the neighborhood store on the corner.  We were not close friends, but I remember feeling so bad for his mother and his brothers and sisters.

I remember asking the question, “Did they have to kill him?” Was the food he was stealing worth more than his life?

As a young child, that experience changed my perception of police as friends to someone to be feared and avoided.

I think for many of us in the African-American community this type of perception brought on by traumatizing events has caused the evolution of stereotypes about police officers that appear to be real whether they’re “real” or not. The result is a sort of fear, a lack of trust and respect on both sides.

There is a phenomenon called “stereotype threat” that normally applies in an educational setting but if the theory holds true, I believe it can apply to other social and cultural contexts. Stereotype threat refers to the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender or cultural group. If I fear you have a perceived stereotype about me, there is a tendency for me to live out that stereotype.

I believe much of the tension and bad actions on the part of the police as well as African Americans today are a result of these stereotypes that have evolved to the point that they are being carried out on a large scale across the country and throughout the world. Changing the language is what has helped to deal with it in academic settings. Maybe the same approach will help in the broader community.

Imam W. Deen Mohammed coined the phrase that, “Words Make People.”

Change the words and you can change the thinking.

 

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