I have only seen the first of four episodes, and already, I am, like every Black person I’ve spoken to, utterly destroyed by When They See Us. I am experiencing a painful emotional cycle on repeat—I am infuriated, then deeply sad, then frustrated, and then…and then, at first I could not pinpoint the next feeling in this rotation. But just today it has come to me. I am feeling shame and remorse.
When They See Us is director Ava Duvernay’s beautiful recounting of the events leading up to the arrest and conviction of the infamous Central Park Five—the five African-American male children who were wrongfully convicted of the brutal rape of a female jogger in 1989.
I remember the case clearly. It hit the news when I was twenty-seven, a young lawyer who had spent much of her adolescent summers working in the Long Beach, California courthouse, aspiring to be a criminal attorney. I had grown up the child of a probation officer and a superior court clerk, and I’d clerked for the juvenile division of the public defender’s office. In 1989, when the news of this case broke, I was an educated, fully aware adult who believed she knew half-a-thing about the criminal justice system, including its underbelly—racial profiling, disparities in Black versus white arrests and prosecutions, etc.
And yet, I never questioned the arrest of my young, Black brothers. I never thought twice about how they were rounded up; or the likelihood that they were railroaded into those confessions. I can come up with all kinds of excuses about that era in New York or how differently criminal cases were reported back then—how limited the outlets and the viewpoints of the mainstream media. But there are no excuses for someone like me. I had the privilege and the advantage to know better. I had a vantage point that should have made me question, look twice, uncover the glossy surface. I only remember catching small bits in the news about the protests by folks who DID take to the streets in protest during the trials. But I didn’t seek those people out or question their motives. And while those boys were carted off to be incarcerated, one to adult prison, I did nothing but turn the newspaper to page two.
The implicit bias embedded in this nation’s psyche—that Black males naturally have criminal propensities; that they are not boys, so they cannot have ascribed to them the qualities of boyhood, namely innocence; that they are fundamentally less than and unworthy of a humanity that would afford them presumptions of innocence and a modicum of kindness-- those implicit biases are so pervasive that even we Black people start to assume them about ourselves. This is what oppression looks like, that you internalize the very bias, in this case racism, that keeps you and your people under siege. And in our desperation to escape the abuse ourselves, we use it against each other. But worse, even when there is no commission, there is passive assent. Passive assent is what I am guilty of—doing and saying nothing, failing to question and to look deeper. And in my mind, this is unforgivable.
I confess all of this to make the point about the insidiousness of implicit bias. As Stanford university researcher, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, points out in her book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do: “Implicit bias is not a new way of calling someone a racist. In fact, you don’t have to be racist at all to be influenced by it. Implicit bias is a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both the architecture of our brains and the disparities in our society.” We all function with these subconscious notions about the world and each other that affect our belief systems and how we treat and react to others. And there is nothing we can do to avoid some of the well-entrenched bias in our brains. Given this, the only thing we can do if we don’t want to suffer or cause suffering due to our bias, is to: one, acknowledge that we have them; and two, decide to break outside of the box bias creates in our thinking. Addressing our own implicit bias is not rocket science, its only awareness.
I am in no way implying that the players in the New York criminal justice system responsible for destroying the lives of those five men portrayed in When They See Us were only guilty of their own implicit bias. What they decided to undertake was much more deliberately evil and criminal. They set about to create a case where they knew one did not exist, and then they deliberately utilized those well-known biases about Black males against the most vulnerable among the larger group of boys that they summarily rounded up for that purpose. They quite literally exacted a premeditated fraud that was only made possible because they spun a tale that, due to pervasive bias, was acceptable to everyone involved, all the way up the legal system and out in the court of public opinion. They abused their power at every level, even using the boys’ own biases against them.
But who should be held accountable as the standard keepers for that process? Aren’t judges responsible for holding law enforcement to the laws that protect the innocent and maintain the integrity of the justice system? Aren’t they the last line of reason and protection? How did the judges in this instance fail those boys so utterly? How do judges continue to do so in the cases where law enforcement overreacts against unarmed Black men to fatal result?
It gives me great hope that a number of judges in my home town of Houston, Texas, are taking the issue of implicit bias seriously. The Harris County judiciary undertook initial implicit bias training this past Spring. In a session presented by American Leadership Forum Houston and led by the renowned john a. powell, of the HAAS Institute, four-hours of training provided an introduction and exploration of implicit bias and how an awareness could positively impact the work of the judiciary. Several judges expressed an interest in additional training. Because the last election brought us so many newcomers to the bench, this presents an opportunity for a record number of new judges to receive this training early in their judicial careers. The training undertaken by American Leadership Forum and Harris County judges is a powerful movement toward a more fair justice system and a validation of the importance of this kind of work.
The willingness to acknowledge that implicit bias exists in all of us is not a sign of weakness or an admission of wrongdoing. It is an embrace of the fact that we are human; that we have blindness and coping mechanisms that can interfere with how we treat each other; and those biases can have profound impact on others and ourselves, impacts that we can avoid with some awareness and effort to reconsider and redirect our assumptions.
I will suck it up and finish the rest of the When They See Us series. For me, it will be a form of penance. But you should watch it, too. The beautiful and artful hand of Ava Duvernay brings forth a portrayal that will sear into your memory the most excruciating cautionary tale about the profound and tragic consequences of letting our implicit biases rule us, and why it matters to look inwardly to reexamine what we think we know, and stop ourselves when we know better.