A few short hours before a jury would sentence former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger to 10 years in prison for killing her neighbor, Botham “Bo” Jean, Forbes published an opinion piece questioning whether racism played a role in Jean’s death.
In it, Forbes contributor Patricia Barnes writes:
There is no debate that Guyger should be held accountable for the senseless shooting death of an innocent man in his own home. To do nothing would strip a valuable life of its meaning and importance. But the evidence shows that Guyger had worked for more than 13 hours that day and was distracted by a conversation with a colleague with whom she was having a secret sexual relationship. She made a series of blunders, mistakes and bad judgments that had disastrous consequences. There is no evidence that Guyger killed Jean because he was an African American and it is unfortunate that the issue of racism was permitted to fester and inflame opinions in the case.”
In her analysis, Barnes completely accepts Guyger’s testimony as fact but fails to include factual evidence presented by the prosecution. For example, Guyger testified that Jean was a shadow, pacing in a dark corner of his apartment, an apartment Guyger wrongly thought was hers. Prosecutors offered evidence that countered this narrative, stating that Jean was sitting on the couch in lighting that was adequate enough for Guyger to have seen an unarmed Jean.
The jury believed prosecutors.
The intent of this post, however, isn’t to debate facts a jury has already decided. The point of this post is to discuss implicit bias (also known as unconscious bias) that is all too prevalent in news coverage today. The kind of bias that is well represented throughout Barnes’ opinion piece.
By definition, implicit bias refers to attitudes and stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. This is important because Barnes likely doesn’t recognize her own biases nor does she realize how damaging her opinion piece is, both in terms of damaging to the craft of journalism as well as her own journalistic credibility.
Barnes’ report is based on a truth, one she can readily relate to — that of another white woman — but not the whole truth. It leaves out other important truths, including the troubling true story of white cops shooting and killing unarmed black men. A truth steeped in fear of black people, black men especially.
Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Jean family representing them in a civil case, responded to Barnes’ analysis, albeit not in Forbes. In a note posted on his personal Facebook page, Merritt explains to Barnes why she doesn’t see race in Amber Guyger’s murder case. In short, he says it’s because of her own white privilege, a privilege shared by many of her journalist colleagues.
Merritt’s words demonstrate why Barnes’ piece is a perfect example of unconscious bias in U.S. newsrooms. Perhaps it also shows why Forbes never should have published the piece in the first place since it reveals the news organization’s implicit bias as well.
And because Merritt says it better, here’s his response to Barnes and Forbes:
Dear Patricia Barnes of @forbes,
You wondered aloud where race fits into the murder trial of Amber Guyger. I’d like to help you with that. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to author a lengthy opinion piece so let me just state the obvious:
– The pattern we have seen in police shootings of innocent people is white cop and black persons. Not all the time but more often than not and especially when they get off. This racial pattern is obvious and persistent. I encourage you to pull the statistic and do the math. Will help you as a writer not look silly.
– Also consider, you’ve adopted only Amber’s version of events. We all heard what she testified to. It was inconsistent with the evidence. In her version Botham was a silhouette pacing in a dark corner before charging her while her weapon was drawn. That’s not what happened. He was sitting on his couch in his adequately lit apartment when she opened the door, trained her gun on him and shot him to death. That’s why she was convicted of murder. She saw his black skin. He had no other weapon. We believe she weaponized his race … as Americans often do, particularly American cops. “Perceiving a threat” from black people doing mundane things is a part of the pattern we fight against.
– Whats more, Amber Guyger immediately bathed herself in white privilege following this shooting. She was literally surrounded by a blue wall of white supporters that protected her from interrogation and guilt. That’s an experience unique to white cops after committing murder.
– I could go on but here is the thing— you won’t ever find the racist issues at work in this case because “you don’t see race”. Like Amber you have black friends probably. You don’t mind that Amber wanted Dr. MLK to die a second time so she wouldn’t have to police a parade. You don’t care that she preferred not to work with black officers or hoped to pepper spray black citizens as they memorialized one of our black hero’s.
PS: Convictions of white cops are rare so I don’t expect you to know this but convictions make monetary recoveries more difficult for black families. We fought for one anyway because we want to see cops held accountable when murdering us.