DRIVING WHILE BLACK – IMPLICIT RACIAL BIAS AND THE SAFETY OF BLACK MOTORISTS

After watching the dash-cam video of the shooting of Philando Castile by police officer Geronimo Yanez, I was extremely shocked at the composure and calmness of the late Castile and his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds whilst the trained police officer sounded and acted very much uncontrolled and panicked. This one incident, which has been watched many times over the past year, is really sad and concerning. As a black man I have been stopped many times usually for some traffic infraction and usually get a ticket and occasionally a warning. One of the few times when I got a warning was when I was stopped in s situation similar to the Castile killing. In 2004 a white officer in LaGrange Park, IL stopped me for speeding. I was then driving with my wife while my stepdaughter slept in the back seat. I cannot say why I received a warning on that day whilst Mr. Castile ended up getting shot.  That was the first time I received a warning rather than a ticket for a traffic offence. Maybe it was because nobody had reported a burglary when I was stopped or because I did not report I was carrying a licensed firearm or just maybe my cop was a lot more experienced than Geronimo Yanez and realized that a black man or for that matter any man with his family is less likely to create a situation that could put his family in danger. Another factor may be the neighborhood, maybe Falcon Heights, MN was just more exclusively white than La Grange Park, IL and as such a black person in Falcon Heights would garner more suspicion than in La Grange Park. I have discussed this issue with a lot of people, most of them being black like myself and the consensus was that Philando Castile died for only one basic reason, he was driving while black.

This is a situation while being common and easily identified has roots that go so deep that we continue to have problems with this irrespective of the extensive training given to cops. There have been many other incidents involving cops and unarmed black people usually men, that suggests that just training is not enough. Blacks in America have dealt with a lot over the centuries from slavery to institutionalized racism and Jim Crow laws. Today we are dealing with racial prejudice and a more insidious cancer; implicit racial bias. The problem with dealing with implicit bias is the fact that the person acting out this behavior directed by his or her biases fails to recognize that their actions are based on racial bias. In a recent episode of the podcast Invisibilia a white man who had an adopted black daughter reports catching himself act in a way that he had warned his daughter she may be treated just because of her race [1]. This gentleman realized what he was doing because he is the father of a minority child and re-evaluated his actions. In the real world unfortunately most of us just act out our biases without any thought of what we are doing. When asked if we acted that way because of race we would most probably genuinely say no.

On account of the multiple traffic stops with disastrous outcomes involving minorities Stanford University started a project called The Open Policing Project to study this problem[2]. Since 2015 the program began requesting data on police traffic stops from across the country. To date, the project has collected and standardized more than 100 million records of traffic stops and search data from 31 states. Twenty states provided enough detail in their data to allow statistical analysis to determine racial bias in policing. The findings of this project that I present below is based on data from sixteen states; Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin does suggest some racial bias policing. The Open Policing Project data suggest that Blacks tend to get stopped more often than Whites whilst Hispanic are stopped at about the same rates as whites (see the graph below).

Figure 1 – STOP RATES BY RACE

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The researchers also went on to look at search rates after a stop and in this case it appears that both Blacks and Hispanics motorists who were stopped were much more likely to be searched compared to whites. This can be clearly seen in the graph below in Figure 2 showing that white motorist were searched in less than 6% of stops with the exception of one outlier whilst Blacks and Hispanic searches ranged all the way up to 10% of stops.

Figure 2 – SEARCH RATES BY RACE

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The above graph though did not account for what factors cops were using to determine whom to search. It is possible as in the case of Trayvon Martin who was deemed suspicious by John Zimmerman because he was wearing a hoodie that the black and Hispanic motorist just plain appeared more ‘shady’ if I should use the term than their white counterparts. To account for that the researchers used a threshold test, which is a modification of a model, proposed by Gary Becker an economist for studying racial bias in policing in the 1950s. This model used the interplay between search rates and positive search outcomes to infer a threshold for search used by officers. When this test was applied to the data it suggested that tens of thousands of searches of minority motorists would be avoided if traffic cops used the same standards for searching whites as they did for minorities. As can be seen in the graph below White search thresholds are definitely higher than Black and Hispanic search thresholds.

Figure 3 – SEARCH THRESHOLD BY RACE

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There is always going to be a lot of debate on this issue because other studies done looking at racial bias in policing failed to find any bias. Overall though most people of color and some whites will tell you they do not need any fancy analysis to know that there is bias or discrimination involved in policing. The negative impact of these biases and discrimination can be very clearly seen in cases such as Philando Castile or Sandra Bland who ended up dead after such a stop. For a large majority of motorists though these stops may be just a nuisance. What however needs to be addressed is the fact that on account of ingrained or implicit bias our law enforcement machinery is being used as a tool for racial discrimination against minorities. This is something that has to be addressed by specifically by our justice system and the society at large.

 

References

  1. National Public Radio (NPR) (Producer).(2017).  The Culture Inside: Alix Spiegel [Audio Podcast]. Available from http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/
  2. The Stanford Open Policing Project 2017, The results of our nationwide analysis of traffic stops and searches. Available from https://openpolicing.stanford.edu/findings/

     

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Prevention saves lives – Meningitis in a resource constrained setting -by Dr. Teddy Totimeh – A physician in Accra, Ghana

Four students have died. One after the other over a ten day period. And the diagnosis is only certain now, after they died. In a country with 5000 doctors, multiple teaching hospitals, a Ministry of Health, and a Health Service, this is not acceptable. Especially if the country has had 60 years to build a system. It is not right. If there was a war going on, it would be excusable. If there was famine, civil unrest, natural disaster… maybe, this would be easy to ignore. Not in this Ghana. Not at this time.

On the other hand, considering that there are 2 newly built, multimillion dollar, appropriately commissioned centers of excellence in the same city waiting for medical staff to start working in them months after completion; and that there are 3 hundred physicians newly trained, who have been sitting at home for six months unemployed. There are municipal hospitals in regional capitals run almost completely by physician assistants… it is not surprising, that 4 students will die, in rapid succession, and we have no idea why.

And in 2017, we are able to yield our intellects to rumors of spiritual deaths, and panicked desertions of schools, distributing potentially infected patients, unscreened, into the wider society without prophylaxis. In 2017, we still have no way of anticipating the meningitis season, and vaccinating the vulnerable populations in the endemic areas, and educating them so that if students in crowded dormitories in these areas present at the hospital with fever and chills, there is someone there prepared to make the diagnosis and administer treatment.

And we have a media, with reporters, repeating the theories debunked decades ago, about heat causing meningitis. We have communication departments in the Ministry of Health, Ghana Health Service, Ghana Education Service and there is not a single public service announcement on meningitis. And four students have died already! We have a media blitz on galamsey (illegal gold mining) and our impending water deprivation, and not a single poster on meningitis in the meningitis season, so that whoever first saw those four could have resisted the urge to dismiss the students as malaria infected. It was BBC which broadcasted the tens of deaths in nearby Nigeria, just weeks ago. It was BBC which informed listeners about a new strain, that had become more virulent in this epidemic. We have media that monitor the global news. We have strategists who follow the infectious disease trends. And not even the multiple deaths in the country next door, could alert us.

Four students have died of a preventable disease. And no one will resign, no one will take responsibility, not the headmaster, not the nurses at the sick bay, not the physicians who missed the diagnosis, not the governmental agencies who did not inform. No one will step up and say why this should not happen in a civilized country, and why it should not happen again because something can be done about it.

Four students have died. And this week the students have come back to the school in their numbers for academic reasons… some exam coming up. And someone in leadership at the school is on radio, and acting surprised that the students actually turned up. And I have not heard anything about the screening that is supposed to have started as the students started turning up, or the vaccines that are being arranged to be transported to the locality, or the strain of bacteria that has been isolated, and if it is the same as killed scores in nearby Nigeria.

And 4 students have died already.

 

Posting from Teddy Totimeh a colleague working in Accra, Ghana

The holistic physician

I recently read a book by Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz a UCLA cardiologist who also happens to be a consultant for the Los Angeles Zoo. In her book ‘Zoobiquity’ Dr. Natterson-Horowitz demystified the story of HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) transmission from monkeys in West and Central Africa to humans. Most doctors today including me have a very limited knowledge of zoonosis the science surrounding bugs that can be passed from animals to humans and can be totally unaware of the extent to which we share pathogens with our animal neighbors.

After reading about rabbit syphilis, Chlamydia in Koalas in Australia which almost threatened to totally wipe out these small cuddly creatures, and Trichomoniasis in T. rex, I could say nothing but agree that SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus) from the chimpanzees to humans was not that fantastic a tale after all. Of course if Trichomonas has moved through the different species from as far back as the time of the dinosaurs to now infect both pigs and cats what stops SIV a close viral relative of HIV from expanding its real estate empire to include humans. We humans are after all are the most dominant specie on earth and as such we are a very attractive real estate acquisition for any bug.

Today HIV is a worldwide pandemic affecting almost every community in the world but it is believed that prior to its journey to the western world the virus had affected various communities in West and Central Africa for several decades. HIV-1 the commonest HIV subtype in the US and many western countries is believed to have entered the United States by way of Haiti. This is based on molecular genetics which shows close to 99% similarities between the gene sequences of viruses from Haitian patients compared to US patients. In the early days of the epidemic HIV had been known to be associated with the 4 Hs, Homosexuals, Hemophiliacs, Heroin Addicts, and Haitians. Unfortunately on account of the stigma associated with HIV, my Haitian colleagues did not look too pleased when I mentioned this on a recent visit to Haiti as a visiting faculty.

Today more than 30 yrs after I read the Newsweek headline on AIDS in 1986 which featured Rock Hudson’s declaration that he was gay and had AIDS the stigma still persists. In this era of good life sustaining treatment though, the terror and fear that made most people treat individuals known to be HIV positive like lepers has abated. The stigma still persists and in many cases makes efforts at prevention very difficult. This is a stigma that I can understand based on how society addresses sexuality.

Sexuality is humanities biggest double standard; whilst most of us are sexually active getting a sexually transmitted disease is considered a social taboo. Somewhere between our birth and early adulthood we somehow conveniently forgot that if sex really was so nasty we will be extinct as a race.

To adequately address this issue we should all start working hard on our skills in talking about sex clearly and effectively with our sexual partners and doctors. From my experience most doctors do not mind talking about sex with their patients but may still harbor some misconceptions that may sometimes make it difficult for them to start the conversation. More often than not doctors are trying to gauge patient’s comfort level instead of just realigning themselves and their patients and diving into the conversation. If a patient starts that conversation though most physicians are always happy to talk to their patients about this most important aspect of their lives. Conversations about sexuality and sexual issues if done well will open doors to preventing STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) and HIV. Doctors can only know how best to treat a patient if they are aware of the sexual practices of their patients. Whilst most medical procedures are standardized there are modifications that are made to accommodate individual differences in patient characteristics and behaviors.

Currently even though there is a pill that can reduce risk of HIV infection rates by more than 90% in appropriate individuals most doctors fail to use or even think about this medication in appropriate patients. One important reason for this low utilization is because the sex conversation rarely ever happens to any meaningful extent. We cannot allow stigma and societal taboos around sexuality to get in the way of our health. If we think that HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are dirty diseases then we are all dirty anyway. So let us get it out all in the open especially when it comes to our conversations with our doctors. “A word to the wise is enough”.