Within the ongoing story about race and killings by police there has been, from the beginning, a second story, about fear. For the shooters themselves, fear has been essential to their legal defense; it has also been, in a more basic way, their explanation. The situation was pressured; they could not control the person in front of them; violence seemed imminent and they were scared, The New Yorker reports. The fear defense can also feel like a euphemism, or a coverup—especially when it is used to defend a shooting, and when it becomes entangled in race.
This week, Harvard economist Roland Fryer published an examination of racial bias in police shootings that was immediately understood to be both important and controversial. Fryer’s team could find no racial bias. The finding has been criticized. The study, data journalist Mona Chalabi concluded in the Guardian, was “not indicative of a wider picture.” When an officer decides to shoot, he has lost control of the situation. His fear and stress are at their maximum. If Fryer is right, this is precisely the moment when racial bias disappears, and where the officer perceives a white suspect to be as much a threat as a black one. The implication is that racial bias in these situations works differently than we had thought. The fear defense uses emotion and irrationality as a shield, to deflect attention from the bias beneath. If Fryer’s results are to believed, then it is hard to argue that racial bias emerges in the most extreme circumstances into which we send the police. Police bias no longer looks like a problem of instinctive reaction, but of voluntary action.