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  • Debbie Dougherty

Dear Politicians, Another Black Child was Shot in the Head. Now will you step back from the Ledge?

Updated: May 12, 2023

By Debbie S. Dougherty and Maria Dixon Hall

Digital picture of Ralph Yarl's Head and shoulders.
Ralph Yarl. Picture by Freya Clark (C.W. Freya Clark. Permission for use required).

When I first heard that Ralph was shot in the head, I got dizzy. I had to sit down. I cried. Relief that he lived. Then I checked in with my “Ralph’s,” the children of my Black doctoral student advisees. Were they safe? Please please please God, let them be safe.

I was not the only one thinking these thoughts. Maria Dixon Hall, as the mother of three of these children, was having a similar, but much more intense experience. Dr. Dixon Hall is the Chief Diversity Officer at Southern Methodist University. She is the mother of three funny, gifted, and most loved children. I asked her to coauthor this week’s Blog. She said yes. I asked her what she did when she heard that Ralph had been shot because he knocked on the wrong damned door. Here is what she wrote:

What to do with that Candy Wrapper (or Hoodies, Skittles, and Walking While Black)?

The look of confusion in my son's beautiful brown eyes was unmistakable. I knew that he knew, based on my tone, he was doing something that he wasn't supposed to be doing. So as he tried to explain that he was only going around the house to throw a candy wrapper away, I yelled louder: Son, you can't do that crap! It is too dangerous.

At that moment, my intent was not to undermine years of trying to get him to throw his trash in an appropriate spot rather than his floor, my car, or the counter. But, nope, when faced with either applauding his throwing trash away correctly or preventing my baby from being perceived by one of my neighbors as a threat, it wasn't a choice. Not any longer. Especially after what happened to Ralph Yarl.

Despite having "the talk" with him at age 7, like most goofy seventh graders, his mind is filled with TikTok videos, Roblox, and the latest offering of that perpetually sad child, SZA. So as he walks the two blocks home from middle school, he views it as a familiar and safe walk. After all, he is 6 minutes from home, within shouting distance, he reminds me. To which I respond: "So was that baby boy, Tyree Nichols, who was killed just 37 seconds from his mama's back door, and when he screamed, she couldn't hear him."

I have had well-meaning white friends tell my husband and me that we are burdening our son with 'the negative stuff.' He should be allowed to be a kid. Hell, I agree. But I didn't create a world where one group of people insisted on viewing my son as a threat even before he grew one wispy hair above his lip. I didn't create a world where if he makes a mistake in an address, he could end up shot because of some elderly white man's fears. I didn't create a world in which he is not allowed to wear a hoodie, he can't walk to the store for Skittles, and trying to come home on a lunch break might lead to a deadly confrontation with police. You know what else? I am ticked off. Because even though I knew I was lying to myself, I believed that raising my son in an upper-middle-class home and playing the politics of respectability would somehow protect him from the majority of the "negative stuff." My beautiful blue-eyed husband said it best, "the reality is that even having a white man as his father won't protect him from white people and our fears. Think about that, Maria. Even though I am a white man, I cannot protect my black son from other white men."

Implicit Bias and the Shooter

Debbie has talked about implicit bias in previous blogs, such as this one. Since then, it has become illegal in at least one state to teach implicit bias on University campuses. Why should we care? First, what is implicit bias? Implicit bias are unconscious assumptions that people hold that allow them to react quickly to threats in their environment. There are many types of implicit bias that have been categorized over the years. Most of them are challenging, but sometimes implicit bias turns deadly.

Implicit bias is not just about Race. We have implicit bias about gender, about age, about sexuality, you name it, we have a knee jerk, reflexive response. That reflexive response changes things. The science on implicit bias has shown, for example, that it causes us to assume that unemployed people are “ghetto and lazy,” making it harder for them to become reemployed. Implicit bias causes us to assume that women are overly emotional, making it harder for women to be perceived as great leaders. Implicit bias causes us to see Black men as naturally criminal, causing an 84 year old White man to shoot a Black Child in the head.

The man who shot Ralph in the head was an 84 year old White male. He said he thought Ralph was breaking into his house. He said that he thought Ralph was a threat because he was so big. He said he shot Ralph because he thought he was jiggling the handle of his storm door. He said he shot Ralph because he was afraid.

Ralph is Five foot, eight inches tall. He is a musician. He is an aspiring scientist. He is a son. He is a brother. He was trying to pick up his siblings from their friend’s house. He knocked on the wrong door. He waited. The door opened. An elderly White man opened the door and shot him in the head. When Ralph fell down, the White man shot him in the arm.

Now, our big-brained friends, compare the perception of reality with the actual reality. (No alternative facts here please). Was Ralph a threat? No. Of course not. So why did this White man shoot Ralph? While there is undoubtedly complexity here, the most obvious answer is implicit bias. He assumed that because Ralph was a Black male, he must in fact be a criminal. Why would he assume such a thing? Because the 84 year old White man has been carefully trained his entire life to view Black people as all kinds of bad. He has seen it on the media. He probably learned about it at the dinner table while speaking with his family. He learned about it at school where the social studies books carefully frame or eliminate any mention of racism or systemic violence towards people of color. He learned it at his job. He learned it from his white friends, because let’s be real, 84 year old White man probably never had a real Black friend.

Let's consider the shooter for a moment. He has had a long life, he served in the military. Probably he worked long hours, had a family, loved and married. Now he gets to spend the rest of his life in prison. As Maria said, this man’s long life will forever be defined by his worst moment.

Of course, this man probably never had implicit bias training. It was probably never offered to him. But we have it available now. Not all implicit bias training is equally good. But the best training is built on science, and that science can help us avoid the traps that come with implicit bias. Understanding how implicit bias works, creating strategies for thinking more slowly and carefully, these are just a few of the strategies good implicit bias training can provide.

Why the Political Ban on Knowledge?

So let us ask you again, why would anyone ban this type of knowledge from higher education? Implicit bias training can literally save lives. It can prevent tragedies, keep children like Ralph out of the hospital and free of childhood trauma. It can keep men like the shooter out of prison.

We don't know the shooter, and his family seems to disagree on his character. Maybe he is a violent person looking for a target. Or maybe he is just a scared old man who did something in the moment that he deeply regrets now.

Either way, here is the point. And it is a big point. When education is blunted by politicians, nobody wins. In fact, when science is replaced by political ideology, we all lose. Ralph loses. The shooter loses. Maria loses. Her son loses. Her worried academic advisor loses.

Action Steps:

  • Voters: Regardless of your political party, require your political leaders to step away from the proverbial ledge. Reverse/stop bans on education.

  • Researchers: Regardless of your political party, create and publish careful scholarship, art, and science that addresses important social problems. We recognize that this type of research has become politicized and the consequences can be severe, but please keep at it. We need you.

  • Teachers: Regardless of your political party, practice courage and teach us into a better society.

Maria Dixon Hall is an educator, chief diversity officer, pastor

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