Molded by Our Beliefs

George Floyd's tragic killing was a reminder ...

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We were shaken to our core by the video of George Floyd’s death. The incident made me question the role of police in our society and also by shifting my attention away from who is doing what to whom, to the why’s, invoked a reflective state of mind to seek answers.

Normally police officers will not be cruel.  Normally people will not be killed over a fake $20 bill.  Normally George would surrender rather than resist an encounter with police.

But none of that happened. Why?

I would argue that we are molded by our past experiences and beliefs. George’s previous encounters with police had something to do with why he resisted.  Police officers’ reactions were extreme perhaps because they had biases against Blacks. It helped bring my own hidden biases and prejudices to the surface. Self-doubt led to extreme anxiety.

On further reflection, I found that in intense moments, we end up making right and wrong choices. We make mistakes, and sometimes serious ones when comprehension of the situation is not complete.  That is what happened.  In such moments many confusing voices pop into our heads, with equal probability. 

I noticed this phenomenon first hand in learning to play bridge.  Bridge is a mind game complex enough that bridge-masters have not been defeated by computers, yet. Teaching bridge is quite difficult.  Experts and bridge coaches share techniques and important tips to help learn and compete.  In tough competitions,  at times I make brilliant plays and dumb ones at other times.  On closer examination I found many voices of experts popping up in my head.   Since I was not always clear about the reasons behind many tips, it was quite random which voice I happened to listen to.   

Walking away from old tendencies or from predispositions is learning new way of thinking. Even when we are motivated to make the change, the brain misfires.  Racial biases are part and parcel of the same phenomenon.  The police officers in Floyd’s case may not have been able to overcome their old biases.

It takes decades and centuries to reform ourselves and discard the irrational beliefs we hold, or to cleanse ourselves of self-preservation tendencies, which keeps its hold on us even when a new understanding has emerged. My cat for example still hunts and brings lizards and moles even when we have been giving her ‘tasty treats’ for the past 10 years. 

Humans depict resistance to changing their behavior as well. But in addition, we convince ourselves why we are right — the confirmation bias — which slows our progress. 

The way out of this dilemma is to spend more time rationalizing what is wrong and why is it important to overcome the status quo — for our own sake. 

Acceptance of our own biases is insufficient.  We must also accept the biases of the other side. When Blacks are seen shattering Wal-Mart glass fronts in revenge, they were criticized for being reactionary. Some people, including me, hoped, a new MLK like leader could emerge and preach tolerance over revenge.  That was wrong. Acceptance of their reaction is tolerance. Our society also sends mixed messages when they blatantly cheer our president when he insults people he dislikes.  

The other question, but an equally important one is, how to make the role of police more relevant in the current environment.  It requires an image makeover and abolishing machoism in the police force and in western society — in general.  Easier said than done.

In everyday life police in America are seen catching traffic violators.  I have spent many hours scanning my rearview mirror when speeding — looking for patrol cars.  It is dangerous but also a fear of the police got etched in my brain.  Police eventually wins in this cat-mouse game.

I would recommend taking away the power from the police to handout highway speeding tickets.  It is an unnecessary activity and makes officers feel unduly powerful over ordinary citizens. Roadside help can be provided by a civil patrol. 

On city streets, speeding is far more dangerous, and electronic cameras are far more efficient in identifying speeders.

With time and money saved, police could then have time to stop on streets to introduce themselves to give out stickers to young kids, teach them traffic rules with affection, or to help out old people cross the street — an image we want our kids to have of police. 

I would showcase an officer who helps reform an incarcerated young man, by acting as a big brother or those who mentor boys and girls so that they do not commit even petty crimes. Some police officers already are involved in such causes. 

To overcome habitual thinking and prejudices — some hard-wired and some learned — takes hard work. Controlling our impulsive responses in everyday life is difficult.  It is much harder to overcome deeply rooted cultural biases.

Incidents like George Floyd’s murder, are moments of soul searching.  And if they could galvanize us to overcome biases — a self-reformation — it will make us proud, and make America great.

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7 comments

  1. Dominique Trempont Reply

    The question you raise, Vinita, is how one evolves our metal model, our beliefs and assumptions.
    My experience is that, at a personal level, beyond the age of 20-30, it is extremely hard and slow to do.
    At a society level, it seems that we only respond to crisis and shocks to consider a change, such as the role of the police.
    Remember that we engaged the police in anti-terrorism and anti-gang combat: no wonder that their training armed them with a soldier mentality.
    The real issue, in my mind, on society is that we operate at 2 levels: we have reactions to what is happening that could make us support some change.
    Then, we quite immediately go back to our comfort zone, to what we know, to what is safe and convenient, and inertia settles back in.

    1. vinitagupta Reply

      It is hard, I agree.
      Sorry for the delay in posting your comment.

  2. Raj Singh Reply

    Thanks Vinita for the timely and reflective post. you said it right: let technology do the policing and let police do the social work. technology has no emotional impulses. anger eats intellect and animal instincts take over. technology usage will cut down such situations. surveillance cameras, image processing, GPS are here to be deployed for policing. while it is difficult to bring changes at mass level, creative solutions can help. it needs a charismatic leader whom masses can relate to. ex presidents who spend their time in political and so called think tanks speech engagements, can turn to the masses and create a mission of outreach. to bring changes, we need to touch people’s heart first, mind next. blacks have an opportunity in obama as their potential social leader. he can touch their heart by taking a mission of creating self respect and building inner strength. he can read how vivekananda did. clinton can do what warren buffet did with bill gates and steve jobs. convince few ultra rich americans to donate some money for programs for under served blacks. corporations can contribute under so called corporate social responsibility. use these resources on education, skill development such as in manufacturing and construction, start clubs where blacks practice public speaking, creative arts, product designs. public speaking and writing essays builds confidence and increases knowledge. creative works affects mindset, so does knowledge. entrepreneurship creates jobs and generate wealth. if MADD was successful #BlackPeopleMatter can also succeed. corporations and financial institutions are trying to bring women on board, intel has a women-only venture fund. where there is a will there is a way. there can be a website that connects successful blacks and mentors young generation of blacks. little things add up.

    1. vinitagupta Reply

      Raj, thanks for your thoughts. I wholeheartedly agree. Sorry for the delay in posting your comment.

  3. Jaya Pancholy Reply

    Racial injustice has been there for centuries with the powerful misusing their power.
    There was no basis for the recent event but like life there are many underlying reasons – causes but no justification. We as one universe – all created by one divine and with current oneness awareness- awakening need to unite again injustice specially based on race.

    We need to use the power of love and forgiveness to make our future.

    Thanks for this informative platform and postings.

    1. vinitagupta Reply

      Nicely said, Jaya.

  4. Deepka Lalwani Reply

    So very well expressed, echos my thoughts. I’ve to print it and reread a few times to digest. Bias and prejudices are so difficult to change, specially the ones which were formed in childhood. Habits may be little easier to change, code word 21 days. I’m currently reading Atomic Habits, nope, no change as yet!