A recent New York Times column, provocatively entitled “When a Gun Is Not a Gun,” offers legitimate science to prove that lawmen, at least some of them literally perceive things that aren’t there. That research project sought answers to a modern conundrum. In a U.S. Justice Department study of police shootings over an eight-year period, the findings were consistent with nightly news coverage all over America. Fifteen percent of the unarmed suspects, mostly men of color, were shot by white officers. In half those cases, the cop reportedly misidentified a “nonthreatening object (e.g., a cellphone), or movement (e.g., tugging at the waistband) as a weapon.”
The psychology professor writing the article noted three possible explanations: carelessness, unconscious bias, explicit racism. But she said there’s a fourth more likely explanation: “affective realism.” That’s good news since many thought it was everyday racism, not some new kind realism. It ain’t racism, it’s just realism. Makes it sound like good news. There’s not much of that on the nightly news these days. If Angus were alive today, he’d be plenty pissed off at how much bad news is plastered on front pages and TV screens. The short version of affective realism postulates we don’t see what’s in plain sight, we see what our brains predict we will see. It goes like this. If you are a cop in a neighborhood with a high crime rate, your brain might predict a weapon when in fact it was just a cellphone. Helluva thing, Angus would say. You mean what you see ain’t there? It’s just your brain lying to you?