Imagine your friend has just purchased a new piece of furniture and invited you over to see it. When you walk into his living room, there it is—a brown upholstered rectangle with three large cushions centered against the wall. As he offers you a cup of tea, he suggests that you sit on it.

You discern that his new piece of furniture is a couch. You don’t know this because you’ve seen this particular couch—in fact, you haven’t—but because you know about the category of “couches.” You’ve sat on them. You’ve bought them. You don’t need an explanation.

“When you’re able to recognize a particular object as a member of a particular category,” says Lulu Miller, co-host of Invisibilia, “all your knowledge about that category guides your response to that thing, which means you don’t have to figure out everything from scratch every time you encounter something new.” This, of course, saves a lot of time and energy.

Serving as shortcuts for better and quicker decision-making, categories help us navigate our days. What happens, though, when we categorize wrongly?

I Can’t Breathe

Last July, when NYPD officers confronted Eric Garner about illegally selling “loose” cigarettes, he cried, “This ends here,” which led to a physical altercation and a chokehold. Suffering from advanced diabetes, heart disease, and severe asthma, Garner struggled for air, yelling, “I can’t breathe,” 11 times before he died.

Robyn Semien, a former corrections officer in the Bronx, watched the Garner arrest footage with her friend, an NYPD officer. They interpreted what they saw differently. In This American Life’s “Cops See It Differently, Part Two,” Ira Glass explains:

When Eric Garner says over and over, “I can’t breathe,” Robyn sees a man who’s dying. Her friend does not. She tells Robyn people say that all the time when they’re being arrested. They can’t breathe. You’re hurting them. It happens all the time. The officer totally understood why the police on the scene did not pay any attention to it.

In other words, the officers put Garner in the wrong category—a man just trying to get out of being arrested—when, in fact, he was a man who could not breathe.

Implicit Racial Bias

Was he a victim of wrong categorization in another way, too? When asked whether it mattered that Garner was black and most of the officers on the scene were white, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton said, “I personally don’t think race was a factor.”

But it’s not that simple.

Psychologist Josh Correll has tested the implicit racial biases—that is, the unconscious feelings we have about different races—of hundreds of cops. On a computer screen, he rotates images of white and black men—each holding a weapon, a wallet, or a can of soda—and asks them to decide whether to shoot. He then measures how quickly they decide and how many mistakes they make.

“Most of our participants,” he says, “associate young black men with the idea of threat.” (His findings, by the way, show that cops—except ones on gang units—do far better than untrained people like me and you. “We’re more likely to shoot a black man with a wallet,” Semien says, “and we’re less likely to shoot a white man with a gun.”)

Unfair and Partial Policing

Unconscious bias isn’t necessarily bad. As we saw with the couch, it can serve as a neutral automatic decision-making mechanism to categorize everyday things. It can also protect us. When we assess something as “unsafe,” for example, our “danger detector” sets off a “fight or flight” fear, psychologist Joseph LeDoux says.

The problem, of course, is when that detector malfunctions. Although we fix it in some cases, we usually come up with reasons why our gut instinct was right. In policing, this can have serious implications. Unconscious racial bias becomes unfair and partial policing when we see an individual as “threatening” based solely on his or her race because of our other experiences with people of the same race. When we fail to correct that mistake at a systemic level, a cycle begins—the more people of a particular race are arrested, the more our bias against that race grows, which leads to more arrests, and so on.

So, which comes first—the race or the arrest? When African Americans are arrested “at a rate 10 times higher than people who are not black” in at least 70 police departments across the United States, we should—at least—start with honesty. Some departments, like the one in Las Vegas, are now doing this through new training programs. Officer Maria Stevens tells her trainees:

Why am I really stopping this guy? Am I stopping him because I just watched him jaywalk and there’s something not right here? Or are you stopping him because he’s a black guy in a white neighborhood? Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself those questions. And if you have that bias, you need to recognize it. . . . And if you can’t fix it, then maybe you’re not in the right line of work.

That’s the first step—recognizing our mistaken categorizations. If we want to move toward more impartial and fair policing, we must uncover our unconscious racial biases.

On Earth as It Is in Heaven

When I took my first Implicit Association Test in January, I was scared of what it might say. I don’t consider myself a racist, but that’s what makes implicit bias hard—the fact that it’s unconscious. It’s much easier to look at explicit bias and “those horrible unrepentant racists.” Aren’t I so much better? But knowing that we're all biased and that I'm a product of my cultural moment, I wasn't sure I wanted to know my unconscious.

So I preached the gospel to myself, “Bethany, you’re already so sinful that Christ had to die for you. But you’re also already so loved that he chose to die for you. What are you afraid of?” Then I took the test. It assessed me as having a “mild” bias, which confirmed my fears.

The gospel, though, gives us the power to confront our brokenness and not be destroyed by it. It empowers us to pray without fear, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. See if there is any grievous way in me” (Ps. 139:23-24).

It also gives us a vision and a passion for racial reconciliation—for Christ died to redeem a kingdom people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). And Jesus taught us to pray for this reality to come in the here and now—not just for our churches, but for our cities, too: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth”—not “in the church”—“as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

The church can serve as a model of racial unity (Acts 10:1-48). But our witness doesn’t stop there. Individual Christians can go out into the world that God loves (Jn. 3:16)—attending community board meetings, praying for police offers, serving as public defenders or prosecutors, volunteering at mercy ministries, and more—as lights in dark places. We can point the way to the New Jerusalem, where all our present categories of people will come under one ultimate category—those who know the Lord (Jer. 31:31-34).


Editors’ note: Join us for a panel discussion at The Gospel Coalition 2015 National Conference about justice and race. On Tuesday, April 14, at 6 p.m., Bethany Jenkins will moderate a focused conversation with people from various industries and different faith commitments, who are committed to building trust between the church, their communities, and law enforcement. The panel features Ed Copeland (TGC Council member, former public defender), Cecil Smith (chief of police of Sanford, Florida), Robert Lang (assistant U.S. attorney in High Point, North Carolina), Alex Medina (music producer and art director at Reach Records), and David Kennedy (criminologist and creator of the problem-oriented policing initiative known as “Operation Ceasefire”).