Erika Eichelberger

Erika Eichelberger

Reporter

Erika Eichelberger is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She has also written for The NationThe Brooklyn Rail, and TomDispatch. Email her at eeichelberger [at] motherjones [dot] com. 

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GOP Obstruction Is Making It Harder To Catch Rapists—Mitch McConnell Would Rather Not Talk About It

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 10:47 AM EDT
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will not say if he will stop blocking a major spending bill in the Senate that contains funding to help identify and prosecute rapists—or whether he would support a separate bill to break the log jam.

As I reported last week, since June, Senate Republicans have held up a $180 billion appropriations bill that would fund several federal agencies, including the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Justice. Part of the funding allotted for the DoJ is supposed to go toward a $41 million grant to help states and localities go after rapists by funding jurisdictions to process backlogs of rape kits, the samples of DNA evidence that are taken after a sexual assault and used to identify assailants. There are over 100,000 untested kits waiting to be processed at crime labs and police departments around the country, partly because states and localities don’t have enough money to test them. The kits can go untested for decades, allowing countless rapists off the hook.

The sweeping spending bill has hit a wall in the Senate because McConnell and other Senate Republicans want Dems to let them add several unrelated amendments to the legislation. The amendment McConnell introduced would make it harder for the EPA to enact new rules on coal-fired power plants. Democrats have complained that GOPers are abusing the amendments process to hold up a bill they don’t like. "Regardless of the outcome of the amendment votes…Republicans have indicated that they are not willing to support the underlying bill," a Senate staffer told me last week.

On Tuesday, the Louisville, Ky. Courier-Journal asked McConnell if he would withdraw his amendment, which would indicate that he and fellow Republicans would be willing to vote for the underlying bill, including the $41 million in funding to process rape kit backlogs. McConnell dodged the question. His office did not respond when Mother Jones asked the same question this week.

Lawmakers may be able to add the rape kit funding into an temporary spending measure in October. However, neither McConnell's office nor Republicans on the House and Senate appropriations committees will say whether they would support doing so.

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The Ferguson Shooting and the Science of Race and Guns

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 1:03 PM EDT
Ferguson, Mo. residents protesting the shooting of Michael Brown retreat after police detonate tear gas cannisters.

On Saturday, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri gunned down unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Eyewitnesses say Brown was killed while trying to run away or surrender, but Ferguson police claim that Brown reached for the officer's gun. It will be a long time before all the facts are sorted out, but research suggests that such claims may be rooted in something deeper than the need to explain actions after the fact: Race may literally make people see things that are not there, whether it's a gun or a reach for a gun.

In a 2001 study, participants were shown a picture of a white face or a black face followed immediately by a picture of a weapon or a tool. They were asked to identify the object as quickly as possible. Study participants more often identified weapons correctly after they saw a black face, and more accurately identified tools after seeing an image of a white face. What's more, "they falsely claimed to see a gun more often when the face was black than when it was white," the report's author wrote. He goes on:

Race stereotypes can lead people to claim to see a weapon where there is none. Split-second decisions magnify the bias by limiting people's ability to control responses. Such a bias could have important consequences for decision making by police officers and other authorities interacting with racial minorities. The bias requires no intentional racial animus, occurring even for those who are actively trying to avoid it.

This study has been repeated by several different groups of scientists with the same results. (When participants are primed with female as opposed to male African-American faces, however, they are less likely to assume the object is a gun.)

A 2005 study by University of Colorado neuroscientists bolsters these findings. The scientists measured threat perception and response in the brains of 40 students to targets in a video game, some of whom were carrying pistols while others carried wallets or cellphones. The study authors predicted that because there is a cultural perception that African-Americans are "more threatening," participants' "shoot response" would come more naturally. Indeed that’s how it panned out. The study found that the students shot black targets with guns more quickly than white targets with guns, and took longer to decide not to shoot unarmed blacks than unarmed whites.

We may never know what was going on in the head of the officer who shot Brown—or, for that matter, in the heads of George Zimmerman or Michael Dunn, or many other killers of unarmed African-Americans in disputed situations. But studies like the above suggest that the underlying problems run deep.

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