Why you should care

It’s a worldwide phenomenon: Those who are unjustly accused tend to show more signs of guilt.

Eve Fairbanks, a writer based in Johannesburg and Nairobi, is at work on a book about post-apartheid South Africa.

As a writer working in Africa, I’ve come and gone from Nairobi, Kenya, a dozen times in the last two years. Always, the immigration staff has been friendly, welcoming me to the country or expressing the hope I had a good time when I left. Until June.

That month, trying to head out of Nairobi to meet my mother in Italy, a pair of passport-control officers accused me of forging my visa. The curious thing wasn’t the accusation itself, but the way they did the accusing. They alternated between fierce and nonchalant, and the most prominent feature of their interrogation was an attitude of total and contemptuous certainty I had done the wrong.

Over the following days, I discovered my whole attitude towards the country had subtly changed.

“Why did you do it?” the female agent asked, fingering the visa page in question and shaking her head sadly.

“But I didn’t do it,” I said.

“Didn’t you realize you would get caught?” her bald male counterpart barked, wagging a finger.

“I didn’t do anything wrong!” I yelled.

This went on for 20 minutes, as curious travelers piled up in a line behind me. Finally, with a grand show of sighing, the two let me go, the man parting with an admonition: “Don’t do something stupid like this again.” Their show of haughty mercy toward a crime I knew I hadn’t committed enraged me. I had an urge to pursue them back to their little control room and — ironically — to forcibly wrest from them the image they had created of me as a criminal.

I was surprised at how long the effects from the encounter lasted. A few weeks later, I returned to the Nairobi airport. I didn’t think my experience had been that upsetting — I’d been let go, after all — and yet, as soon as I stepped into the terminal and saw people dressed like the customs agents who’d harassed me, I started to sweat. Even standing among ordinary Kenyans in the passport line somehow made me nervous. Over the following days, I discovered my whole attitude towards the country had subtly changed: I was suspicious, resentful, angry; I presumed all the authorities I saw were unfairly set against me.

Almost subconsciously, strangely, I started to ask myself: Could they have been right about me, and I wrong?

A friend recently had a similar experience in another country. Her ethnic background is Malaysian, and, while applying for a permanent residency, an immigration agent accused her of being a Chinese prostitute. Again, the interrogation tactic the agent used was false certainty: Of course she was a prostitute, the agent asserted, and even whipped out a smartphone to show her a grainy image purportedly of “her” in a porn clip.

It was the most profoundly dissociative experience, she marveled, to have a figure of power, a state authority, try to impose a truth on you — that you are a criminal — that is at odds with the truth you know about yourself. My response was anger, but there was something else, too. We are brought up to trust authority. Almost subconsciously, strangely, I started to ask myself: Could they have been right about me, and I wrong?

My friend and I both wondered: What must it be like to have a state subtly or blatantly trying to impose a criminal identity on you every day?

Amazingly, when I started to ask research psychologists about what effect it had on minorities in places like Ferguson, New York and Los Angeles to receive a continual message from the police that they are already criminals, even before they’ve done something wrong, many said they knew of nobody working on these issues. The classic field of research is called “criminal behavior”: Pathologizing the actor, it asks what defects of mind a criminal has that led him to his wrongful acts.

But a handful of researchers are working on the effects of what we might call the messaging of criminal intent. Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University just won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” for her work it. Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff is another. An associate professor of social psychology at UCLA and a visiting scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School, he’s started a project to collect much more comprehensive data on police encounters across America. “The fear [being perceived as a criminal by the police] inspires in black males and the women who love them … can provoke odd behavior,” he’s written.

The police’s routine suspicion of you, and your anxiety about it, make you appear to be the very kind of person they suspect you of being.

To me, he described a negative feedback loop. “Officers get taught to look for certain cues to see if somebody is lying,” he explained over the phone. “To see if somebody is guilty of something. It’s sweaty palms. Can’t make eye contact. Looks nervous. Darting eyes. Now, if you’re worried if someone is going to do something terrible to do to you, what kind of signs is that going to bring about?” The police’s routine suspicion of you, and your anxiety about it, make you appear to be the very kind of person they suspect you of being.

Or, sometimes, it can even create the suspected behavior. It’s a problem that interested the Greek philosophers: If you are given no social credit for following the rules, why follow them? A fascinating study just emerged from Germany revealing that East Germans are significantly more likely to cheat than West Germans in a game in which they could win a small amount of money. While the study didn’t speculate on the reasons, Dr. Lars Hornuf, one of its authors and an economist at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, told me that under East German communism, “If you were dealing with the secret police, it might not be a good thing to be honest with them, or they would put you in jail.”

The secret police treated ordinary East Germans like suspicious criminals, and they returned the favor by disobeying the rules they felt were unfairly applied to them. Goff suggested something similar can happen in African-American communities. “Compliance with the law begins with trust in it, not fear of it,” he said. “So you are less likely to comply with the law or the authorities if you see them as illegitimate.” It’s astonishing how strongly this effect persists 25 years after the dismantling of the Stasi in East Germany.

The implication of the research is that this cycle has to be disrupted at the top — with the authorities. But that’s often not our instinct. Our instinct is to blame the victims for their reaction. I’ve even seen this in Kenya: Many people notice that there just seem to be certain unlucky white expats who always become the targets of aggressive police shakedowns while others seem to escape bad encounters. I’ve always blamed the expats: Their constant grousing about how bad Kenya is after the shakedowns karmically provokes more unwanted police attention.

But now I’ve become one of the unlucky ones myself. The last time I entered Kenya, I must have looked shifty at the airport, because, after years of avoiding any problems, the very same thing — an accusation of a forged visa — happened again, though the customs agents were different.

This OZY encore was originally published Oct. 14, 2014.

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