Of all the ways Amy Cooper might have expressed her exasperation during a dispute with a birder in Central Park — rolling her eyes as she agreed to restrain her cocker spaniel, railing against avian life-forms, giving him the finger and moving on — she instead chose a potentially lethal option. Confronting her adversary, Christian Cooper, she said that she was going to call the police to report that “an African-American man” was “threatening” her life.
It was the dissonance in her language that immediately distinguished the episode from the countless other occasions in which white people have become dangerously unhinged in the presence of black men.
Three times, before and during the 911 call in which her voice climbed to horror-movie pitch as she leveled a phony accusation, she found the space to specifically identify Mr. Cooper as “African-American.” A resident of the Upper West Side with a graduate degree from the University of Chicago, a rescue dog and a face mask, Ms. Cooper engaged in a calculated act of profiling even as she accommodated the dictates of progressive speech.
The moment provided a bracing tutorial in what bigotry among the urbane looks like — the raw, virulent prejudice that can exist beneath the varnish of the right credentials, pets, accessories, social affiliations, the coinage absorbed from HBO documentaries and corporate sensitivity seminars.
Two years ago, a Manhattan lawyer named Aaron Schlossberg announced to the world that he was not “a racist” after he was caught on video ranting about immigrants. As he put it in his apology, the tirade did not capture who he really was, someone who had come to New York “precisely because of the remarkable diversity.” As it turned out, this was not Mr. Schlossberg’s only ethnically charged outburst.
In the video Mr. Cooper recorded, after Ms. Cooper refused to follow park rules and leash her dog, he asked her to keep her distance. Still, the next day, she told CNN by way of explanation for actions she now deemed inexcusable, that she had been scared — that before he began filming her, Mr. Cooper appeared out of nowhere.
“He came out of the bush,’’ she said, failing to recognize, given the racial context, that there was surely a better way to refer to the shrubbery of central Manhattan.
Judgment of Ms. Cooper was swift and fierce. Within 24 hours, she had lost her job as an investment manager at Franklin Templeton; members of New York State’s legislature introduced a bill that would make filing certain false reports actionable as hate crimes; a neighborhood group, the Central Park South Civic Association, called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to impose a lifetime ban from the park “on this lady for her deliberate, racial misleading of law enforcement.”
Despite Ms. Cooper’s public statement to Mr. Cooper — “I hope that a few mortifying seconds in a lifetime of forty years will not define me in his eyes and that he will accept my sincere apology” — by Wednesday night, various city officials were demanding her arrest.
It was Mr. Cooper who publicly extended more generosity toward her than anyone else, telling my colleague Sarah Maslin Nir that although he could not excuse the racism, he wasn’t sure if Ms. Cooper’s life “needed to be torn apart.”
In the most forgiving interpretation of these events, Ms. Cooper didn’t understand the possible consequences of her actions — that calling the police to settle an argument between a white woman and a black man in 2020 could result in his injury or death. This would imply that the news of the recent past has managed to completely elude her — from the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., to Eric Garner’s in Staten Island, to Ahmaud Arbery’s in Georgia.
As she told New York’s NBC station on the day of her eruption, she was only now beginning to understand that the police do not always serve as a “protection agency.’’ And yet in her precise use of the respectful term “African-American,” such intimations of ignorance are easily challenged.
It is easy to imagine an investment house deciding it no longer needed an executive capable of such spectacular misjudgment assessing and managing risk. Franklin Templeton fired Ms. Cooper, the company proclaimed, because it “doesn’t tolerate racism of any kind,’’ sanctimoniously turning a crisis into an opportunity to showcase values.
Whatever becomes of Amy Cooper, the episode suggests the limits of our institutional efforts to pre-empt individual actions that would appear to be racist. Like most big corporations, municipalities and nonprofit organizations, Franklin Templeton promotes its agenda in what is now known as diversity and inclusion. By one estimate, American companies spend approximately $8 billion a year trying to ensure that their employees are welcoming and open-minded — an investment in comity as much as it is in public relations and liability protection.
Franklin Templeton, for example, requires employees to take anti-harassment training every year, meant to cover discrimination in its many forms. It also encourages them to participate in training programs that support an “employee’s feeling safe to bring their whole selves to work,’’ according to a spokeswoman. In November, the company held an event called the “Check Your Blind Spots” tour at its California headquarters, described in a news release as a “series of immersive and interactive elements including virtual reality, gaming technology and more, to take an introspective look at the unconscious biases people face on a daily basis.”
Implicit bias training begins with the premise that we are essentially benevolent in our intentions, but are all subject to maintaining conditioned prejudices, the acquisition of which is often beyond our control. Embedded in this view is the assumption that within the contours of civil society, at least, we should be beyond explicit expressions of hostility of the kind Ms. Cooper displayed.
Patrica G. Devine, a social psychologist at the University of Wisconsin who studies unintended bias, argues that there has been little rigorous evaluation of the training strategies deployed to combat it, and as a result we simply don’t know enough about what makes a difference.
“It often has the feeling of being a one-and-done kind of thing: ‘We did it,’” she said. “And then it’s the ‘it’ that matters.” Beyond that, she has seen in her own research and the research of others that “if people are hostile to the training, it’s like fingers being wagged at you, and if you are not at all open to that, it can fuel negativity to the point of backlash.”
Two years ago, New York City’s police department invested $4.5 million in implicit bias training for officers, again without any evidence that it might succeed. The Covid crisis, in a sense, has provided a test case, and the results have been dispiriting. Between mid-March and early May, of the 125 people arrested for violations of social-distancing rules and other regulations related to the coronavirus, 113 were black or Hispanic. The problem with implicit bias work is that it too often fails to acknowledge the realities of instinctive distaste, the powerful emotions that animate the worst suppositions. It presumes a world better than the one we actually have.
Further elaborating her apology to Mr. Cooper, in a statement she issued on Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Cooper said she was aware that “misassumptions and insensitive statements about race” caused pain. But Ms. Cooper’s transgression was not a mistaken perception or an insensitive statement.
The language — “African-American” — she seemed to have down. It was the deeper impulse for retaliation that she couldn’t suppress.