Feb 3, 2015

The Problems With the Differing Perceptions on Race Relations and How These Misunderstandings Get Us Nowhere

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The Fact of Biases

Many whites, by no means all, do not understand the Ferguson protest, largely because they do not see the larger context from which the protest has emerged.  Comments opposed to the protest are too focused on rioters behaving badly and completely neglect the decades old concerns of those that are against violence and engaged in peaceful protest for differences in treatment of some under the law .  Many whites are resistant to claims that race plays a role in the treatment of individuals by others, by society in general, or by government.  I think the scientific argument concerning life on another planet, serves as a great metaphor here.  While we may not be able to prove that life exists elsewhere outside of our solar system, it would be illogical to assume that in the vast expanse of space, that there is no other life.  Therefore, it is not a matter of "if", but "when".  Is it also illogical to assume that race rarely plays a role given our history?  Our Constitution, effective beginning 1789, is about 225 years old.  For one-third of that time, we enslaved people of color under the assumption that they had, nor deserved basic rights to life and liberty.  Although slavery ended in 1865, many states, both southern and northern, continued to deny basic rights to life and liberty, as well as political rights to blacks.  These denials came in the form of lynchings, all white juries, segregation, and requirements designed to make it nearly impossible for a black person to register to vote.  These policies only ended in the 1960s.  Therefore, for 75% of our history, an entire group of people who share a common skin color, have been denied basic freedoms and protections that many of us take for granted.  Moreover, it is often neglected that it was not the Southern racial majority that led the charge for change. Quite the opposite.  The South resisted.  Civil rights protections and an end to discriminatory policies such as segregated school and public accommodations were forced on the South by the courts, by protesters and by federal legislation enforcing compliance in the face of noncompliance.  Therefore, it is safe to argue that white perceptions of blacks inferiority did not disappear by 1970, 45 years ago.  Therefore, current generations alive today, that were also alive then, may continue to hold these perceptions; and may have passed them on to some extent to their children.  Racism is typically something that is taught.

White perceptions of inferiority of blacks, a perceptions that was fueled decades ago in order to support the enslavement and denial of other rights of blacks has now morphed into assumptions as to why such a large percentage of blacks live in poverty and why crime rates are much higher.
White feelings of black inferiority now are typically only seen in our "implicit biases", rather than manifested in more explicit ways as before.  In the decades following slavery, whites took on feelings of fear and intimidation.  Don't believe me?  If you are white, tune in to your gut reaction when you drive through a black community.  You say, "it is not because they are black, it is because the poor community also has a high crime rate".  That me be true, but the reaction continues to happen outside of black communities when coming across a young black man.   Many whites hold more sinister assumptions about a black man walking down the street, than they do about a white man.  Additionally, the same reaction does not tend to happen in poor white communities.  Many whites are more fearful of entering an impoverished black community, than they are of entering an impoverished white community, such as a run-down trailer park.  White feelings of fear and intimidation impact our responses to situations involving a black person.  We can debate the source of those feelings, but they exist nevertheless.  My comments are not an attempt to bash whites, only an attempt for us to be honest with ourselves so that we can progress further in our race relations.  Differences matter, whether we want them to or not.  We make assumptions of a group of a different color.  This goes for blacks towards white as well.  I had a black student inform me once that his mother, given the history of white treatment of blacks in this country, had a strong dislike for white people in general.  However, our assumptions due to differences are not isolated to differences in skin color (black, brown, white, etc.).  We make assumptions about people from other countries, and about the other gender.  It is human nature to try to determine facts based on the information we have first, which is how someone looks most of the time. 

There is a great deal of research, surveys, and other forms of data that support different outcomes overall between blacks and whites.  If you do not believe the data, or you do not want to see the significance and meaning of the data, you must stop reading here.  If you never believe the data, no matter the topic,  you are always right in your opinions, and as a consequence, can never be proven wrong.  For all others, the links below provide a small window into the world of data on race relations and civil rights.

Implicit Bias:

Recent research has found that differing treatment as a result of perceptions and subconscious biases begins as early as grade school:

Race Relations, Perceptions and Claims About Race in the Context of the Brown and Eric Garner Deaths

Back to the issue of the police.  Do Americans want a bigger police presence in areas of high crime?  Yes.  That is a shared feeling among whites and blacks. I would also argue that law abiding citizens living in impoverished areas where crime is high, being the group most victimized by that crime, would also want to see a greater police presence.  Surveys show that blacks, being most likely to be a victim of homicide, are much more likely to favor greater gun control.  What minorities in impoverished and crime ridden communities do not want is different treatment solely because of color or a stereotype.  In other words, stop and frisk itself is not unwanted in these areas.  Rather there is a desire to see that harassment is not common place when there is no evidence of a crime.  Or find that in place of "reasonable suspicion", there is only a preconceived idea that this person must be a criminal because they are black and wearing a hooded jacket, or that they must be an undocumented immigrant because they are Latino.  This would be similar to stereotyping individuals with tattoos as uneducated, unsophisticated and "up to no good".  Only, in addition to tattoos, having a dark skin color is a signal of potential wrongdoing and "thuggery".

Nevertheless, implied bias and stereotypes are not excuses to neglect fact and to run to the opposite corner, seeing nothing other than discrimination and racism.  This is unfair is the same way that it is unfair to attack anyone and anytime a claim is made that there is a racial component in an event or issue.  When the data says 60% face a certain kind of treatment, one side converts that to 100% and the other side converts that number to 0% in their underlying assumptions.  Both mistakenly, as a result, are going to neglect data, additional variables, facts, and context in their limited analysis of the issue or event. 

Calls for Action and Policy Prescriptions Based in Strategic Thinking, Reality and Objectivity

There are broader concerns, both racial and non racial, that are brought up by the recent deaths of unarmed citizens in incidents involving law enforcement .  Additionally, there are many concerns with policy that are not racially driven policies, but if addressed, would reduce a lot of the disproportionate mistreatment handed to black citizens.  For example: 1.  Better training of officers in perceiving threats 2. Body cameras.  3. Rethinking stand your ground laws so citizens do not see them as permission to take the law and public safety into their own hands when a threat does not exist or as a reason to shoot down anyone that steps on their property under any circumstances.  Perhaps murder convictions, like that of the white man who shot a young black women in the face through his front door when she was seeking help after a car accident, will help with this latter point.  So called "Stand Your Ground" laws of some states appear, according to coverage, to be particularly problematic for blacks.  To be objective, there is not much data on this, likely due to the newness of these laws.  

In thinking about incidents of deaths at the hands of law enforcement, we must take an objective and sensible approach.  Cops cannot always be held to the same standard as an individual.  If a cop does willfully kill someone out of malice, or extreme abuse, then yes, they must be punished the same as others.  However, we do not immediately throw murder convictions on cops every time they fire their gun and suspect dies, even when the suspect is unarmed.  When a suspect is running, perhaps towards law enforcement, whether they are armed or not, but they do not stop as instructed, don't we understand the need for law enforcement to shoot?  Police must make split second decisions in situations where they have a great deal of uncertainty.  Furthermore, don't we all understand that law enforcement rules of engagement must be different than that of an average citizen given the job and responsibility of the police?

I caution those that immediately jump to Michael Brown's defense, in the same way that I cautioned others not to re-actively take the side of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case.  Those defending Brown at all cost and no matter the circumstances need to understand that the facts of Brown's case are detracting from the cause.  The Michael Brown case is not the best case to present the argument of disproportionate and discriminatory treatment of blacks by the police.  However, Brown is not Trayvon Martin and, and for that reason, it is unfair and lacking in objectivity to all on both sides to portray these cases as the same.  But it is hard to contain a ground swell of public opinion and community action once it has started; neither is it a good idea to waste the opportunity presented by the overwhelming reaction of the public to the Brown, and then to the Eric Garner case, among others.  It is very important that the political and community leaders educate the public on their perception, their concerns and their goals, being sure to separate this from the Brown case.  Bring up the Trayvon martin case, but educate followers in the complexities of the Brown case, openly acknowledging the possibility that Brown was a legitimate threat. Community leaders can do this while still point to a problem that should be addressed.   When using the hands up gesture be clear that it is representative of a larger problem, and be clear that there is an understanding that Brown may not, mostly likely did not, have his hands up.  He was unarmed but nonetheless he felt big and strong and unstoppable, something that he portrayed in the convenience store video of the robbery where he felt no need to have a gun in assaulting someone and taking what he wanted.  Brown felt empowered.  In summation, this movement cannot be all hear; it must be strategic and political as well.  Only that way will there be success in the long-run.

Political and community leaders cannot be angry at small gains, nor allow anger of their followers to go unnoticed.  They must educate the community about the legislative and democratic process.  Seemingly small gains, such as body cameras or others listed above, are indeed significant and meaningful gains. Democracy, especially within a federal structure such as ours with multiple governments enacting policy, is a big ship that moves slowly and cautiously.  Leaders and followers of both sides do all an injustice by perpetuating a narrative that is unrealistic and unfair.  Let's have a discussion because we need one, but let it be an honest and productive discussion.

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