Over the last few weeks I have been very critical of American society and how we have treated black people and failed to live up-to ideals of freedom and equality for all. I have scrutinized white culture and politics and how our nation developed a system of mass incarceration that treats people differently based on race, and then hides behind ideas of colorblindness to deflect charges of racism and discrimination. However, it is important for me to address the human nature which drives the behaviors and attitudes of our majority population and dominant culture, so that I can better understand how we arrived where we are today.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “it seems that an aspect of human nature is the tendency to cling tightly to one’s advantages and privileges and to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others.” I have written about John Biewen and his podcast Seeing White, and one of the key take-aways from his podcast was the understanding that racial discrimination followed economic exploitation. When our nation was not yet independent, we did not have genetic science, and we did not have complete working ideas of evolution and biology. In the United States wealthy European settlers enslaved black people for economic gain, and to justify that exploitation, stories, myths, and the idea of what would become the basis for “race” came into being. We would not have race and the creation of a caste system if people were not exploiting humans for economic gain in the first place. This system was never authentically understood or based on reason or science, but based on myth and the self-interest of those whose privilege provided advantages.
The quote from Alexander reminds us that we cannot just be critical and cast a judgmental eye on those who push back against our challenges to racial injustice. To a much greater extent than we ever truly recognize, we act more out of our own self-interest or our perceived self-interest than we act based on reason and altruistic values. I do not believe that the world is zero-sum, and I think you can cut behind popular views of the world as being win-lose to see ways in which we all grow and benefit even if we appear to be giving something up. However, the loss of status, the loss of social privilege, and even the loss of economic advantages can truly feel like a loss if you view the world as zero-sum. Giving up any of these things produces short term pains, and the payoffs are often far away and hard to recognize. Asking one group to give up their advantages and privilege may be necessary to ensure longterm stability within a population and may lead to greater economic prosperity for all over a generation or two, but the individual who must give up status and power may feel as though they have given up more than others, and they may feel attacked and victimized.
This is a challenge we must work through as a society. As we ask white people to step away from privilege, we must find a way to demonstrate that we are not attacking them personally or punishing white people for having been successful in our traditional system. Often times overall wealth and privilege is not as important for an individual as relative wealth and privilege. If you have more status among those around you, it does not matter that you are less wealthy and less powerful than those you will never meet or see. This vision needs to be shifted so that we look not at our status relative to those around us, but instead look toward stability and opportunity for humanity as a whole, recognizing that we, and our children, can still be prosperous and important, but in a larger system that depends on human connections more than it depends on individual wealth and success.
Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, directly addresses inconsistencies and inequities within our criminal justice system. The prison population in the United States has exploded relative to other countries, and minority racial populations have taken the brunt of our unusually high number of arrests. Alexander focuses throughout her book on the unequal levels of policing in white, black, and brown communities in the United States and the ways in which inequality has lead to policing patterns that favor white people and disadvantage black and brown people. Alexander also looks at the ways in which people with criminal backgrounds are excluded from society, and how exclusion shapes people’s behavior. She describes the ways that this then feeds back into group behaviors and creates a cycle of continually greater policing and arresting. Despite the evidence to demonstrate that our policing is out of control and unfairly targeting minority populations, our country has trouble addressing the reality of our system, and Alexander has ideas as to why.
In her book she writes, “The language of caste may well seem foreign or unfamiliar to some. Public discussions about racial caste in America are relatively rare. We avoid talking about caste in our society because we are ashamed of our racial history. We also avoid talking about race. We even avoid talking about class.” We believe that today race is not a limiting factor for individuals. White people have an idea in their mind that there are almost no racist individuals in the country. The success of many black and brown individuals in our country demonstrates that we have reached a place beyond racism, where individual effort, not race determines our success. The election of a black president and black sports figures and celebrities is a clear indication to white people that we have reached a post-racial point in society and this allows for the false view that black people bringing up race is the only thing preventing us from leaving race behind. This view however, is drawn entirely upon individuals, and neglects the way that race is shaped by institutions and larger groups. Individually we may have been able to move beyond racism, but as a larger society and within public and private institutions, we have not been able to eliminate disparate impacts for racial groups.
Policing and our prison populations demonstrate the way that we have not moved beyond racism within our institutions. Policies related to policing do not direct officers to over-police black and brown neighborhoods and do not instruct officers to arrest black and brown men at rates far higher than they arrest white men, but that is what we see happening when we look at the data describing who is arrested and where our police officers spend their time and effort. We find ways to explain the disparate outcomes that black and brown people face in our criminal justice system that have nothing to do with race, but our explanations avoid any discussion about the racial history that these groups have faced in our country’s history. For years our country allowed racial discrimination in employment, education, and housing, and these policies limited the economic mobility of racial groups while favoring and advantaging white groups. Wealth accumulation was far more challenging for black and brown people, and the effects of such discrimination have not completely gone away. Policing those who we placed in ghettos and policing those who we did not allow to grow economically is not a directly racists decision within our criminal justice system, it is just a side effect.
Alexander argues that we should have more discussion about the role that race historically played in our country so that we can better understand our current moment. She argues that we should look at race and at socioeconomic status (SES) as indicators of caste, because race, SES, and caste systems can accurately describe the inequities and realities of our system today. Our discussions avoid race and the idea of caste, but the data the supports the reality of the ideas we hide from.
I have heard people, television show hosts, and family members make the argument that black communities are not over policed or over arrested because black people support the levels of policing that take place in their communities. I have heard the argument that confederate symbols really are not a problem because a famous black celebrity or athlete said they have never been bothered by them. I have heard the argument that black people want police protection and safety, so we should not be critical of our police who arrest black people in our ghettos and low income neighborhoods.
In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at this argument and is able to break down some of the thinking taking place. He writes, “according to this theory “safety” was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value.” Arguments to preserve our policing and arguments that discrimination and inequalities arise because they are what poor and minority communities want misplace the importance justice in our system.
Arguing against safety is difficult. It is hard to say that being safe and protected in your home or neighborhood is not something you want. Everyone would like to have a police force that could be relied upon given the dangers of society, but when that police force is part of a system that does not provide equal justice, then there are problems in relying on them for protections, crime prevention, and security.
Coats continues and writes about his childhood and walking to school in Baltimore, “What I would not have given, back in Baltimore, for a line of officers, agents of my country and my community, patrolling my route to school! There were no such officers, and whenever I saw the police it meant that something had already gone wrong.” What Coats shows here is that our system was not forward thinking for black communities, but reactive to problems and crimes. Rather than operating in a system meant to reduce and limit dangers, the police reacted to dangerous incidents. Coats says that things had already gone wrong when the police arrived, but I think it is reasonable to say that things had already gone wrong when restrictive housing policies and racial segregation moved wealthier white people to suburbs, created inner city ghettos, and restricted poor minorities to less healthy environmental living spaces. If we valued justice more than our personal safety, we wound not just arrest black people and claim that our unequal justice system was justified by poor communities’ desires for protection from crime.
In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from former FBI director James Comey, “Perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation is because we’ve come to see only what we represent, at face value, instead of who we are. We simply must see the people we serve.”
This quote came at the end of a longer segment of a speech from Director Comey that Booker included in United. In the Segment, Comey discussed the difficulties of policing and enforcing laws with equity when we as humans must deal with implicit biases. Comey specifically looked at racial dynamics within policing and implicit biases and in the quote above is meant to encourage our nation’s law enforcement to become more self-aware in its role.
Comey suggests that our nation’s values of equality and liberty exist in many ways as just a facade. Rather than truly showing that equality and liberty are important in justice, we simply say they are and act as if that is enough. We have come up with a great slogan and we say that we aspire to live in a nation that is directed by equality and liberty, but the way we treat each other and react to those who are different from us shows that these words simply exist on a banner to make us feel good about ourselves. Our belief that all men are created equal does not materialize in our actions and policies.
If we stop and reflect on what a society would look like if justice was truly equitable, we would recognize that many aspects of our actual society and criminal justice system would not fit into our ideal vision. However, instead of truly reflecting and looking deeply into who we are and how we perceive other racial groups, we look around and assume that since there is relatively little explicit racism in our country (no one demonstrating in white sheets) that racism no longer exists as a barrier to minority populations.
Comey’s speech looked at this tendency to view our country as post racial and looked at our implicit biases that negatively shape our reactions and interactions with black people and hispanics. He was honest about the problem admitting that law enforcement must understand when instincts are influenced by tribal nature which pushes them to look at outsiders in a negative light. His speech put the responsibility for implicit racism on the law enforcement officers and on society, rather than placing responsibility for implicit racism on the individual who is facing discrimination.