Five Things You Should Know About Race in America
In the wake of the Michael Brown tragedy, my hometown of St. Louis is both literally and figuratively on fire. A gas station went down in flames on Sunday night. Concurrently a number of stores were broken into and looted as a riot broke out after hours of peaceful mourning, demonstrating, and protesting took place in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri–just 20 minutes from where I was raised in downtown St. Louis. The rioting may have garnered as much attention and national headlines as the killing at the heart of it, perhaps more. Mainstream media continues to magnify the transgressions of a few individuals, despite the fact that many more have good intentions and positive interactions. Given the media’s selective bias, I am deeply concerned that those who were not fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to digest the situation as it occurred (be it on the streets or via social media) will be misled by news outlets that are (1) primarily concerned with sensationalism and entertainment value over substance and/or (2) purposefully and willingly participating in a campaign to vilify and demonize blacks in America.
At this point in time, I don’t think it’s appropriate to fully delve into the alleged criminal misconduct of the police officer who shot Michael Brown. The situation is extremely fluid and it’s hard to separate facts from hearsay. That being said, there’s a lot of dialogue happening in the aftermath that I find troubling–from friends and strangers alike. As such, I feel the need to unpack some of the ideas and constructs that are driving the discussion. My hope is to provide context and clarity to the salient issues that are related to the shooting of Michael Brown. I am very much interested in continuing, and improving the dialogue. So here it goes:
Five Things You Should Know About Race in America
Statistical Evidence of Racism
It’s pretty commonplace to think that since slavery was abolished in 1865 that nearly 150 years later we couldn’t possible guilty of systematically oppressing blacks or any minority. We’ve grown from that. It’s time to move past that. This is the new post-racial America, right? RIGHT?!
To accept that notion as true requires one to look past the damning evidence of how much room we have for improvement. You can have your pick of the litter when it comes to statistics that reveal policies or injustices that disproportionately impact blacks in America. I’ll pick two. First stat: arrest rates for possession of marijuana in 2010 were 3.73 times higher for blacks than whites, despite marijuana use being almost equal (14% for blacks, 12% for whites). In some counties the arrest rates are 10 to 30 times higher for blacks than whites. It should be pretty obvious how that can impact black families and the greater community.
The second stat is local to Ferguson but germane to MANY areas across the country:
According to the State of Missouri, blacks are over-represented in Ferguson traffic stops while all other races are under-represented. Additionally, blacks are arrested almost twice as much as any group with a statistically significant sample size. Note that the contraband hit rate for blacks is 36% lower than whites, but the arrest rate is almost double that of whites. The stats, of course, doesn’t even take into consideration any potential reporting bias of Ferguson law enforcement. So statistically, it’s accurate (perhaps conservative) to say that blacks are targeted by the police (in Ferguson) more than any other race. I can tell you from personal experience that the black people that live and commute through the area were fully aware of this disparity long before these stats were published or shared via social media. Fear is often an irrational or unsubstantiated emotion, but in this case, one can understand why many blacks have an almost paralyzing fear of being pulled over and interacting with the police.
So while we may be decades removed from slavery and Jim Crow laws, the statistics still point to disproportionate incrimination of blacks across a number of offenses in a way that suggests institutionalized racism is still very much prevalent in America. Ferguson is just one example. The fact is, the relics of racism and slavery are not only found in our laws, policies, and arrest records, but are also deeply entrenched in our minds. They inform our values and behaviors, often in a significant way. Which brings me to the second thing you should know about race in America…
The Fallacy of Politics of Respectability
Social media has a penchant for discussing and perpetuating politics of respectability, and those discussions have merit as a proxy for its prevalence in the greater society. So what are the politics of respectability, exactly? While this is still one of my favorite explanations, I’ll defer to Michael Eric Dyson:
“Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, dresses correctly, speaks correctly, went to undergraduate at Columbia, went to graduate school at Harvard, and is still subject to a racist sheriff who refers to him as the ‘n’ word…No matter how talented we are, no matter how rhetorically sophisticated we are, that will not, in any way, dislodge the deeply entrenched bias in the mind of another person, or the institutional infrastructure that reproduces the pathology of racism in America. My good dress will not stop the bad habits of a bigot in America, neither will it interrupt the institutional expression of racism in America today.”
Dr. Dyson explains plainly that our dress and speech will not save us from bigotry. It is important to note that the politics of respectability are not merely perpetuated by the majority. Blacks often see this as a noble way out of the ‘hood (and certainly education and attire can help–if you have access to it), but an advanced degree and a sharp suit are not and should not be prerequisites for civil rights. Those rights are meant to be inalienable. It is completely appropriate and strategic to preach the benefits of good dress and eloquent speech to your children and those in your community. However, it is misguided to believe that you are actively combating racism by doing so; that’s the fallacy of politics of respectability.
“Respectability” may help you or your family move up the economic ladder, but unfortunately it will not shield you from bigotry or institutionalized racism. In fact, the same study by the ACLU on marijuana possession arrest rates shows that you may be MORE likely to be arrested if you’re black and economically prosperous:
“African Americans living in counties with the highest median household incomes, $85,000 to $115,000, are two to eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In counties with median household incomes of $22,000 to $30,000, the arrest rate for blacks is 1.5 times to five the rate as for whites.” So you can literally put that in your pipe and smoke it, but understand that fancy clothes and a nice house won’t save you.
An unfortunate byproduct of the politics of respectability is that they serve as a convenient way for blacks to distance ourselves from our own people. I see some of my fellow St. Louisans expressing disappointment in the images being broadcast nationwide from the fallout of the riots. I would like to express my disappointment in them for dismissing their own people and (unknowingly) contributing to a culture that brands blacks (be it as a whole or a subgroup) as second class citizens unworthy of being protected by our society. We see images, clothing, and behaviors that have been promoted as menacing and we say “I don’t dress, talk, or act like that.” We deflect, and even worse blame the victims of injustices by suggesting that “they had it coming. They’re confirming what [bigoted] white people already think of them.” That point of view is dripping with both ignorance and privilege. It supports a troubling narrative that suggests that Black people deserve or need to be policed more aggressively than others, to the point of violating their constitutional rights. Furthermore it plays right into the criminalization of our own people by suggesting that their very diction, appearance, or decorum represents danger, when in reality we are projecting our own biases and fears onto them. Which brings me to the third thing you should understand about race in America…
Many People Have An Irrational Fear of People of Color
Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous. It doesn’t require the presence of real danger or an actual threat; mere belief will do. Fear of people of color is manifested in cultural norms, policies, and legislation across America that serves to disproportionately keep those people from gaining access to social venues, higher education, and modest, affordable housing.
Fear often leads to irrational behavior and poor decisions. We’ve all been there before. Fear can cause blacks to exhibit behaviors of guilt and culpability when in the presence of police officers, even when entirely innocent. Fear is also is what triggers the fight or flight response of a policeman who reaches for his weapon and shoots multiple times at an unarmed civilian. It’s why when a black man is reportedly killed every 28 hours by a policeman, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante, there is often a media campaign to propagate pejorative images and descriptions of the deceased to substantiate that fear and sway public opinion. By doing so media outlets effectively recriminate the deceased victim (i.e. Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown) and they perpetuate–you guessed it–more fear.
Undoubtedly we are all saddled with biases and prejudices, and sometimes they are against our own people. While I’m inclined to think that this may play a role in self-inflicted suffering within our community, it’s inappropriate to tether those elements of self-inflicted suffering to injustices committed by the officers of the law. That’s why the fourth thing you need to know about race in America is that…
Black on Black Crime Does Not Legitimize Police Brutality
This is one of the more frustrating themes I’ve seen discussed in the wake of the Michael Brown tragedy. Since this piece has already been stats-heavy, I’ll refer you to this article on the myth of black-on-black crime for data. “Black on black crime” is a convenient and highly politicized term that serves to paint a portrait that blacks are more violent and dangerous. The fact is that the the victim of any crime is likely to be of the same race as the criminal–overwhelmingly so. This fact is a function of proximity that creates more opportunity based on the way we cluster together socially by race. It should be note that the rate of blacks killing whites isn’t significantly higher than whites killing blacks. Media coverage might lead you to think otherwise.
Here’s what’s important: it is perverse to suggest that a group of people deserve to be treated unfairly under the law based on how often they commit crimes against one another. The vast majority of any race of people are not criminals, and to treat them as such is wrong. Police showed up to a peaceful vigil in Ferguson on Sunday with riot gear, and called law-abiding citizens “animals.” This violates the social contract that we have with our law enforcement agencies, plain and simple. That is a foul, and not-so-subtle microaggression (or flat-out aggression). It is demeaning. It is unnecessarily adversarial.
Such dehumanizing behavior from an officer of the law is a direct outcome of entrenched, institutionalized racism that systematically dictates that one group is inferior. Furthermore when this behavior goes unchecked by the justice system, it says to all of America that such behavior is acceptable and doesn’t need to be eradicated. Over time this builds tension between law enforcement and the marginalized group (read: blacks) and creates a primordial soup that can sometimes spawn outrage and anarchist behavior. Which leads me to the fifth, and final thing you should know about race in America…
Riots Signal A Need For Change
Riots are mile markers on the road of our country’s collective conscience. They are often an indicator of how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go. This is what makes them intriguing from a socio-anthropological standpoint. America has a long history of riots and displays of civil unrest. These riots signify a state of social oppression, political exclusion, or economic duress that has become so unreasonable for a group of people that they feel the need to fight for their livelihood, their future. And while it’s easy to be critical of rioters, history suggests that rioting has at least some precedence for being a catalyst for positive social change:
- The Springfield Race Riot of 1908 led to the formation of the NAACP.
- The Harlem Riot of 1964 led to the first black NYPD precinct commander, and Project Uplift (an anti-poverty program in Harlem).
- The 1992 Los Angeles riots led to significant changes in the structure and policies of the LAPD including hiring an outside chief, increasing diversity, and increasing the scrutiny of the use of force by officers.
That being said, a riot is an inefficient and destructive way of bringing about change. Riots are a symptomatic of serious societal ills, and should be met with commensurate political and social response. The bolstered police presence that we’ve seen in response to protests of this century is alarming. Arming local police forces with military equipment is a misguided and immoral way to treat the symptoms of societal ills andtreating symptoms is not the same as eradicating disease. We need to prevent riots and civil unrest from happening in the first place. But how?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The solution will be born out of cooperating with the people affected by this tragedy, not castigating them. We have to listen to the people of Ferguson and greater St. Louis and understand the circumstances that primed these events. As a society, we must ask ourselves if we are meeting our social contract by treating protecting their safety, treating them justly, and ensuring they are allowed the pursuit of happiness.
BONUS – Here are some specific suggestions on how you can be involved and help to create positive change:
- Participate in lawful protest activity: there is ongoing activity in Ferguson/St. Louis, as well as a National Moment of Silence occurring on Thursday, August 14 at 7PM ET. Check this document or go to this Facebook page to see if there is a gathering in your area.
- Contact your local officials via phone, email or letter (police chiefs, aldermen, congressman, etc.) to express your concerns. Apply political pressure to expedite tangible change like the use of dashboard cams and body cams. Renton, WA has seen positive results from dash cams, and New Orleans, LA is trying them out in an attempt to ease tensions between the police and minorities.
- Encourage your friends and family to participate in dialogue about these events. People need to be informed about what is happening to them and around them. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” -MLK, Jr.