Category Archives: Racial Equality

The Social Construction of Expectations

Consider this a postscript to yesterday’s post about the unequal prosecution of the drug war, and the effect of that disparity on public attitudes toward African-Americans.

A few days ago, a Brookings Institution study confirmed what many of us have suspected–

The 2015 recipient of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) National Teacher of the Year Award, Shanna Peeples, recently spoke about the importance of teachers believing in their students—and imparting their expectations to students—particularly students who doubt their ability to succeed academically. Students have similar feelings and frequently report favoring teachers who “believe in [students’] ability to succeed”. Teachers’ expectations may either counteract or reinforce negative expectations held by traditionally disadvantaged students who lack access to educationally-successful role models. To date, however, little is known about how teachers form expectations and whether their expectations are systematically biased.

Along with colleagues at American University and Johns Hopkins University, I begin to address these questions in a recent study. We find evidence of systematic biases in teachers’ expectations for the educational attainment of black students. Specifically, non-black teachers have significantly lower educational expectations for black students than black teachers do when evaluating the same students. …

For example, when a black student is evaluated by one black teacher and by one non-black teacher, the non-black teacher is about 30 percent less likely to expect that the student will complete a four-year college degree than the black teacher.

There is a fair amount of research confirming the belief that teachers’ evaluation of student capacities affect student performance. (This will hardly come as a shock to those of us who are parents.Kids live up–or down–to our expectations.)

It bears repeating–again–that these disparities in expectation are not evidence of conscious racial bias. I’d be willing to bet that most of these non-black teachers genuinely care about all of their students, whatever their ethnicity or skin color.

These lowered expectations are reinforced by multiple, ingrained cultural messages–they are part and parcel of social attitudes that become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The question is: how do we change those attitudes? How do we train teachers to base their demands for student performance on more appropriate criteria than skin color?

 

That War on Drugs…

When I was still practicing law, I had several friends who were criminal defense lawyers. I still remember a conversation with one of them about the clients he represented in the so-called “drug war.”

Since research confirms that similar percentages of whites and blacks abuse drugs, I wanted to know why  virtually all of the defendants I saw in drug court were black. He told me that earlier in his career, he had represented fairly equal numbers of whites and blacks, but that the young white men disproportionately came from well-connected families–people who “knew people” and could make things uncomfortable for the police and prosecutors. Over the years, forays into comfortable suburban enclaves had diminished, and law enforcement concentrated its efforts in the more “urban” areas from which his then-current clients were drawn.

So I was not at all surprised, to read this recent statement by Former U.S. Marshal and DEA Agent Matthew Fogg.

“We were jumping on guys in the middle of the night, all of that. Swooping down on folks all across the country, using these sorts of attack tactics that we went out on, that you would use in Vietnam, or some kind of war-torn zone. All of the stuff that we were doing, just calling it the war on drugs. And there wasn’t very many black guys in my position.

So when I would go into the war room, where we were setting up all of our drug and gun and addiction task force determining what cities we were going to hit, I would notice that most of the time it always appeared to be urban areas.

That’s when I asked the question, well, don’t they sell drugs out in Potomac and Springfield, and places like that? Maybe you all think they don’t, but statistics show they use more drugs out in those areas than anywhere. The special agent in charge, he says ‘You know, if we go out there and start messing with those folks, they know judges, they know lawyers, they know politicians. You start locking their kids up; somebody’s going to jerk our chain.’ He said, ‘they’re going to call us on it, and before you know it, they’re going to shut us down, and there goes your overtime.’”

When people talk about “systemic” racism, this is the sort of thing they mean. I seriously doubt that these officers were personally racist; they were just responding to the reality that going after more privileged folks is a more complicated proposition.

Of course, when the media covers the “drug war,” and the video shows mostly black faces, it confirms viewers’ impression that drugs are an “urban” problem. It reinforces the stereotypes.

And the band plays on….

 

But One of My Best Friends is Black!

The online version of the New York Times has a series called “The Stone.” It’s part of their general “Opinionator” category. A recent post to that series caught my eye, although I hadn’t originally planned to post about it.

Then I participated in a recent discussion hosted by GIPC’S Race Relations Network.

The discussion was titled “The Social Construction of Race,” and focused upon the discomfort so many white people feel during discussions of race and racism. At a couple of points, there was real tension in the room, despite the fact that everyone in that room was demonstrably a person of good will where race relations are concerned (and the white participants probably had close black friends).

I’ve been in several similar situations, and I’ve noticed that where discussions about race tend to break down is in the definition of racism. The post from the Times is instructive:

To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society. Most mainstream social scientists dealing with racism issues have relied heavily on inadequate analytical concepts like prejudice, bias, stereotyping and intolerance. Such concepts are often useful, but were long ago crafted by white social scientists focusing on individual racial and ethnic issues, not on society’s systemic racism. To fully understand racism in the United States, one has to go to the centuries-old counter-system tradition of African-American analysts and other analysts of color who have done the most sustained and penetrating analyses of institutional and systemic racism.

Prejudice is much less than half the story. Because prejudice is only one part of the larger white racial frame that is central to rationalizing and maintaining systemic racism, one can be less racially prejudiced and still operate out of many other aspects of that dominant frame. That white racial frame includes not only racist prejudices and stereotypes of conventional analyses, but also racist ideologies, narratives, images and emotions, as well as individual and group inclinations to discriminate shaped by the other features. Additionally, all whites, no matter what their racial prejudices and other racial framings entail, benefit from many racial privileges routinely granted by this country’s major institutions to whites.

This last sentence seems inarguable to me. It is what is meant by “white privilege,” and all of us white folks–inescapably–benefit from it. The underlying point is that systems matter more than individual bias, and that even the least prejudiced, most pro-equality, non-racist white person is treated differently in numerous contexts because of the way those systems have been constructed over time.

White folks who get offended by these discussions need to realize that simply pointing out the reality of institutionalized racism is not an accusation of complicity. It’s a recognition that we can’t change deeply-embedded structures unless we recognize that they exist and understand how they operate.

Ultimately, individual bias isn’t the problem. Social systems that reinforce and perpetuate inequality–that treat similarly-situated people differently based upon the color of their skin– are the problem.

If you don’t believe me, ask a black friend.

 

Policy and Prejudice

How do you distinguish criticism of President Obama based upon policy from that motivated by racism?

There are some telling clues. For example, in a recent Facebook exchange, a commenter weighed in on a post featuring a picture of Obama, accusing the President of “Nixonian” behavior and (ironically) racism.

Let’s deconstruct that.

It is beyond debate that President Obama has encountered massive resistance to even his most uncontroversial initiatives. (There’s a lively debate over whether the enormous and vicious hostility to this President is “one of the worst” or “the worst” in history–not having been around for all of that history, I’ll leave that argument to the historians.)

It is perfectly understandable that Americans would disagree with the priorities or suggested policies of this or any chief executive. (The current opposition to the TPP is a good example.) But it’s also clear that racism drives a great deal of the hostility.

There is a simple test that lets you tell the difference between genuine disagreement and bigotry.

I’ve previously blogged about the woman who complained that, every time she had a principled policy objection to something Obama was doing, she encountered accusations of racism. I commiserated, then asked her which of the President’s policies she objected to. Her response was “He’s a socialist!” When I asked her which policy positions she considered socialist, she raised her voice; “He’s a Muslim!”

Gee–I wonder why people think she’s a racist….

A similar dynamic was obvious in the referenced Facebook exchange. The objections to the President were all what we call “ad hominem” attacks–name calling. Labelling. Not a single concrete example of a wrongheaded policy or a “Nixonian” activity.

I happen to admire President Obama. But even though I think he’s done a remarkably good job under unbelievably difficult circumstances, I can identify policies he’s pursued with which I disagree. (NSA, anyone? Drones?)

So here’s the test: when someone protests that their criticism of POTUS isn’t racist, ask them to specify the policies with which they take issue. If they can’t–if they respond with characterizations and indignation rather than a factual, verifiable example of something the President has actually said or done–then yes, they’re racists.

And boy, there are a lot of them.

Charleston

I haven’t written about the massacre in Charleston. I haven’t processed it, either, but just ignoring it seems somehow shameful.

Regular readers of this blog know that there are numerous elements of the world we occupy that concern and (too frequently) enrage me. Willful ignorance leading to bad public policies, rampant anti-intellectualism, the loss of a responsible media…it’s a long list.

America’s inability to overcome our deeply entrenched racism, however, is at the top of that list.

I’m seventy-three years old. I’ve seen overt racism decline substantially over my lifetime. We passed civil rights laws. Nice people stopped telling racist jokes at cocktail parties. Intermarriages increased and disapproval of those unions decreased. We prepared to elect a biracial President. It seemed that the arc of history was–in Martin Luther King’s words–bending toward justice.

Then Barack Obama was elected, and overt racism came roaring back.

All the old white guys (and let’s be honest, plenty of old white gals) who’d been trying to cope with the fact that their lives hadn’t turned out the way they’d hoped, who’d been getting up each morning to a world in which they were no longer automatically superior simply by virtue of their skin color, suddenly had a black President. And they just couldn’t handle it.

The rocks lifted. The nastiness, the resentment, the smallness oozed out.

The internet “jokes,” the Fox News dog-whistles, the political pandering that barely tries to camouflage its racial animus–they’ve all contributed to a new-old social norm in which racism is winked at, and if noticed at all, justified with urban legends about African-Americans and outright lies about the President.

Every inadequate excuse for a human being who has forwarded a vile email about the President and his family, every gun nut claiming that people wouldn’t have been killed if only the pastor had been armed (in church!), every snide “commentator” who has spent the last six years making a nice living by playing to racist stereotypes–every one of them created the culture within which this terrorist acted. Every one of them is a co-conspirator in this mass murder.

And don’t get me started on a culture that lets any man insecure in his masculinity–no matter how mentally ill, no matter how demonstrably violent– substitute a deadly weapon for that missing piece of his anatomy.