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You might not be racist, but I’ll bet you’re biased

December 7, 2014

Tonight while reading Goodnight Moon to my daughter, I recalled the heart-wrenching words I once heard from a student of mine in North Philadelphia: “Miss Thatcher, I’m not allowed to look out of the windows at night, so how am I supposed to look at the moon?”

James was innocently responding to my suggestion to check the color of the moon on that particular fall night when it was supposed to be full and bright. I had just read Harvest Moon to my second-grade students at Cayuga Elementary School and had naively suggested that they look to see if the moon indeed appeared orange as it rose over the skyline that night. James’ question had made my heart drop to the pit of my stomach; I can still feel it sitting there as I think back to those words spoken by such a young, bright, but futureless child.

I shouldn’t say futureless. James had a chance to succeed. He had a concerned, involved mother and a knack for school that most of my students lacked—not for want of intelligence, but for specifics of circumstance. But how do children—even those with good parents and a natural inclination—blossom when they can’t even experience sunshine (or moonshine) because it’s too dangerous to peek outside, let alone play there?

This single incident with James hit home how profoundly different the black experience is from that of most whites. Yes, there are blacks who grow up in nice towns and are afforded the very same opportunities as whites, and there are whites who grow up in violent neighborhoods with few prospects, but by and large it is blacks who suffer the sort of childhood that James and his classmates did.

And by and large it is blacks who suffer unjust discrimination at the hands of police. The recent spate of deaths of unarmed black males at the hands of police officers has created uproar among blacks and whites alike, with blacks demanding justice and many whites claiming nothing unjust has occurred.

The uproar has managed to both bring to a fore and obscure the issue of race relations in the United States. To listen to talk radio, browse the Internet, and skim through Facebook, one would gain the impression that the issue is one of two things: either institutionalized discrimination (if you’re siding against the PDs); or blacks making a big deal out of nothing (if you’re siding with the PDs).

The issue, I would argue, is neither. The problem, instead, is one of deep-seated and often unrecognized personal bias, an issue that is masterfully underscored in the movie Crash, which I used to show to my sociology students every semester when I taught at CDKC. One of the characters in the film is a young L.A. cop who is miffed when he is assigned to be partners with one of the most vocal racists in the department. It is the young, open-minded cop, however, who ends up shooting an unarmed black man at the end of the film in a split-second decision that brings to the surface biases he didn’t even know he held.

While I have no doubt that there are real racists out there policing black communities, the true threat to blacks are the officers—and ordinary citizens like you and me—who don’t think they maintain any prejudice until they, like the officer in Crash, are forced to make decisions that reveal their inner biases.

These biases, which we all hold with respect to people who are different from us, result in real harm even when harm is never intended. Several well-known studies of job applicants with equal qualifications but of different races has revealed that whites—even white ex-convicts—are overwhelming chosen over blacks to fill job openings. The employers in these studies weren’t purposefully denying black applicants the jobs, yet they harbored inner biases that came into play when deciding who would be reliable, hard-working employees. And we wonder why so many young black men turn to crime and drugs: they know their prospects are slim even if they work hard at the subpar educations they’re afforded; but us white folks don’t know this because we don’t realize how our biases affect blacks.

For those inclined to argue that “they” bring it on “themselves,” try this thought experiment:

You’re an employer looking to hire a new employee. You have in front of you the resumes of two equally qualified individuals. You’ve interviewed both of them and both come across as mature and responsible. The only difference between them is that one is white and one is native (since I’m in Montana, I’ll go with the more common minority here). You, being a self-aware white person who believes that all human beings are worthy and capable regardless of race or ethnicity, would like to hire the native applicant because he seemed a little more upbeat and personable than the white applicant. However, you’ve worked with natives before and know that there’s a strong tendency among them to put family before work or school—to miss not just one day of work but several days when funerals or family emergencies arise; and you also know that funerals and family emergencies seem to occur with much greater frequency in native communities than in white communities.

After much anguished thought and deliberation, you end up deciding to hire the white applicant because in the end, it’s more important for you to hire a reliable employee than an affable one. Is this fair? Absolutely not. How do you know the white applicant’s child or spouse won’t become unexpectedly ill or die, prompting him to abandon work for a week or more to deal with the crisis? How do you know the particular native applicant whose resume you hold in front of you will experience any family emergencies at all? Or that he will fit the typical pattern of leaving work for days at a time to deal with them? You don’t. All you have to go off of are the patterns you’ve observed in the past, patterns that form the basis for biases that influence your actions and decisions—actions and decisions that overwhelmingly result in white people receiving preference over people of color.

The most dangerous threat to the black community is not the violence within it that keeps young children behind closed doors and shuttered windows at night, but rather the unacknowledged bias outside of it, for it is this bias that prevents so many black men (and women) from gaining equal treatment and equal access despite the extinction of institutionalized discrimination years ago; bias that consequently turns many of them to the violence that endangers the community even more, and that further bolsters white bias, ensuring that this vicious cycle continues.

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