Race In America

July 11th, 2015

The week of June 22, 2015 was a historic one for Progress, with Confederate flags coming down in Southern capitals, Gay Marriage legalized throughout the country and Obamacare saved once again from the most recent conservative attempt to destroy it. The week was capped off by an incredible eulogy given by President Obama at the funerals of the 9 members of a historic black church in Charleston, SC.

Earlier in the week, Obama got Elizabeth Hassleback and the folks at Fox riled up with his use of the “N-word” in an interview with Marc Maron. Discussing race relations, Obama noted

Racism, we are not cured of. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.

Obama’s statement brought me back to this fragment of a post that I wrote a few months ago regarding race in America in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and it’s aftermath.

 

I’ve been debating this week with My Conservative Uncle and another conservative sparring partner about our favorite hot button topic: Race in America.

It started this time with the dual announcements that the Justice Department didn’t press civil rights charges against Darren Wilson in the shooting of an unarmed teenager Michael Brown and the report documenting a pattern of racial discrimination in Ferguson. Like many other people, I questioned the decision not to charge Wilson and I continue to believe that the Ferguson police department made a bad situation worse in the way they handled the situation. But the Justice Department went  much further than the grand jury and the preosecutor, not only not charging him, but exonerating him. As Ta Nehesi Coates notes

The investigation concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove a violation of federal law by Officer Wilson. The investigation concluded much more. The investigation concluded that physical evidence and witness statements corroborated Wilson’s claim that Michael Brown reached into the car and struck the officer. It concluded that claims that Wilson reached out and grabbed Brown first “were inconsistent with physical and forensic evidence.”  

The investigation concluded that there was no evidence to contradict Wilson’s claim that Brown reached for his gun. The investigation concluded that Wilson did not shoot Brown in the back. That he did not shoot Brown as he was running away. That Brown did stop and turn toward Wilson. That in those next moments “several witnesses stated that Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson.” That claims that Brown had his hands up “in an unambiguous sign of surrender” are not supported by the “physical and forensic evidence,” and are sometimes, “materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible for otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time.”

My uncle seized on this finding, but buried the lead by not mentioning the 100 page Justice Department report documenting widespread racial discrimination in the Ferguson police department. My other conservative “sparring partner” is a former police officer who objected to the superficial finding (as did many in conservative media) that 86% of traffic stops are of black residents while only 67% of Ferguson residents are black.

But to cite this statistic alone is to distort the report. In fact, it doesn’t even complete the sentence, which should read more like: black people are pulled over and searched more often, despite the fact that the white people who are pulled over and searched are more likely to be found with contraband.

The Justice Department’s Ferguson report is a detailed statistical analysis backed up by a shocking parade of horribles documenting abuse of power by police. It’s a portrait of a city that decided to use its poorest citizens as an ATM to fund their city government and a police force that took that pressure to generate revenue to the extreme.

“Officers routinely conduct stops that have little relation to public safety and a questionable basis in law,” the report states. “Issuing three or four charges in one stop is not uncommon. Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter.” Some officers compete to see who can issue the most citations in a single stop.

Just to put a cherry on top, they also document racist jokes that have been e-mailed at multiple levels of the Ferguson PD and court system.

Defenders of the Ferguson PD say that this is not racial bias, that it’s evidence of liberal big government run amok, but a National Review article arguing that racial bias is not shown in the report includes the following:

The tendency of police to be on the lookout for crime combines with the pressures to prove productivity and the knowledge that poorer residents are the most squeezable turnips. In such a situation, who can be surprised that racial tensions have been increasing for years?

Far more alarming in Ferguson than whether vestigial racism animates a policeman here and there is the perversion of the law, and of the positions of those sworn to protect it, to buck up the treasury on the backs of the most vulnerable, whoever they may be.

Okay, so now we’re admitting that there were police abuses, but we’re being told that it wasn’t racial animus that motivated the police, it was the pressure of city officials for revenue generation and the fact that poorer people are easier targets and black people are poorer…

This is pretty weak tea if it’s supposed to be a defense of the Ferguson Police Department, and it’s probably cold comfort for the black residents of Ferguson who were victims of this targeting. Don’t be silly, black people, you weren’t targeted because you’re black, you were targeted because you’re poor!

But I didn’t really intend to write a post about Ferguson. What I wanted to talk about is how the meaning of the word “racist” does little to illuminate actual racial bias in this country.  In addition to the Ferguson report, the other hot button racial news of the day was the viral video of the members of the SAE fraternity at the University of Oklahoma chanting about how “there will never be a nigger (at) SAE” and celebrating the  lynching of black people.  Two students seen in the video have been identified and have since issued apologies (or had people issue apologies for them).  In one statement, the parents of one student state “we know his heart, and he is not a racist.”

You know what?  I get what they’re saying. Let’s give the kid the benefit of the doubt and say that he would not participate in a lynching of a black man and he probably wouldn’t argue that blacks should be denied the rights that white Americans are given. Let’s go further and take his parents statement that he was “raised to be loving and inclusive, and we all remain surrounded by a diverse, close knit group of friends.” Let’s even assume that he has a black friend. Given what we’ve assumed and what we’ve seen, can he qualify as racist?  The only way you can justify a statement like the one his parents issued is to define racism as only one narrow thing: old fashioned KKK, Nazi Skinhead type racism. And I’ll give conservatives that one thing: that type of racism is extremely rare in America these days.

But what’s less rare are pervasive racial stereotypes that still exist in our society. As Coates has argued

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.

This is obviously a softer definition and maybe it is more like racial bias than racism. This is the kind of discrimination you see in the Donald Trump’s Birtherism, or Rudy Giuliani’s statement that President Obama “doesn’t love America… not in the way you and I do.” It’s the kind of bigotry that allows us to excuse an all white police force when they basically occupy a majority black town, ticketing residents for victimless crimes and making criminals out of a majority of residents. It’s the kind of racial prejudice that is expressed in jokes and chants on playgrounds all over this country (and all over the world) and in frats and social clubs behind closed doors. It’s America’s original sin and evidence that, even with a black president, we’re far from the post-racial society that conservatives would like us to believe we’re living in.

It’s refreshing to have a President who not only understands this, but who acknowledges it in public.

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