Dear White People: Race still matters — even in Ferguson

By Brandon Bub
Aug. 24, 2014

RIP Mike Brown

In 2007, the Supreme Court offered a decision in a case called Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. The case arose after the Seattle School District passed a law allowing students to apply to attend any school in the district regardless of neighborhood. Of course, parents wanted their students to attend the highest achieving high schools, so competition in the application process had to be addressed. One factor that the district would weigh for admission was race: If the racial demographics of the student body exceeded a certain percentage, the school could consider an applicant’s race to achieve balance.

Parents Involved in Community Schools sued the school district, alleging that the “racial tiebreaker” system violated the 14th Amendment Equal Protection rights of students. Many white parents felt this policy was a form of racial discrimination, and the Supreme Court agreed. In a 5-4 decision (N.B. Anthony Kennedy concurred in the result of this case striking the law down but did not join Roberts’ opinion, meaning that the case was technically decided 4-1-4), the Court struck down Seattle’s plan as unconstitutional.

There are a lot of normative claims we can make about this decision (you can read more about the case’s background here, and the majority and dissenting opinions are here), but there’s one element in particular I want to focus on: the last sentence of Chief Justice John Roberts’ plurality opinion. Roberts writes, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

I note this piece of Roberts’ rationale because it is at once profoundly logical and wholly incorrect. And I can’t help but think of this pithy slogan whenever I sift through coverage of Michael Brown’s death and recent protests in Ferguson, Mo.

In the past few weeks I have come across a lot of posts in my Facebook feed about Ferguson and race that I have found highly troubling. Themes of these comments include but are not limited to, “These protesters should go and find jobs,” “Visit this website if you’d like to donate money to [police officer] Darren Wilson,” “If he didn’t want to get shot maybe he shouldn’t have been such a punk,” and “Why are black people always looking for handouts?” My usual reaction to these kinds of posts is to sigh and scroll down — I assume I cannot change anyone’s minds so I might as well move on.

But I’m beginning to think that such a reaction on my part is unconscionable because letting this sort of bigotry stand can mark a tacit acceptance of it as normal. My project in writing this column is to address these kinds of comments and note not only that they are racist but also why they are racist.

“Wait a minute Bub, are you calling me a racist? That’s impossible. I’m a decent person, I pay my taxes, I go to Church on Sundays. I even have a few black friends! I can’t possibly be racist.”

Visual approximation of what everyone thinks a racist looks like. Photo: Paul M. Walsh.

Visual approximation of what everyone thinks a racist looks like. Photo: Paul M. Walsh.

To me, this is one of the hardest humps to get over when I try to engage people in a conversation about race: No wants to openly admit that they are racist. In our minds, racists are deplorable people. Racists are Klansmen. Racists are the stuck-up white antagonists from the movie “The Help.” Racists are comic book caricatures like Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy. And above all, racists are certainly not me.

The thing to remember is that no person is exempt from racist behavior. Even some of our most lionized figures in American history like Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln were not above racial prejudice (or, in Jefferson’s case, racial violence). It is certainly better to recognize your biases than convince yourself that they do not exist. You’re not going to get put in metaphorical “race jail” for owning up to prejudice.

“Alright, well even if I am biased sometimes, that doesn’t change that black people are blowing this whole thing out of proportion. This kid was a shoplifter, fought with an officer, tried to steal his gun. What did he think was going to happen?”

First of all, the shooting’s antecedent situation is still far from clear. What should be noted is that an autopsy report found that Brown was shot six times from the front, two of those bullets striking him in the head.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine that the police narrative is entirely correct. Imagine that Brown assaulted the officer when confronted by him, charged toward him and tried to grab his gun. It is not unrealistic to imagine that the officer might have to discharge his weapon. Once, maybe twice. Is there really any world in which it’s reasonable to think that Brown deserved to be shot six times? Did the officer not have other means at his disposal to neutralize the situation besides his gun?

You might believe that Wilson acted prudently, supposing that he feared for his own life, but let me posit this: The situation, no matter which narrative you give more credence, would have ended differently if it were me in Michael Brown’s place, and I guarantee you that our asymmetrical skin colors play into that difference.

Furthermore, as soon as this conversation devolves into a conversation about Brown’s character, we have already missed the point. As Ezra Klein noted not long ago, “This case is not about whether Michael Brown was One of the Good Ones. It’s not even about whether he robbed a convenience store. The penalty for stealing cigars from a convenience store is not death. This case is about whether Wilson was legally justified in shooting Michael Brown.”

“OK, Bub. Look, maybe the officer did overreact, but Brown should have just done whatever the officer told him. These protesters are only interested in causing trouble.”

This conclusion is hugely ignorant, but I am not surprised why so many people believe it to be true. Robert P. Jones writing for The Atlantic summarizes an important new Pew Research poll: When given the choice between the statements “Brown’s shooting raises important issues about race that need to be discussed” or “The issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves,” black Americans chose the former statement at four times the rate of white Americans.

Pew Ferguson Poll

This gulf in understanding stems partly from how self-segregated black and white communities have become. A Public Religion Research Institute poll from 2013 found that the social networks of white Americans are, on average, 91 percent white. By comparison, black Americans’ social networks are only 65 percent black. The more we are able to isolate ourselves from those with different life experiences, the more likely it is that those communities will look at issues through disparate lenses.

white social networks

The ethnic and racial makeup of white social networks.

The last time I was pulled over by a police officer, I was driving in Plano, Texas. The officer politely asked to see my license and registration, and then said that he pulled me over because it appeared as though car’s tags were expired. As soon as the car was stopped, he saw otherwise. He apologized profusely. I can’t say I minded; I wasn’t exactly in a hurry that day. He was probably afraid I would ask for his badge number and lobby a complaint. I told him that the stop was no trouble and we both went on with our days.

One of my best friends in high school was once waiting for a train at a DART station in Garland, Texas, which is right next door to Plano. An officer approached him and asked what he was doing. My friend explained that he was taking the train to get to work, and began walking over to the officer to show him his pass. The officer shouted, “Sir, don’t come any closer!” He walked over to my friend, demanded to see the pass, and then walked away. My friend did not get an apology from the officer, and I know he would never have dreamed to ask for his badge number.

If I told you both of these stories and asked you to guess which one of us was white, do you think you could figure it out? My guess is that you could. And do you know why? Because white people in this country have a fundamentally different relationship with law enforcement as compared to people of color.

“White people get killed by the police too, you know.”

Yes, they do. And the police response in Ferguson has rightly brought more attention to the issue of the militarization of our police forces (which Senator Rand Paul wrote about recently in Time Magazine). And indeed, no one actually knows just how many Americans are killed in confrontations with the police each year. But the problem I have with this kind of discourse on police brutality is that we’re wrongfully divorcing the issue of race from the equation.

Consider this: The United States is 63 percent white and about 12 percent black. As Politifact points out, even with the incomplete data set we have so far, between 1999 and 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 2151 white people died after being shot by police as compared to 1130 black people. The number of whites killed is only slightly double, yet they outnumber black people five-to-one by population. And such disparities are hardly surprising: black people account for a little less than half of the country’s prison population.

“Well maybe more black people just tend to be criminals. Ever think of that?”

Yes, I did think of that, and no, it’s not right, and yes, that is a horribly racist thing to say. The reason why so many black people are forced to deal with the criminal justice system is not because they are criminal by nature. It might have to do with overly aggressive policing in black neighborhoods. It might have to do with a War on Drugs that disproportionately targets people of color. It might have to do with public schools that ran out of money when all the wealthier white people fled the tax base. It might have to do with our prison system encouraging recidivism. It might even be a confluence of those factors (and more).

“Well black people commit murder against other blacks all the time. What about that?”

Another commonly heard refrain in conservative circles that seek to “whitewash” the issue. Ninety percent of black murder victims are killed by other black people. That’s not the full story though. Eighty-three percent of white murder victims were murdered by other white people. But does that statistic make us question whether or not white people are inherently prone to violence? No, of course not.

Throwing around statistics about what kind of people are killed by black people often represents a thinly veiled effort to suggest that black people are somehow defective. As Steve Chapman writes for Reason, “most crimes are committed by males, but we don’t refer to ‘male-on-male’ crime.” The “black-on-black” crime shibboleth “stems from a desire to excuse whites from any role in changing the conditions that breed disorder and delinquency in poor black areas.”

“Okay, so maybe police violence does affect the black community in a different way than it does my own. I still think this is being blown out of proportion. If black people want to feel safe in their communities, they should pull themselves up on their own. Educate themselves, get good jobs. No one deserves a handout.”

And now we come back to John Roberts’ vision of race in America: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” And that’s why we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act this year, right? The 1960s saw the death of Jim Crow and guarantees of black voting rights. We’re all “equal under the law” now. So that also should mean the same thing for whites too, right? Affirmative action in schools, preferential hiring policies for minorities–these are all just examples of black people playing the “race card” at white folks’ expense. I have my rights too, right?

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a friend about a year or so ago about the HBO show Girls. I made a snide remark about the show’s lack of diversity and how Lena Dunham apparently lives in an alternate New York City where black people don’t exist. A friend of mine chastised me: “Brandon, I never knew you were such a racist. You can’t judge a show like that; skin color does not matter at all. You should be colorblind.”

What both John Roberts and my friend failed to recognize here was the concept of privilege. And yes, I know some commentators love to make this word into a punch line, but it existed when Peggy McIntosh codified it in 1988 and it still exists now. Convincing ourselves that skin color does not matter is tantamount to pretending that privilege is nonexistent and no person’s cultural background is different enough from my own to warrant discussing. Declaring oneself “colorblind” is a way to negate white supremacy while simultaneously benefitting from it–it does not eschew oppression but rather invites it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival. David Shankbone/Wikipedia Commons.

Ta-Nehisi Coates at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival. David Shankbone/Wikipedia Commons.

I conclude with an excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ intellectually breathtaking piece in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” which I recommend that all read in its entirety.

With segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage. An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating.

One thread of thinking in the African American community holds that these depressing numbers partially stem from cultural pathologies that can be altered through individual grit and exceptionally good behavior. (In 2011, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, responding to violence among young black males, put the blame on the family: “Too many men making too many babies they don’t want to take care of, and then we end up dealing with your children.” Nutter turned to those presumably fatherless babies: “Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt.”) The thread is as old as black politics itself. It is also wrong. The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance.”

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[Title photo by Shawn Semmler]

Posted by on August 24, 2014. Filed under Race,Recent News,Social Justice,Top News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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