Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Football Fantasy: Sociological Reflections on Race and the Uneven Playing Field

Imagine playing football on a field where the home team has the advantage of playing on a downhill slope, and with the wind and sun at their backs, and where the visiting team’s side of the field is marked in twenty yard increments rather than ten, so that they must move the ball twice the distance of the home field to score a touchdown. Would you say this game is being played on a level playing field with fair rules?

Obviously, players in such a game would not have equal chances to succeed, but what if the home team was also unaware of their unfair advantages? What if the game was being played on a foggy day and the home team could not see the unequal slope of the field, or feel the surging winds blowing in the face of their opponent? Would players on this team feel as proud of their victory under such conditions?

Imagining a football game being played this way, under these unfair conditions, is difficult for most of us because we expect fair play when we compete, and we are surprised to learn that such unfair conditions could even exist because we have not played such a game before. But some Americans are quite familiar with these rules and, even though they play anyway, they might harbor a certain resentment toward the rule makers, or even the opposing team’s players who had no part in making those rules, especially when the home team players claim that the game was fair all along. 

Now imagine that the home team’s referee wants the home team to win, so she calls more penalties on the visiting team to keep them from scoring. Which team would be more upset about those bad calls on the field? If you found yourself on the visiting team forced to play this unfair game, who would you resent more, the referee for making bad calls on the field, the rule makers for creating a game with such unequal advantage, or the home field players for not acknowledging their advantage when they win a game that’s been fixed?

Or would you just be pissed at Colin Kaepernick and the Millikin football team for the manner in which they brought the issue to your attention? 

We need to remember that the whole point of these demonstrations is to raise awareness about all the unfair, discriminatory types of racism in the criminal justice system toward African-Americans, including police brutality. In a country that prides itself on freedom of expression, why are we obsessing over the form of that expression rather than the issue at hand? We seem to have forgotten the most basic civil right that formed the foundation of our national heritage - the freedom to protest peacefully. Instead, we seem to have adopted a form of Nazi patriotism, where flag waving is mandatory, and where one person (or one team) is condemned for exercising their American right to peacefully dissent in whatever way they choose. Isn’t this ideal the very right our soldiers have fought and died for? Isn’t this why this ideal was established in the FIRST amendment, and not the second or twelfth? Sadly, some have succumbed to conservative political correctness over America’s proud heritage of freedom of speech, in a country that been a beacon of openness to ideas, including those ideas that sometime offend us.

The “controversy” over Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem exposes our nation’s ignorance of the game itself, more than it does his audacity to do so. The negative reaction to our own Big Blue football team to remain in the locker room during the national anthem, showing respect through individual silent reflection (or one player’s decision to stand), likewise underscores our national deflection of the real issue of racial inequality more than it does the Fox News narrative that Millikin must hate America and its soldiers.

Like many of you, I found myself having to defend Millikin’s decision to support the team, after the social media blitz that followed soon after Fox News and other conservative media outlets sacked us for doing it. On Facebook, for example, I was scolded for working at such an unpatriotic school, and “one of the most black and liberal colleges around”. I mean, just read the comments underneath the original article from Fox News and you’ll see the outrage of some voices in conservative, white America over everything except what the demonstrations of Kaepernick and our football team are all about. They are way out of bounds in this regard. Across the country, and across most sports, athletes are expressing their concern over racial injustice in the criminal justice system. Even superstars like women’s soccer phenom (and former sociology major of mine at the University of Portland :), Megan Rapinoe, who continues her solo demonstration. Listen to her defend her anthem-kneeling here.  

So let’s get back in the game. Let’s talk about the central issue - the unjust system of criminal justice in this country – the racially systemic problems inherent in our system that the Black Lives Matter movement has been so successful at elevating to a national conversation (and why police departments across the country are currently reforming their police conduct practices following federal investigations by the Department of Justice in both Ferguson and Baltimore after the BLM outcry). And let’s talk about the reasons why Kaepernick’s mere kneeling, or our school’s support of our team’s decision to offer our players the freedom to express themselves how they wish, has agitated so many people around the country. A sociological perspective can help us better understand the game we are really playing here.

As white people we don’t readily see our advantages, and we are often perplexed by the visiting team’s outrage over injustice on the field of play because we do not suffer those injustices nearly as often. Have you ever watched a tight game with a friend who roots for the other team, and noticed how much more upset he gets when the referee fails to drop a flag for defensive pass interference when your team just scored on that play? It’s kinda like that.

Maybe it’s just easier to blame the game’s losers. As Michelle Alexander points out in her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, we throw far more penalty flags at African-Americans than Whites for similar infractions, disproportionately targeting one team over another, resulting in systemic disadvantages that keep one team from winning, an intentional function of the modern criminal justice system. If you happen to have been born on the winning team, and fail to see the advantages your team has been given, you might take the time to read her book, or consider the volumes of scholarship on the subject of racial injustice in our criminal justice system, such as these several hundred, peer-reviewed studies that say the same thing.  Or you could listen to the voices of history that remind us of the true nature and scope of persistent racism in America, voices largely absent in traditional history classes, such as Frederick Douglass who said in 1853:

“A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our White countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to our principles and ideals that guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as a characterless and purposeless people and, hence, we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nations’ scorn and contempt.”

And finally, if you are a visual learner, I implore you to watch a new documentary on Netflix entitled, “13th for a powerful, eye-opening examination of racism in the criminal justice system, where reputable experts in the field examine this form of institutional racism with a historical lens.

Ironically, most of those who should probably educate themselves on these facts won’t bother with it, exercising their privilege to ignore the facts about that very privilege. They don’t need to bother with trying to understand how American life is experienced differently by Black men and women in America because they have never really felt this experience, and because they feel they are not directly affected by it. This is one form of white privilege: the privilege of not having to educate yourself about the minority experience in America. It is the privilege of ignorance.

Instead, as white Americans, we use our privilege to deflect the national conversation from these uncomfortable facts toward a tangential conversation about patriotism and how it ought to be publicly displayed, uniformly. Of course, we should be proud to be Americans, but our national pride should not discourage outrage over injustice no matter how we choose to voice it. So, for example, instead of acknowledging the anger expressed by a student like LeRyan Wolfe, who has written several heart-felt essays on the subject of white privilege recently, we can avoid facing it by slamming him for the “offensive” words he’s used to call out the uncomfortable subject of racism, or by dismissing his opinion as just that of another “angry Black man”, which is another form of privileged deflection. He’s just being a bad sport about it, complaining about the rules of the game. That’s what “people like that” do.

But what LeRyan is really trying to do is to call a foul in a game being played on an uneven playing field, with referees who are paid by the home team. The referees in this game are the police officers patrolling the streets of our community, and the uneven field we are playing on is our criminal justice system. So even though the referees are not to blame for the rules of the game, we can understand why the visiting team might be angry with them for favoring their home team – as misplaced as that anger may be - because they represent this historical injustice. And as spectators we should at least be honest enough to recognize our team’s unfair advantage when the referees make bad calls that cause the other team to lose.

And we shouldn’t be so vexed when the other team takes a knee.

Kenneth Laundra, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology
Department of Sociology & Organizational Leadership


Friday, July 22, 2016

Ground Rules: Starting a Climate Change Debate

Kenneth H. Laundra, Ph.D.

Conversations about climate change are too often reduced to ideological arguments, ending in fractured feelings and indignant stances that harden over time.  Just when we need to talk about solutions to the crisis, we find ourselves mired in the quicksand of rhetoric and political innuendo. Try talking to a climate change denier about climate change and soon you’ll be talking about “climate gate”, Benghazi or Obamacare, instead of talking about advances in clean energy technology that can save us from pending environmental calamity. For the deniers, climate change is simply a political issue, so you’ll fail to convince that person that it is real and imminent. Since it is merely a political issue, like with religion, the subject of climate change has become too sensitive for polite conversation, and even taboo in mixed social settings (like the 2008 Presidential election).
So here we are. At the precise moment in time when humanity should be sounding the alarm on climate change, and working to offset the effects with a myriad of technological and social solutions now available, we are instead choosing to ignore the reality of our situation on this planet, which is, according to the brightest brains using the rigor of scientific methodology, quite dire. Unfortunately, the political schism that has deepened in this country has also co-opted any rational discussion of climate change, resulting in ideological dismissals on both sides that stifle any meaningful conversation about it, typically reduced to emotional outbursts instead of understanding. So we watch the glaciers melt faster than our frosty opinions, because we too often hold our convictions closer to our hearts than we do the facts. So how do we overcome this rhetorical obstacle to climate change awareness? Given the current ideological divide, I think we need to first talk about how we are going to talk about it.

In order to have a meaningful conversation like this, you must first agree to use a common language. We talk with words, which represent specific ideas. So, if two people are using the same words, but those words have different meanings, then you are not talking with that person, you are just talking to that person. They don’t understand what you’re saying. Worse than that, they think they understand what you’re saying because the words you’ve used mean something else to that person. You are not standing on the same conceptual ground, and you misunderstand each other.
Establishing the ground rules – the rules by which your conversation will stand on – is imperative for having a meaningful conversation. This means agreeing on a common language and, in the context of climate change, it means agreement on what form(s) of knowledge are within range and, in turn, what forms of knowledge are out of range. In the case of climate change, the universal language we must all use is the language of science. It is simply the most rigorous and reliable source of knowledge on the matter, so we have to collectively agree to base our opinions on it, even if it rubs up against other beliefs or ideologies we may hold dear. And to be a good scientist, you must also be willing to change your mind. If you can’t entertain the possibility that an objective conversation on climate change might change your mind, then you shouldn’t bother in the first place, because the goal of this particular conversation is to find consensus on what to do, if anything, about climate change; and this is not merely an academic or philosophical debate, because we are ultimately debating future action which will rely on consensus-building, and this will ultimately require somebody to change their mind.

Unfortunately, as the so-called “national debate” over climate change ensues, it is largely driven by a politically-minded, profit-driven media that are more than happy to over-hype straw man positions on the subject, using purposely opaque and passing reference to the actual knowledge base, and panel discussion among experts of disrepute in formats that pass as real news. So no incentive even exists for consensus-building around the scientific evidence, or for changing minds. This is a troubling stalemate because, if we accept science as our common language in this debate, we are running out of time.

As an example, allow me to collapse a number of conversations I’ve had over this issue with colleagues, students, friends and family into a single, prototypical one. You may find this conversation familiar to you. It goes like this:

CLIMATE CHANGE DENIER: “I think global warming is real, but I’m not sure it’s entirely a man-made thing, and I’m not sure there’s even anything we can do about it. I mean, the science isn’t settled yet. There is honest disagreement among the experts. We should wait before we take any big action, until we know more about it.”
CLIMATE CHANGE BELIEVER: “Actually, there IS consensus among most of the scientists that climate change is real, that it is man-made, and that the problem is becoming increasingly perilous to life on this planet, in a way never before experienced by humankind.”
CLIMATE CHANGE DENIER: “Well, you don’t know that for sure. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

After somewhere between twenty seconds and two hours of back and forth, the parties agree to disagree. Stalemate.

Been there?

It’s as if we’re talking about a moral, philosophical or spiritual issue, like abortion, socialism, or god in government. But we are not talking about those things. We are talking about climate change, a subject that is inherently and necessarily grounded in the scientific method, which is the most trustworthy form of knowledge we have devised as a species and, in this case, the form of knowledge having the only true bearing on any conversation over climate change. Climate change is a scientific issue, not a moral or political issue, and this deserves to be emphasized.

Consider how bizarre it would be for me to approach my mom or brother, who have both owned and operated a steel construction company for decades, suggesting to them that the buildings they construct might be stronger if they used wood or plastic instead of steel. I would immediately be dismissed as ignorant (or insane) because, to be honest, I don’t know the first thing about steel construction companies or how to make strong buildings. But I did recently see an article online that described a new plastic polymer that is said to be stronger than steel, so I know that my opinion is based, in fact, in fact. In fact is it. Not knowing much else about steel construction, I am not swayed by their further criticism of my claim, involving something about architectural integrity, capital cost incursions, international market prices, and OSHA standards (this is, by the way, a total guess).
Now imagine if I renounce their informed skepticism about my idea by saying, “well, you don’t know that for sure. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

You can see how obviously wrong I would be. In fact, it would be weird and kinda creepy. This is because I am offering an uninformed opinion based in a way of knowing that is not relevant to the issue at hand. My assumption that my uninformed opinion based in limited knowledge about steel construction should carry the same weight as one who occupies the field and who has a more complete, comprehensive understanding of the forces at play in the construction business – that it should actually have equal merit – is a faulty one. To further cloud our opinionate debates, particularly one like climate change, we have to also understand that our brains are biased toward what we already believe, due to our neuro-psychological tendencies to absorb information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and values, what cognitive psychologists call a confirmation bias (one of many biases that color our worldview).  As Michael Shermer puts it, “Belief comes first. Evidence for belief comes second.”

In this way, we believe our opinion is equally valid because I believe opinions that draw on evidence are as equally valid as those opinions from anyone else who makes an evidence-based claim. But evidence does not equal fact, and a fact is only as good as the manner by which it arrives. And this is how climate change conversations usually go astray. We conflate various forms of evidence as equally true. We assign equal value to any claim that references a “fact”, regardless of how that fact comes to us.

In our technopoly, this modern information age we live in, facts are cheap and they enter our consciousness from all directions in rapid-fire succession. Most of these facts come at us filtered through an institutional agenda, such as the facts surrounding a woman’s biological capacity to “ward off” rape sperm to avoid pregnancy, the facts surrounding violence and guns in America, or the facts surrounding job growth under President Obama. But some of these facts come at us from more rigorous scientific inquiry via the established ground rules for discovery based in the scientific method. This is a very different way of fact-finding and, although science itself can be filtered through an institutional agenda as well, the knowledge attained through this method is still, by far, the most precise and useful way to know something in order to solve a complex global problem like climate change. When it comes to understanding the real, physical world in which we actually live, it is this method that gave us the gift of an evolved awareness of our place in the universe (e.g. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein) and beyond (e.g. quantum physics), and which now gives us the gift of our more Earthy awareness about climate change.

This is not to say that science is always right (my brother reminded me that scientists once thought the Earth was flat, and that some still do). But science is also a method by which we discovered we were wrong and, because it is a method for understanding something, it is the reason why we continue to find truth through the mist of myth and superstition that have fogged our past – like the myth we shouldn’t take action to reduce greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere because we still don’t know enough about it, or because god will take care of it somehow.

You can form your opinion on climate change by citing a filtered fact, or you can form it by citing the sources of fact, which in this case is the congruent evidence that comes to us via the scientific method employed in climatology, Earth science, geology, physics, anthropology, sociology, history and many other divergent studies – all of which derive conclusions grounded in the scientific procedure, and all of which agree that, as a matter of species survival, we better get on top of this thing.

To do this, we must not allow biased claims funded by the very multinational corporations who will suffer from any redirection of current energy policy, or by those with the loudest voices who simply scream through their media megaphones, to carry the same weight as hard science. This would be equivalent to giving a sociologist’s opinion on how to run a steel business the same weight as that of the owner of that steel business. This would be obviously absurd because the sociologist does not understand the language of the steel business, and vice versa. In a very real sense, they speak a different language, so it becomes impossible to find common ground for consensus.

So with climate change, we need to start speaking the same language, the language of science. Until we agree to talk in words we can all agree on, words that have the same meaning to everyone, how can we agree on anything? After all, when was the last time you changed your mind about something after listening to someone speak in a language you could not understand? So let me end with this:

я верю в науку

You believe it too, don’t you?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Colored Coverage on Black Friday

Colored Coverage on Black Friday: Why Don’t Those Black Lives Matter?

Image result for black lives matter black friday

One of the most common, and seemingly virtuous, criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement is that, while the movement professes care and concern for the black community, and for young, black men in particular, it is silent on the subject of black-on-black violence in our inner cities, where there are far more incidents of black men dying, than are dying at the hands of the police. More succinctly, if the BLM movement really cared about black lives, it would be more focused on where most of them are killed. From this point of view, then, the BLM movement is inherently hypocritical, as it preaches fairness and justice for all black lives, while ignoring the plight of the vast majority of them. If you’ve heard this criticism before, it’s no accident, as the messaging has been flooding conservative airwaves for months now. In fact, when it comes to BLM, conservative outlets like Fox News talk of nothing else, even evoking the narrative of clownish and ill-informed presidential candidates like Ben Carson.

In context, I write this essay on Black Friday (November 27th, 2015), a day in which the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the PUSH Coalition are marching in downtown Chicago to protest law enforcement handling of the Laquan McDonald case, where officer Jerry Van dyke, an officer charged with multiple, prior incidents of racial insensitivity, shot and killed a black man 16 times, using excessive force (by any definition of the term) and against de-escalation protocols for officers engaged in confrontations with citizens acting erratically, holding a knife, but not posing a direct and immediate physical threat to the officer. As just the most recent example of mistreatment of poor black males at the hands of law enforcement, Jesse’s coalition marched to promote racial justness in justice.

On this same day, the Chicago police held a press conference to announce the arrest of Corey Morgan, for the gang-related shooting of Tyshawn Lee, an 8 year-old black boy, targeted for assassination in a heinous and obviously immoral act of apparent gang-related revenge violence.

Cue the cries of “hypocrisy” toward the Black Lives Matter movement. Where are the protestors now?

Although it may be presumptuous of me to respond to a question set that is just beginning to embed itself into the fabric of conservative white American thinking, allow me to provide some answers to the question that is surely being generated by the narrow worldview of Fox News and their ilk, as the focal point of the conversation that we should be having:  

Question Set: Well, where is Jesse Jackson now? Why isn’t Jesse and the PUSH Coalition as incensed by the death of this little black boy at the hands of gang members, as by the death of a drug addicted psycho wielding a knife against the police? Why aren’t the BLM protestors out marching on the streets of Chicago today, as outraged by the death of an innocent 8 year-old black boy as by the death of a known criminal? Why are they against law enforcement but not against violence on their own streets? Why don’t they care about their own communities?

This question set surrounds a narrative that has been generated to draw a profile of an entire group of black Americans, if not all of them, characterizing the entire problem as a lack of character. The narrative is provocative, alarmist, racist, and intentionally misleading (source: Media Matters).

So let me offer some answers to this misguided question set in an effort to draw a different profile, and to provoke a different set of more meaningful questions, for your consideration.

Answer 1:  The protest today was about equal justice for African-Americans in our criminal justice system. It was not about gun violence on our city streets, or about black-on-black violence, or violence in general. Although these are important and worthy talking points, this demonstration today was about ongoing, historical, and systemic racism in our criminal justice system.  

Let’s turn it around and frame it in the same way, using the same reasoning, and ask these questions:
Are you offended by the fact that the National Rifle Association (NRA) does nothing to address homelessness? Why is the NRA so silent on climate change? Women’s rights? Are you as indignant about the failure of the NRA to engage in these more worthy issues as you are that Black Lives Matter has more to say about justice than about violence?

There is a valid line of reasoning that argues that all American should come together to address the root issues causing poverty, violence and despair in society, and that disproportionate black-on-black violence is one of the core issues that creates disproportionate contact between young, urban black males and the police and, thus, disproportionate numbers of the black community being brutalized and killed by police. But Black Lives Matter is a movement focused on racial equality in justice, not gun violence, just as the NRA is an organization devoted to gun rights, not poverty. Sure, gun violence is more common among the poor, but the mission of the NRA is primarily to protect the rights of gun owners, so they shouldn’t be expected to speak out for the rights of the homeless, even if the issues are arguably intertwined.

One might conclude (wrongly) that a movement called Black Lives Matter, would focus on the entire scope of issues that affect black lives, in the same way that we might conclude that Americans for Prosperity fights for all Americans seeking prosperity. But in both cases, these organizations have more particular focal points - on racial inequality in justice, and on advancing the interest of the top 1% of earners (billionaires), respectively.

Answer 2:  The black community (*) does care about all forms of violence against their young, black men, and about disproportionate black-on-black violence, and there is a LOT going on within the black community, particularly on a local level, to address street violence.

The other narrative being advanced by the conservative right is the story that violence in our inner cities is the result of inaction among the community most affected by it, and that this inaction is the result of trait deficiencies among the black community at large. It is a failure of will to address violence in their communities. The message to black America is clear: Get your shit together.

But here is a prime example of the orchestrated disinformation campaign brought by conservative media outlets, aimed squarely at the wrong target, in an effort to distort the truth, because the fact of the matter is that there are literally hundreds of organizations involved in reducing violence, organized at the grassroots level by members of these very same communities, just in Chicago alone (just Google “Chicago organizations against violence” for that lengthy list).

One of those organizations is Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, who were lambasted in conservative media for being off point and entirely irrelevant to the core issues that need to be addressed by the black community. The Rainbow PUSH Coalition, whose mission is to, “protect, defend, and gain civil rights by leveling the economic and educational playing fields, and to promote peace and justice around the world,” are regularly portrayed as Jesse Jackson’s ultra-liberal, radical assembly of race-mongers whose main purpose is to divide the country along racial fault lines in an effort to strip hard working Americans of their wealth and status and, no doubt, to institute reparations for blacks on a massive scale.

As one of the more formidable human rights and social justice advocacy groups in this country, is there merit to this charge by conservative media of irrelevancy? After all, shouldn’t we expect that a group like the Rainbow PUSH coalition devote at least some of their resources to other issues, especially issues that the BLM movement is already covering?

And in fact they do. Outside the narrowly focused lens of scrutiny they receive from conservative media like Fox News, Jesse Jackson’s coalition has been heavily invested in a whole array of social issues, ranging from poverty and hunger, peace and justice, gun violence, home foreclosure, voter inclusion and voter registration. You can hear his actual views on BLM, black-on-black violence, his coalition’s real agenda, and the media’s treatment of these issues here.

With such an ability to control the conservative narrative, it should come as no surprise that what you didn’t learn on Fox News, was this recent alliance formed between gun control advocates and BLM, to address the intersection of black lives and disproportionate police contact. Or maybe you missed the story about BLM fighting for 1st Amendment rights in politics in Los Angeles? Perhaps you also missed the story of how the BLM movement has successfully altered the national conversation on race, toward more acceptance of, and outrage against, racial injustices in our criminal justice system? Maybe you missed in because your chosen media would rather promote fear (“if it bleeds, it leads”), such as the highly skewed coverage of the small minority of violent BLM protestors, as opposed to more truthful storytelling of the BLM movement, which has been predominantly peaceful, diverse, educated, and multi-faceted in its tactics.

Image result for don't believe everything you think

As an ironic aside, the other major news story of the day was of an active shooter on the site of a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in which yet another angst-ridden white man shot up yet another public space (this time an abortion clinic), killing five people, including one police officer. If the killer’s profile – a white male - sounds familiar, it should. Yet, as of this writing, there was no mention in the media of the need to address the problem of white male violence (white males account for about 70% of all violent crime in America), or white-on-white violence (84% of whites are killed by other whites) in response to this incident.  

The Black Lives Matter movement should not be expected to address every single issue affecting the black community, nor more than the NRA should be expected to address every single issue affecting gun owners. More importantly, the BLM movement should not be constantly berated, belittled, and bedazzled by right-wing media for ignoring issues lying farther afield from its focus on racial injustice in the criminal justice system, especially when they are, in fact, involved in coalition efforts to address these issues as well.

Perhaps the better question is: Why didn’t you know about it?

You can check out Black Lives Matter for yourself, and form your own opinion. But as you ruminate, make sure the questions you ask yourself are the right ones – and not just a pre-packaged question set shoved down your throat by politically-conservative, corporate media.

Kenneth H. Laundra, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology
Co-Chair, Dept. of Sociology and Organizational Leadership
Millikin University


*the “black community” is a term deserving of a separate line of discussion but not within the scope of this article.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Justness in Justice: 
Lessons from Ferguson and Facebook

In November-December of 2014, a string of police killings of unarmed black men were brought into the media spotlight, raising long-standing justice issues involving the unequal treatment of poor, young, urban, black males by law enforcement. These events led to a nationwide protest movement to bring awareness to racial bias in the criminal justice system, while also spawning a public debate on both traditional and social media on the merits of these protesters’ claims that racism is, in fact, a problem in law enforcement.

This essay is an attempt to better understand these protests, and the national conversation that followed on social media sites like Facebook, reflecting on the apparent black-white perceptual divide that exists when it comes to racism in America, to consider other, non-racial factors influencing police shootings, to clarify the generally misunderstood concept of “racism” itself, and to plead for black-white unity in a shared pursuit of fair and equitable treatment under the law, of justness in justice, so that we might repair broken relationships between cops and the communities they serve.

The events that led to these protests, at least initially, were two incidents where discretionary action by police led to the death of two unarmed black men under questionable circumstances. The first shooting, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked the national protests, but was ultimately confounded by Grand Jury trial evidence that made it pretty clear that Brown was at least partly culpable in the events that led up to his shooting. In this case, despite 16 of 29 eyewitnesses testifying that Brown had his hands up at the time of the shooting, other forensic evidence seemed to suggest that his hands were down, and that he was shot while rushing the police officer after a scuffle in the squad car moments prior. Although Grand Jury evidence was made public in this case, the evidence was mixed and we were left with vagaries and uncertainty about what actually happened, and whether or not the officer had no choice but to shoot and kill this man. What is undisputed, however, is that Brown was unarmed when shot by the officer. Protests, violence and looting ensued in Ferguson in the days that followed a Grand Jury decision not to indict the officer, which served as the flashpoint for later national protests and the widening cultural divide that seemed to take on a life of its own.

Not long after the Brown shooting, another incident in New York City was again brought to light, this time by protesters and the media alike, over an incident that involved the death of another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, who was accosted by the police for selling individual cigarettes (“loosies”) on the street, and who died when a chokehold was used by one of the officers who helped restrain him after he argued and resisted arrest. In this case, unlike the Brown incident, the man was clearly undeserving of the police aggressiveness that led to his death. However, another Grand Jury non-indictment led to further public outrage and another wave of protests in several cities across the county, in which protesters adopted the Ferguson battle cry of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”, “I Can’t Breathe”, and later, “Black Lives Matter” to symbolize growing resentment toward police brutality against unarmed black men. Although the specific circumstances in each of these cases remains clouded by incongruent evidence, disinformation and political innuendo, germinated by both social and mass media, protester rage has since settled in on a cry for sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system, toward policing policies and practices that promote racial fairness, and which hold police accountable when confronting citizens, particularly African-Americans and people of color, who have historically faced far greater mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement, for reasons not entirely related to just race.

I recently posted a series of articles and video pertaining to the Brown and Garner cases to myFacebook page and offered, what I thought, were rather benign remarks about the incidents, suggesting that these cases, as shrouded in controversy as they were, were emblematic of larger, historical injustices toward blacks, and that we should use the protests as an opportunity to have a national dialogue about racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. My plan was to start such a conversation on my FB page.

Can you guess what happened next?

You guessed it, I was verbally lambasted by a small but tenacious hoard of FB friends who were livid that I had racialized these two police shootings when, in point of fact, there was no racial dimension to these incidents at all! I not-so-calmly challenged that notion, cited some well-known books and research, provided data and statistics, and even posted a bibliography of over 1,200 peer-reviewed sociological studies that have shown ubiquitous racial discrimination in the criminal justice system over the past few decades (See bibliography, ASA).

Can you guess what happened next?

You guessed it, I was ridiculed for my bogus claims, and drowned in a swirling sea of reactionary rants, YouTube videos, infographics, conservative news commentaries, and carefully spliced statistics which “proved” that my claims were unjustified, flat out false, and quite ridiculous actually. The rants, which I also fueled with my own indignant commentary (and several of my own unverified statistics, infographics and news sources), lasted for weeks, with one particular thread exceeding 100 posts! During these FB debates, I was accused of being a “race baiter”, of “just stirring things up,” and of hating my own (white) race. It was explained to me that liberals will make a race issue out of anything, as a political strategy, and that the preponderance of evidence most clearly showed that neither the Brown or Garner shootings were racially motivated in any way. These challenges to my pre-existing conviction that justice is not colorblind were sometimes compelling, occasionally backed up with a reasoned argument and methodologically sound evidence, and I was forced to reconsider some of my own bias about racial bias. But because I have worked, studied and taught in the field of criminology and delinquency for the past 25 years, I am also aware that there is widespread consensus among criminologists, legal experts, judges, and other practitioners in criminal justice, including a good deal of agreement among law enforcement itself, that racism penetrates the criminal justice system as much as it does in any of our other social institutions.

Why should we be surprised to learn this? Tribalism is in our evolutionary biology, and it plays out in all our social interactions, including when the police patrol minority neighborhoods. Our cognitive tendency to group people into perceived categories has been well established in neuroscience and social psychology, and can be easily demonstrated using the Harvard Implicit Association Test. To argue that our justice system is colorblind is to argue that tall and attractive people are not more likely to get hired than short, ugly people with the same qualifications, or to argue that women don’t get preferential treatment when pulled over for speeding. Cognitive biases such as these, in tandem with confirmation bias and other inherent biases that all humans possess, help to frame our definition of the situation in many social circumstances, and it’s no accident that our brains operate with these biases. Our evolutionary ancestors needed fast, reliable ways to quickly assess potentially dangerous threats, and to be more efficient information processors. This trait is expressed in our genes as an evolutionary adaptation for survival in sketchy environments, so why should we be surprised to learn that this trait manifests itself in our daily encounters with diverse others, including with young black males in sketchy environments? Surely this is one reason why a young white girl playing with a toy gun in a white suburban playground is at virtually no risk for police intervention, while a young black boy might very well be shot by police in that same playground.

Still, many people – especially white people – refuse to acknowledge that the criminal justice system is in any way racist in its practices, particularly in law enforcement where emotions run high if you suggest that a cop had real racist intent when he accidentally choked a black man to death, or shot a 12-year old black boy with a toy gun in the park, or tazed a black man to death who resisted because they had the wrong guy, or when cops shoot and kill a black man at Walmart as he was holding a BB gun (in the department that sells BB guns), or when they shoot and kill an unarmed black man who was on his doorstep bringing dinner to his family, or when a black man is tazed to death while handcuffed and lying on the ground, or when…it goes on and on.  

 Not one of these stories, however, can be taken as clear evidence of racism in policing. The specific circumstances of each incident always calls into question whether police force was necessary, and the racist intent of the officer is almost impossible to prove. Many times, when a black man is shot and killed by police, he has a criminal record of prior offenses, or he was acting “suspiciously”, or he was shot by a black officer. And whites are also victims of police misconduct too. So no single incident, no matter how it might look, will ever be sufficient evidence of racism. Even looking at the totality of disproportionate shootings of black men by the police is insufficient to “prove” racism in the system because, after all, aren’t black men more likely to be criminals and, thus, more likely to be confronted by police in the first place? To be sure, racism in policing is never an easy subject to talk about, because we never really know what an officer’s intent was at that moment, because we weren’t there, and because the streets where most of these shootings take place ARE dangerous, so police are on high alert in the first place.

Furthermore, the fact that these neighborhoods are often dangerous, leading to situations where shootings are more likely to occur anyway, has as much to do with poverty and lack of opportunity as it does with racism, so it’s important to put these black lives in context. Racism is not one-dimensional, and intersects with being poor and underprivileged, and with other minority statuses, as Patricia Hill Collins points out in her classic essays on the matrix of domination, wherein racism, classism, and sexism all intersect in the lives of disenfranchised people, who are disproportionately minorities. So when a policy or practice in law enforcement disproportionately harms poor people, it is doubly-disproportionate and harmful to low-income African-Americans – which is one reason why blacks are far more likely than  whites to be killed by cops, as a percentage of the population. So racism at this level will always be debated, because it is rarely just about race. But racism has another level.

There are two levels of racism, symbolic and institutional. The first kind, symbolic racism, involves the kind most people think of when they think of racism – it’s that old-school racism, the kind that comes with a grudge. This is the kind of racism where we ascribe negative characteristics or personality traits to individuals based on a perceived racial inferiority of the race that person belongs to. This kind of racism usually conjures up images of slavery, images of police brutalizing people of color during the early civil rights protests, the Ku Klux Klan, separate drinking fountains, and segregation in schools, but it also includes the modern day phenomena of hate crimes and white supremacy groups. More importantly today, though, symbolic racism also includes a set of moral convictions about non-whites. Symbolic racism occurs when a traditional antiblack attitude is paired with a sense that blacks as a whole lack certain character traits that other Americans possess, such as personal responsibility and accountability. In David O. Sears’ classic essay on symbolic racism, he describes it as:

a blend of antiblack affect and the kind of traditional American moral values embodied in the Protestant Ethic…a form of resistance to change in the racial status quo based on moral feelings that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self-reliance, the work ethic, obedience, and discipline (Sears, 1988, p. 56).

Far from eradicated, but with a modern ideological makeover, this kind of racism remains deeply woven into the cultural fabric of our country, and leads to common forms of racial discrimination such as in the workplace, in our schools and, yes, in our criminal justice system.

But racism has a second, more insidious level, called institutional racism, which is racism at the policy level. This is racism embedded in the system as “business-as-usual”, so it is easy to overlook, but more impactful on black lives, particularly in situations where these shootings are occurring, and where cops who shoot unarmed black men are commonly excused for their actions. This kind of racism happens because policies and practices sustain it, not because any single individual harbors deep rooted resentment toward a race of people. No skinheads necessary. It is what sociologist, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, calls racism without racists.

In the criminal justice system, it includes harassment strategies like “stop and frisk”, and using military equipment in communities instead of community policing or restorative justice approaches. Or not policing Wall Street with the same brutality or aggressive zeal that we police a street corner. Or changing laws so that Grand Jury decisions do not disproportionately deny the rights of minorities and poor people due to the peculiar process where prosecutors collude with police in determining trials and length of sentence. Or de-funding training and education for cops in diversity and conflict resolution, while stockpiling military-grade weaponry in these already tense neighborhoods. These misguided and heavy-handed strategies by law enforcement have had mixed results at best, and often result in the same kind of crime they are ostensibly trying to deter, and do nothing to address root causes. Worse yet, when policies and procedures promote it, police presence in these neighborhoods is seen as intrusive and punitive, establishing a culture of fear, a presumption of guilty, and distrust between police and the poor black communities they serve. Over time, it can foster a negative community identity - a society of fugitives.

Indicting an entire class of people – young, urban, black males – to a mere criminal profile should be a major concern to us all. The problem is one of fairness. Whatever ideological, political or social divides exist in the American cultural milieu, one principle remains steady in our collective psyche – the principle that we should strive for equal chances for everyone, and that no group should be discriminated against because of race, income, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation or political affiliation. Also, I think it’s in the Unites States Constitution somewhere.

So forget about the “thugs and looters”, those relatively few protesters that Fox News seemed suspiciously obsessed with during the protest movement that spread nationwide following the Ferguson fiasco. While it is true that something like 25% of black men have a criminal record, does that statistic make it fair to subject 75% of law abiding black men to daily pat downs and pullovers under the guise of "suspicious behavior" or because "you fit the profile". Is it fair that poor people, who are disproportionately minority, get sentenced more often, receive stiffer penalties and longer sentences, and are more often executed - FOR THE SAME OFFENSES - as wealthier whites? Such practices in criminal justice should be abhorred by all of us, because if justice can be applied unjustly – if there is no justness in justice – then justice has not truly been served, and a value of fairness for all is no longer a characteristic of the American system of criminal justice. For a nation of immigrants, the most diverse country on the planet, we really can’t do without a sense of fair play, especially when it comes to matters of justice. We are all ill-affected, and we are all culpable for the consequences. So whether you see this as primarily a class problem related to poverty, an inequality problem related to opportunity, or as a race problem, the important thing is that you see it as a problem.

The fact that most of us are not subject to these inner-city conditions and policing practices should not diminish our desire to see reform in criminal justice toward more level approaches, and approaches that work, without compromising our American values of fairness and equality. But our values are obscured by our distance from these places. It’s hard to see an injustice when you don’t directly experience it on a daily basis, making it easy to dismiss or deny. But if we tilt the scales of justice the other way, it becomes crystal clear. If white sons and daughters were as likely to be shot by police while playing with toy guns as black kids, or if a cop’s first instinct was to taze, choke, or shoot you because you “fit the profile”, or because you appeared “threatening” to them, you can be sure the outcry would be louder. Knowing that white men are disproportionately represented in school shootings, domestic terrorism and serial killings, how would white men feel if they were regularly confronted on the streets by police who stated they “looked suspicious” or “fit the profile” of a mass murderer or serial killer? I know lots of white guys that look a bit like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. Would it be fair for police to assume that every depressed, Emo white kid in high school is planning a Columbine or Sandy Hook? Using the same logic we use to profile black men, why shouldn’t we also detain, taze or shoot-to-kill any white man who drives a Ryder truck near a federal building, under the assumption that terrorism is imminent? Should cops assume that all white men displaying their personal firearms are threats to the public, deserving of mandatory street interrogations or worse? What would happen to the collective psyche of white men if we were reminded every day that, because of our skin color and that fact that we are overrepresented in these crimes, we should expect to be seen as a general threat when we are walking in our neighborhoods, or driving in our cars, and that we should get used to regular confrontations by cops whose duty it is to randomly interrogate us because we “fit the profile”, even though we were just walking down the street with our hands in our pockets.

These scenarios are good examples of the often misunderstood term, white privilege, first introduced into the sociological lexicon in the 1980’s by Peggy Mcintosh, which emphasizes the unseen and overlooked advantages in society that whites take for granted. In the criminal justice system, the privilege whites take for granted most often is the privilege of not having to think about, or deal with, police harassment on a regular basis. In fact, one reason why blacks are overrepresented in non-violent drug offenses, for example, is because they are targeted as “suspicious” in the first place. We know this is true because we know drugs are abused at about the same rates among whites and blacks, but blacks are arrested and incarcerated more often for these offenses.

White privilege, then, is not a baseless, collective delusion of the entire African-American community that plagues them with a victim mentality, and it is not a fictitious liberal fantasy that has no grounding in empirical research. White privilege is real, just ask a wise man. When white people as a group can fully acknowledge these conferred benefits, in the context of institutionalized racism, and when we can get over being called “racists” for these institutionalized effects (and get past merely feeling guilty about it in some cases), we will have taken a big step toward leveling the playing field, which would be a real privilege for all of us, equally.

To be sure, blacks sometimes see racial injustice when it does not really exist. The Brown incident in Ferguson is one such example, where evidence of the individual officer’s racist intent is unclear at best, and if we exclude the full dimensionality of racism (institutional and systemic forms discussed above), you could argue race was not a factor at all. But can we blame African-American men for any resentment they may harbor toward law enforcement, given the undue harassment they must endure throughout their lives?

Can this resentment over systemic mistreatment by law enforcement in these communities be reduced to a “victim mentality” characteristic of entire class of people that has been bred into them in the form of a collective personality deficit in which they have all learned to see racism everywhere, and to blame society for their problems instead of solving it for themselves?

Whatever your opinion, I think it’s time to talk about racism in the criminal justice system. But let’s be fair here and acknowledge that most cops are good, and that the instances that have galvanized a protest movement are, in fact, not as typical on the streets as instances of white (and black) cops working in collaborative ways with the communities they patrol, and in good faith with the minorities they confront. And if we’re being sensitive to the adverse effects of racism on these streets, we should also be sensitive to the fact that these streets are often dangerous, and that policing is tricky business, often involving snap decisions in the heat of a tense and perilous moment. Invoking your diversity and de-escalation training might be a difficult task at the moment when an offender is bum-rushing you with intent to harm.

But keeping these real-world scenarios in sight shouldn’t be reason to lose sight of our national identity founded in fairness and equal treatment under the law. Of course, life isn’t fair. But the ideal of fairness must reign in our criminal justice system, and no offense to justice for all can be pardoned. Black lives matter. Policing can never be free from a certain amount of bias in intervention practices, but an awareness of the tilted scales of justice can lead to the promotion of policies that work more evenly and effectively in these already disenfranchised neighborhoods, such as improved diversity training for police officers, greater use of body cams, and more effective community policing tactics. We can improve the trust gap.

This is what the nationwide protests sparked by Ferguson are all aboutor what they should be about when they’re not. This is what we should be talking about, in my opinion. To that end, my goal was to start talking about this stuff on Facebook. But I soon learned that Facebook is not a venue worthy of a conversation such as this because it too quickly dissolves into conjecture, innuendo, and angry outbursts. Facebook, like other abbreviated forms of communication such as texting and email, cannot adequately convey the complexities of a multidimensional concept like racism. Social media is shallow.

So I’m left wondering, what venue IS appropriate? Can we have a meaningful conversation about institutional racism on the internet? I don’t know, but this is me giving it another try. I’ve posted this essay to my obscure and hardly used blog, in the hopes that anyone who wants to think about this difficult subject could provide their own perspective and insight, as an extended discussion following this essay.

You are cordially invited to contribute to this ongoing discussion. If all goes well, I’d like to bring this blog into the classroom and use your posts as a talking point in my Fall 2015 Criminology class, so that my students might have a wider array of perspectives, evidences, and emotions on the concepts and issues I’ve presented here on the subject of racism in the criminal justice system, so they can decide for themselves. I am particularly interested in conservative voices who I know will be the loudest voices of dissent, in stark disagreement with much of what I’ve written here. But my students won’t hear that side of the story from me, most likely, so I’m relying on your help here. Reaction from the left and middle also welcome and very much appreciated. All opinions are welcome and all posts to this blog will be available for my students in their entirety. Nothing will be edited out of the conversation. For the sake of a more meaningful conversation than the kind we’ve been having on Facebook, I hope you accept my challenge to think more deeply, and help me in offering a more meaningful and well-rounded dialogue on this issue.

Can you guess what happens next?

Kenneth H. Laundra, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology
Millikin University

Published: December 12th, 2015, on Laundra’s blog, “Sosh Chat”