Category Archives: Racial Equality

Confirmation Bias At Work

There’s a line from the Simon and Garfunkel song, The Boxer, that has always seemed perceptive to me: “A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.”

No kidding!

We can really see that phenomenon in the debates, Facebook posts and memes and twitter wars over the widespread Black Lives Matter protests. It won’t resolve the issue of confirmation bias–“seeing what we want to see and disregarding the rest”–but a recent study of the demonstrations documents the reality behind the spin.

The report was from the U.S. Crisis Monitor, which is a collaboration between the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative. The project collects and analyzes data on protest movements, using news reports, social media and a variety of other sources.

The report covers data gathered on protests between May 24, the day before police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, and Aug. 22. During that period, the researchers collected more than 10,600 demonstration events across the country, with more than 7,750 of them related to the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests peaked in late May and early June, and while they have leveled off since, activists in many places across the country continue to hold largely peaceful demonstrations every day.

The overwhelming majority of the protests — more than 10,100 — involved peaceful protesters, the researchers found. In only about 5%, or under 570 of the protests, did participants engage in violence.“

The vast majority of demonstration events associated with the BLM movement are non-violent,” the researchers wrote. “In more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity.”

What about the protests that became violent? The report found that, when violence occurred,  it either began with what the report labeled “state-sanctioned violence”–described as “violent intervention from local, state or federal authorities,” or was initiated by counterprotesters from extremist groups.

The research also reported that the police or military “disproportionately used force while intervening in demonstrations associated with the BLM movement, relative to other types of demonstrations.” In nearly 10% of BLM protests they studied, the police violently intervened by deploying tear gas, rubber bullets and/or pepper spray, and were seen assaulting protesters with batons and other items.

If 93% of the demonstrations were peaceful, why do so many Americans believe they were violent?

The researchers suggest three likely reasons: selective media coverage (they don’t point fingers, but the identity of those media sources isn’t hard to deduce), “disinformation” campaigns on social media, and viewers’ pre-existing political opinions. In other words, confirmation bias.

And for those who are prejudiced against Black people, we have the new phenomenon of right-wing provocateurs infiltrating the protests, pretending to be “Antifa” or BLM members. According to NPR and other sources, far-right white supremacist extremists are responsible for much of the protest violence. The Boogaloo Boys (I wonder where that name came from) are reportedly working to foment a race war, and a white supremacist channel on a messaging app encouraged its followers to commit violence during George Floyd protests, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

These strategies are aimed at Americans who harbor racial bias along with confirmation bias. Trump supporters hope that enough people believe what they are already primed to believe–and disregard the facts.

Sweating The Small Stuff?

We’ve all heard the phrase: don’t sweat the small stuff. My problem has always been in determining what qualifies as “small stuff.”

Many years ago, when I was active in groups like the Women’s Political Caucus and other efforts to ensure a level playing field for women, I remember my impatience with efforts to focus on linguistics. I particularly recall being annoyed by criticisms of the then-female-naming of all hurricanes. Really? Wouldn’t women have been better served by, say, efforts to keep pediatricians offices open after six, so that working moms could take their children to the doctor without having to take time off work, and similar tangible improvements?

Over the years, I have grudgingly acknowledged that language does matter, but I am still conflicted when people express outrage over what we might call “First World Problems.” (I hate the way my dishwasher doesn’t completely dry the dishes–poor me! Of course, millions of people cannot afford food, let alone dishwashers, so bitching about an appliance seems morally clueless.)

The appearance of the so-called “cancel culture” has triggered my longstanding ambivalence. Where do we draw the line?

What made me think about my own recurring internal debate was an article I read a couple of months ago about an effort to make Trader Joe Markets re-name some of its foodstuffs.

The popular grocery chain, famous for its organic, gourmet, and imported foods, came in for some unwelcome notice recently when The New York Times, followed by other news outlets, focused attention on a petition condemning Trader Joe’s for its “racist branding and packaging.” The petition, launched on Change.org by a California high school student, declared that the company “perpetuates harmful stereotypes” by labeling some of its international foods with international names, such as Trader José‘s for its Mexican beer, Trader Jacques’ for its ham-and-cheese croissants, Arabian Joe’s for its Middle Eastern flatbread, and Trader Ming’s for its Kung Pao chicken. The use of these familiar ethnic names amounts to racism, scolded 17-year-old Briones Bedell, “because they exoticize other cultures.”

Columnist Jeff Jacoby pushed back with an argument that I found persuasive:

In reality, they do just the opposite: They familiarize other cultures. They present international foods as accessible and appealing. Far from portraying foreign peoples and their foods as weirdly exotic, the lighthearted branding helps make them as welcome and appetizing as traditional “American” foods. Trader Joe’s ethnic packaging exemplifies the melting pot at its most engaging, lowering the barriers between consumers of different backgrounds and encouraging Americans to explore the variety and joys of other cuisines.

Trader Joe’s customers evidently agreed–protesting the petition, and–as the chain noted in a media release–” reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended­ — as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing,”

Jacoby argues that there is (or should be) an obvious difference between brand names and logos like the Aunt Jemima “mammy” stereotype and other names and products — like the Dixie Chicks, “Paw Patrol,” and even the Coco Pops cereal emblem — that have been criticized for no apparent reason.

It isn’t always easy to distinguish between “woke” efforts to raise sensitivity to genuine slights, on the one hand, and what has appropriately been called “virtue signaling”–accusations intended to position the accuser as more tolerant/aware/inclusive than the target of the criticism, on the other. But in a time when rightwing extremists pretending to be Black Lives Matter are fomenting civil unrest, and white supremicists are infiltrating police departments, warriors for civic justice need to make the effort.

We can sweat the smaller stuff later.

 

 

The Election In Black And White

Today is Labor Day in an election year. It’s a time in the election cycle when media sources are filled with punditry– advice to Joe Biden and the Democrats, “analysis”  of Trump and the GOP, and a variety  of theories about political strategies that work and don’t.

I’ve come to a depressing conclusion: the November election is about one thing  and  one  thing only. The results–and the margin of victory– will tell us  whether  America is finally ready to address the virulent racism that has  infected both our personal  attitudes  and our governing institutions, and say “enough.”

The headline from a September article  in The Intelligencer is on point:“Many GOP Voters Value America’s Whiteness More Than Its Democracy.”

The article began with what is by now a  depressingly familiar litany of Trump’s assaults on democracy and the rule of law. The author dutifully noted that these assaults, and Trump’s  failure  to even  pretend to honor longtime  democratic norms–have “scandalized a significant minority of Republican elites.” Then came the obvious observation that the chaos and incompetence of the administration has not dampened the enthusiasm of  what is now the rank-and-file of the GOP.

One explanation for Republican indifference to such deeds is that Republicans aren’t aware of them: Fox News’s programming and Facebook’s algorithm have simply kept red America blissfully ignorant of the commander-in-chief’s most tyrannical moods…

But a new paper from Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels suggests an alternative hypothesis: Many Republican voters value “keeping America great” more than they value democracy — and, by “keeping America great,” such voters typically mean “keeping America’s power structure white.”

Bartels is a widely-respected political scientist. His study was an effort to understand  popular indifference to democracy on the American right. His  conclusion was that “ethnic antagonism” predicted that indifference. In other words, racial animosity overwhelmed any concern Trump supporters might harbor about the governance of the country–and that popular support for authoritarianism within the GOP isn’t motivated by concerns over conservative Christianity’s declining influence over public life but rather with the dominance of the white race.

I don’t think I ever appreciated just how ugly and pervasive America’s racial animus has been, or the  degree  to  which it was embedded in the laws of the  land. I’ve been reading The  Color of the  Law, a recent book that sets out the history of laws requiring  racial segregation  in  housing. Those laws were immensely more widespread and draconian than I had ever  known–they went well beyond FHA and VA refusal to insure mortgages in neighborhoods that allowed Black people to live there. Restrictive covenants and legally-enforced redlining lasted far longer  than most of  us untouched  by them would  have  supposed.

Reading about the blatant bigotry that created America’s ghettos–and the mob violence (not-so-tacitly approved by police) that often erupted when Blacks purchased homes in white neighborhoods– reminded me of David Cole’s  eye-opening 1999 book, No Equal Justice, which I read several years ago. Cole documented the multiple ways in which the justice system doesn’t just fail to live up to the promise of equality, but actively requires double standards to operate–allowing the privileged to enjoy constitutional protections from police power without incurring the costs of extending those protections to minorities and the poor.

It’s bad enough that the America I actually inhabit turns out to be so different from the  country I thought I lived in, but on November 3d, we will find out how many of our fellow citizens are white supremicists who agree with Donald Trump that anti-racist training is “UnAmerican.”

The last paragraph  of the linked  article really says it  all.

When democracy came to America, it was wrapped in white skin and carrying a burning cross. In the early 19th century, the same state constitutional conventions that gave the vote to propertyless white men disenfranchised free Blacks. For the bulk of our republic’s history, racial hierarchy took precedence over democracy. Across the past half century, the U.S. has shed its official caste system, and almost all white Americans have made peace with sharing this polity with people of other phenotypes. But forfeiting de jure supremacy is one thing; handing over de facto ownership of America’s mainstream politics, culture, and history is quite another. And as legal immigration diversifies America’s electorate while the nation’s unpaid debts to its Black population accrue interest and spur unrest, democracy has begun to seek more radical concessions from those who retain an attachment to white identity. A majority of light-skinned Americans may value their republic more than their (tacit) racial dominance. But sometimes, minorities rule.

Relearning History

Remember that sarcastic insult–born too soon, smart too late, or something along those lines? I think I plead guilty.

I took the usual number of American history courses in high school and college, and thought I was at least superficially acquainted with the arc of American experience. But over the years, I began to realize that my knowledge of history was more superficial than informed. Visits to museums added uncomfortable details to the story of how European “settlers” and their progeny dispossessed Native Americans, and how administration after administration refused to honor treaties. Perhaps it’s the faulty memory of an older woman, but I don’t remember ever being taught about the Trail of Tears.

I was already teaching at the university level before I learned about  the deliberate American housing policies that are largely responsible for the continuing disparities between White and Black household wealth. I was serving on the dissertation committee of a social work student who was researching housing policy, and I was appalled to learn that redlining was official FHA policy for more years than we might imagine, effectively preventing Black Americans from building equity and security.

A recent book by Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law examines the local, state and federal housing policies that didn’t just allow, but actually mandated segregation. The Federal Housing Administration not only refused to insure mortgages in (or even near) African-American neighborhoods, it subsidized builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions–if those builders would ensure that none of the homes would be sold to African-Americans.

In a recent issue of The Atlantic, a scholar described both the results of those policies and White Americans’ ignorance of those results. 

For the past several years, I, along with my Yale colleague Michael W. Kraus and our students, have been examining perceptions of racial economic inequality—its extent and persistence, decade by decade. In a 2019 study, using a dozen specific moments between 1963 and 2016, we compared perceptions of racial wealth inequality over time with actual data on racial wealth inequality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the respondents in our study significantly overestimated the wealth of Black families relative to that of white families. In 1963, the median Black family had about 5 percent as much wealth as the median white family. Respondents said close to 50 percent. For 2016, the respondents estimated Black wealth to be 90 percent that of whites. The correct answer for that year was about 10 percent.

Trump’s recent tweets warning suburban dwellers that Biden and Harris will “wage war on the suburbs” is rooted in that history of American housing policy. As Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times,

Now, as the Trump campaign desperately searches for political avenues of attack, we’re hearing a lot about the “war on the suburbs.”

It’s probably not a line that will play well outside the G.O.P.’s hard-core base; Joe Biden and Kamala Harris don’t exactly come across as rabble-rousers who will lead raging antifa hordes as they pillage America’s subdivisions.

Yet it is true that a Biden-Harris administration would resume and probably expand on Obama-era efforts to finally make the Fair Housing Act of 1968 effective, seeking in particular to redress some of the injustices created by America’s ugly history of using political power to create and reinforce racial inequality.

Fred Trump was one of the developers who profited from the segregationist policies of the FHA and VA, and his son Donald clearly believes that the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream is basically a walled village that the government built for whites, whose gates were slammed shut when others tried to enter.”

If facing these and other previously. unrecognized aspects of American history wasn’t unsettling enough, the pandemic quarantine has given me time to read. From Jill Lepore’s magisterial These Truths to Ron Chernow’s turgid Hamilton to Isabel Wilkerson’s lyrical and unsettling Caste, my last few months have been eye-opening, to say the least.

I remember when Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States was dismissed as “anti-American.” But genuine patriotism needs to be based on an accurate understanding of our country’s flaws as well as its strengths. If we are ever going to create the America I used to think I inhabited, we need to know what we need to know.

But I am drinking a lot more these days….

 

 

Suburban Republican Religion

A recent article in the Washington Post reported that, in the wake of Trump’s increasingly blatant racism, a number of Republicans who have long enabled him are now afraid of losing power and “forever associating their party with his racial animus.”

A bit late, aren’t they?

If Republicans serving in the House or Senate had pushed back on Trump’s bigotry–not to mention his constant corruption and his equally horrible Cabinet nominees–they might not now be fretting over his embrace of white supremacy and his defense of its symbols. (Not that most of them are fretting over the racism itself–just over the likelihood of an electoral rejection of it.)

White House insiders say that Trump has ignored the public criticism and reproofs from Republican operatives, and “remains convinced that following his own instincts on race and channeling the grievances of his core base of white voters” will carry him to victory. 

I don’t believe his base is large enough to hand him that victory, but one of the most depressing aspects of the past 4 years has been the incontrovertible evidence that the racists that comprise his base represent a much larger number of Americans than I would ever have imagined. Until this administration gave them permission to crawl out from under their rocks, I would have pegged the “deplorable” portion of the electorate at around 10%, not the 30% or so it evidently is.

A recent dust-up in Carmel, Indiana,  a prosperous suburb of Indianapolis just rubbed my face in it. 

The conflict began with a message written by a Catholic priest in his church bulletin, addressing the Black Lives Matter movement. Here’s a selection:

The only lives that matter are their own and the only power they seek is their own,” Rothrock wrote of Black Lives Matter organizers. “They are wolves in wolves clothing, masked thieves and bandits, seeking only to devour the life of the poor and profit from the fear of others. They are maggots and parasites at best, feeding off the isolation of addiction and broken families, and offering to replace any current frustration and anxiety with more misery and greater resentment.

The message was (understandably) met with outrage and (apparently in response to the blowback) the priest was suspended. I assumed that would be the end of it–or perhaps that anti-racists in Carmel might use the incident as a teaching tool. But it appears that lots of Trump people live in historically (and reliably) Republican Carmel.

Both inside and outside St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church on Sunday, the statement “Black lives matter” was said with conviction and met with opposition.

Outside, it was written on signs and chanted through megaphones by members of the community protesting remarks made late last month by the Rev. Theodore Rothrock calling Black Lives Matter organizers “maggots and parasites.”  

Those “Black lives matter!” chants were met with chants of “Go Father Ted!” from counterprotesters who oppose the suspension handed down to Rothrock and argue that he was speaking the truth.

The article quoted several of the people who had turned out to support Rothrock.  Mark J. Powell, who identified himself as a Lutheran pastor, chanted in support of Rothrock and verbally sparred with protesters.

The group Black Lives Matter is a Marxist front organization,” he said. “This is a call, as well as what Father Ted was saying, for people to wake up to what Black Lives Matter the organization is doing. They’re using race to destabilize and to divide this country over race during the time of a presidential election.”

Another group, organized by Jill Metz, gathered and prayed in support of Rothrock. Metz was quoted as saying

We feel that Father Ted spoke out in truth, and we’re to peaceably pray in support of all lives,” she said. “This should not be about Black lives. All lives matter. All lives.

I really have trouble getting my head around the fact that there are prosperous, privileged white suburbanites willing to join a public demonstration of support for a man who called Black activists “maggots and parasites”–not because they were counseling forgiveness for a racist message, but because they agreed with it.

In November, I guess we’ll see just how many of them there are, and whether those sudden Republican qualms are well-founded.