Tag Archives: race

The Social Construction of Expectations

Consider this a postscript to yesterday’s post about the unequal prosecution of the drug war, and the effect of that disparity on public attitudes toward African-Americans.

A few days ago, a Brookings Institution study confirmed what many of us have suspected–

The 2015 recipient of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) National Teacher of the Year Award, Shanna Peeples, recently spoke about the importance of teachers believing in their students—and imparting their expectations to students—particularly students who doubt their ability to succeed academically. Students have similar feelings and frequently report favoring teachers who “believe in [students’] ability to succeed”. Teachers’ expectations may either counteract or reinforce negative expectations held by traditionally disadvantaged students who lack access to educationally-successful role models. To date, however, little is known about how teachers form expectations and whether their expectations are systematically biased.

Along with colleagues at American University and Johns Hopkins University, I begin to address these questions in a recent study. We find evidence of systematic biases in teachers’ expectations for the educational attainment of black students. Specifically, non-black teachers have significantly lower educational expectations for black students than black teachers do when evaluating the same students. …

For example, when a black student is evaluated by one black teacher and by one non-black teacher, the non-black teacher is about 30 percent less likely to expect that the student will complete a four-year college degree than the black teacher.

There is a fair amount of research confirming the belief that teachers’ evaluation of student capacities affect student performance. (This will hardly come as a shock to those of us who are parents.Kids live up–or down–to our expectations.)

It bears repeating–again–that these disparities in expectation are not evidence of conscious racial bias. I’d be willing to bet that most of these non-black teachers genuinely care about all of their students, whatever their ethnicity or skin color.

These lowered expectations are reinforced by multiple, ingrained cultural messages–they are part and parcel of social attitudes that become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The question is: how do we change those attitudes? How do we train teachers to base their demands for student performance on more appropriate criteria than skin color?

 

But One of My Best Friends is Black!

The online version of the New York Times has a series called “The Stone.” It’s part of their general “Opinionator” category. A recent post to that series caught my eye, although I hadn’t originally planned to post about it.

Then I participated in a recent discussion hosted by GIPC’S Race Relations Network.

The discussion was titled “The Social Construction of Race,” and focused upon the discomfort so many white people feel during discussions of race and racism. At a couple of points, there was real tension in the room, despite the fact that everyone in that room was demonstrably a person of good will where race relations are concerned (and the white participants probably had close black friends).

I’ve been in several similar situations, and I’ve noticed that where discussions about race tend to break down is in the definition of racism. The post from the Times is instructive:

To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society. Most mainstream social scientists dealing with racism issues have relied heavily on inadequate analytical concepts like prejudice, bias, stereotyping and intolerance. Such concepts are often useful, but were long ago crafted by white social scientists focusing on individual racial and ethnic issues, not on society’s systemic racism. To fully understand racism in the United States, one has to go to the centuries-old counter-system tradition of African-American analysts and other analysts of color who have done the most sustained and penetrating analyses of institutional and systemic racism.

Prejudice is much less than half the story. Because prejudice is only one part of the larger white racial frame that is central to rationalizing and maintaining systemic racism, one can be less racially prejudiced and still operate out of many other aspects of that dominant frame. That white racial frame includes not only racist prejudices and stereotypes of conventional analyses, but also racist ideologies, narratives, images and emotions, as well as individual and group inclinations to discriminate shaped by the other features. Additionally, all whites, no matter what their racial prejudices and other racial framings entail, benefit from many racial privileges routinely granted by this country’s major institutions to whites.

This last sentence seems inarguable to me. It is what is meant by “white privilege,” and all of us white folks–inescapably–benefit from it. The underlying point is that systems matter more than individual bias, and that even the least prejudiced, most pro-equality, non-racist white person is treated differently in numerous contexts because of the way those systems have been constructed over time.

White folks who get offended by these discussions need to realize that simply pointing out the reality of institutionalized racism is not an accusation of complicity. It’s a recognition that we can’t change deeply-embedded structures unless we recognize that they exist and understand how they operate.

Ultimately, individual bias isn’t the problem. Social systems that reinforce and perpetuate inequality–that treat similarly-situated people differently based upon the color of their skin– are the problem.

If you don’t believe me, ask a black friend.

 

Let It (All Hang) Out

Our sorry excuse for a newspaper has a feature–common to many papers–called “Let It Out,” where readers can comment on the news of the day. I generally scan it, despite the relative absence of anything that might be considered insightful, since it is one of the few features (especially at this time of year) that isn’t an ad.

Yesterday, there was a particularly smug, utterly clueless sentiment about the mess in Ferguson: if African-American parents are concerned about what to tell their children about interactions with the police, the reader wrote, they should just tell their sons to obey the law, and then they won’t have any problems.

Really?

I guess all those statistics about disparate law enforcement are irrelevant. (Driving while black, anyone?) I guess the disclosures by Anonymous (the internet hackers who took over the Klan’s twitter account a couple of weeks ago, and found KKK members among police in several cities) are just evidence that cops are jolly joiners. And all those personal stories in the newspapers and on our Facebook feeds? Just anecdotal; ignore them.

Let’s get real, as the kids might say, and concede that none of us–on the left or right–knows what happened before Michael Brown was shot six times. The exoneration of the police officer in this particular case–irregular as the Grand Jury proceedings evidently were–may have been totally justified. And nothing excuses rioting and the destruction of the property of innocent shopkeepers.

Nothing excuses wholesale condemnation of the police, either. I teach a required course in a school with a well-regarded criminal justice program, so I teach a lot of police officers. Most of them are genuine public servants, trying to do a difficult but necessary job that sometimes requires them to make split-second decisions.

All that said, it takes a special kind of intentional blindness to ignore the fact that there are some very bad apples drawn to a line of work that confers power over others. (When I was in City Hall, we tried to weed those people out with psychological exams, with spotty success.) It takes a perverse and selective understanding of the American landscape to ignore the extent to which racism still characterizes the experience of the black community, and to ignore the reasons why some members of that community might periodically explode with anger.

And it takes an offensive and deliberate moral arrogance to lecture mothers who are desperate to protect their children from encounters that every sentient American knows are far from rare.

When you “Let it Out,” what comes out can sometimes be pretty horrifying.

 

 

Ferguson

I haven’t blogged about the depressing situation in Ferguson, Missouri, for a number of reasons: first of all, unlike left- and rightwing partisans, all of whom are convinced they know exactly what happened, I’m not in possession of all the facts.

So what do I know?

I know that everyone in a position of authority, including the police chief, the Mayor and the Governor, has demonstrated what world-class bungling looks like. It’s hard to imagine more ham-handed and counterproductive efforts to deal with an already difficult situation.

I know that Ferguson’s population is two-thirds African-American, and that virtually all of the power structure–elected officials, police officers–are white. I also know that–at least according to press reports–turnout in the last municipal election was twelve percent. Maybe there is a reason the residents of Ferguson are not exercising their franchise, but on the surface, it is puzzling that members of the African-American community haven’t used the ballot to address their grievances.

But most of all, because I have a lot of black friends and because I used to be the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I know that–Sesame Street et al to the contrary– the policeman isn’t always your friend.  Most police officers are good guys, but there are far too many who use the badge and the gun to compensate for whatever demons they fight, to reassure themselves that they are superior to the people they are supposed to be protecting, and as a license to frighten and dominate people they don’t like. (A police officer who was a recent contestant on “Wheel of Fortune” described her job as “Trash Management,” because she “takes out the human trash.” That’s an attitude we can do without.)

One of the blogs I follow is “Juanita Jean: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor.” This recent post from”Juanita” helps explain the concerns and the anger, not just of African-Americans and Latinos, but of all fair-minded citizens.

True story: the first time a met a Texas Ranger, the legendary Texas lawmen not the baseball team, I was wearing a gorgeous hand loomed sarape from interior Mexico. It was one of my prize possessions because of its beauty and utility in Houston winters. The Ranger, meeting me for the first time, said to me, “Don’t you know not to wear a poncho around a Texas Ranger?” I asked why. “Because that’s what we take target practice on. Har. Har. Har.” My stomach turned. It was a life-altering moment.

That’s not funny. Not at all. And the reason it’s not funny is that there is too much truth in it. Twenty-five years later, I met the first black female Texas Ranger. I asked her if I could hug her. I didn’t tell her why but I think she saw it in my eyes. She hugged me.

I am in pain over Ferguson. We’ve fought this crap for my entire life and we still haven’t won.

I still have some fight left in me. I do.

We all need to fight–for justice, and also for forbearance. We all have preconceived notions that dictate knee-jerk responses to tragedies like Ferguson. Those preconceptions only drive us further apart, when what we really need is a narrative and definition of justice that will allow us to come together.

And really, military gear doesn’t help.

 

Fifty Years Later

I’ve been mulling over the fifty-year anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech.

Unlike many–actually, most–of those providing commentary around this milestone, I didn’t read about the event in class or see television reports after the fact. I was twenty-one when the March occurred–the coverage I saw was contemporaneous, and a great deal of it was far from positive.

In Indiana, as elsewhere, a significant percentage of the population considered King an “agitator.” Even among people who genuinely wanted a more equal society, there were concerns that King’s approach was too “in your face,” and would end up making things even worse. Needless to say, there were plenty of people who were not just unconcerned with racial justice,  but who strongly believed that black people were inferior and needed to be kept “in their place,” and were outraged not just by the March on Washington, but by the entire civil rights movement.

So–fifty years later, where are we?

Are things better than they were when I was young? Absolutely. Are they where one might hope after fifty years? Not even close. Considerable racial animus persists, although its expression has (thankfully) changed.

Ironically, it was the election of an African-American President that brought long-buried racial resentments out from under the rocks that had obscured them. Perhaps progress is always like this: two steps forward, one back. Advance, then blowback. But Obama’s election unleashed a bitter undercurrent that surprised and disheartened many of us. The “birther” accusations, the racist emails, the hysterical opposition to everything the President does or says, the characterization of America’s Commander-in-Chief as a Muslim, a socialist, a Nazi….as “other.” I suppose it is a measure of progress that even the haters feel the need for euphemisms, and use these labels rather than the “n” word they so clearly mean.

I suppose it’s progress that they shrink from acknowledging even to themselves that their blind hatred is motivated by race.

Fifty years ago, in the midst of the social upheaval that we now simply call “the Sixties,” it would have been impossible to predict where social forces were taking the country. Despite the wrenching changes and excesses–and the enormous and often disproportionate reaction to those excesses–I would argue that the country emerged a fairer and more equal place. I  hope we can say the same thing about our current divisions fifty years from now.

Martin Luther King was certainly right about one thing: the arc of history does bend slowly.