America’s race problem? It’s white people
Photos posted to Facebook late last month showed the “rough” detention of two black teenagers at the 29th Street light-rail station. Based on the smartphone pics and people’s reaction online, it would be quite easy to categorize the Sacramento Police Department’s arrest tactics as overreacting.
It would also be reasonable—especially given the widely reported instances of police violence against black men, and the data available at sites like Fatal Encounters (www.fatalencounters.org)—to assume that the officers’ behavior is just another example of the institutional racism that permeates so much of our culture.
But both of these assumptions leave out one major factor: The officers were responding to a call from a light-rail rider, who reported that a black man was threatening a woman with a lead pipe. The only thing the responding officers knew was that there was a potentially dangerous situation with an armed person involved.
Turns out, the incident was merely young black kids playing with a stick.
This introduces another disturbing problem: The rider who reported this crime was no doubt being a good citizen. But, in this case, this rider looked at a pair of teenaged boys horsing around with a stick—an annoyance to those of us in the “get off my lawn” stage of life—and saw instead a violent crime in progress.
Perhaps he or she simply misinterpreted something seen in passing, an innocent mistake?
Or—and this is far more likely—the persistence of racial bias, which manifests unconsciously more often than most of us realize, led this person to see the teenagers as a threat.
A study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014 demonstrated that black boys as young as 10 were perceived to be both older and more threatening by both police officers and white citizens.
No wonder, then, that 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by a police officer in Cleveland while playing with a BB gun, was mistaken by the person who called police as “a black man waving a gun.”
And that a couple of black teenagers horsing around with a stick could be mistaken for black men attacking a woman with a lead pipe.
We don’t just have a problem with institutional racism. We—all Americans, including Sacramentans—have a problem with individual racism as well, and that supports and protects institutional racism in a feedback loop that keeps us mired in discrimination.
A study by a Northwestern University professor showed that white men with felony records were more likely to be hired than similarly qualified black men with clean records.
A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that having a “white” name on a resume as opposed to a “black” name resulted in 50 percent more callbacks for applicants with similar qualifications.
And then, there are the dismal statistics about how our police and courts respond to black people.
Yes, we need to make our legal system—police, courts, jails, prisons—as well as all of our institutions more accountable to the public. We need to eliminate institutional racism.
But the individuals who work within and with those institutions are also part of the problem.
We need to come to grips with the reality that racism in the United States—in Sacramento—isn’t just someone wearing a white hood and burning a cross. These days, we’ve substituted “thug” for the N-word and we say “urban” to code for “black and poor.” Those are cosmetic changes only; they’re the result of coming to see racism as the equivalent of bad manners or low morals.
It’s not black Americans who need to do the work to end racism. It is not the responsibility of the victim to change. It’s the responsibility of those of us who, whether we intend to do so or not, perceive black people as more threatening and less worthy.
In short, America’s race problem? It’s white people. And it’s way past time we did something about it.