Racism is More Complicated Than That!


If the Black Lives Matter movement does nothing else, at the very least it, and associated movements, forces us to discuss race. In many regards, race and racism has been a silenced issue for about a generation. We have the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. There’s a black president. What more do “you people” want? Clearly, race is no longer an issue in the United States.

Yes, there may be a few racist individuals left, but they don’t matter because the great majority of Americans have abandoned the bad old days of Jim Crow. Then events like Katrina happen that put the very real racist consequences of economic inequality in front of our faces and forces us to respond. Those of us on the left point and say, “see! racism! It’s right there! Look at it!”

Denial, however, is a much easier response. As far as the dominant paradigm is concerned, what racism remains in the United States is the archaic remnant of a few racist bad apples. Yes, there may be a few racists in the police department, but we can root them out, maybe even replace them with some people of color, and call it a day.

A more nuanced explanation of race and racism is hard to explore in a mainstream media that privileges soundbites and memes that can flit around social media, shared at the click of a button without a critical thought for the content and context. Exploring the complicated roots and branches of racism is not welcome as such analysis cannot be neatly wrapped in a peanut shell for quick, thoughtless ingestion.

Tamir Rice: He was holding a gun. yeah, it was plastic, but whatayagonna do?

The fact that a black suspect is twenty times more likely to be killed during an arrest than a white suspect? Well, maybe they are twenty times more likely to need killing!

…hey, he shouldn’t have run from the police. What did he expect.

…that psychometric research demonstrating that black people holding a cell phone are more likely to be mistakenly seen as holding a gun than are white people? I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Besides, I really don’t know what psychometric means, so I’m not going to worry about it.

But how dare Mayor de Blasio insult the police by having that little talk with his son about how to survive an encounter with cops.

Simple minded memes based on many of the assumptions above made their way around social media upon the arrest of six officers for the murder of Freddie Gray. The fact that three of the six officers are black is portrayed as a confirmation that racism is not an issue in this case and in all previous cases.

See! There are black people involved. It couldn't have been about race.
See! There are black people involved. It couldn’t be about race.

Michael Brown? Deserved it!

Eric Garner? Shouldn’t have struggled and he wouldn’t have been choked.

Freddie Gray? There were black cops there, it couldn’t have been racist.

We’ve heard all of the arguments. They are simple. The standard American concept of individual agency and the actions of a few bad apples makes for an easy solution. Get rid of the bad apples. There. Problem solved. It is comforting to know that we left all that racism stuff behind in the sixties and don’t have to worry our little heads about it any more.

Did I mention…Black President? We have a Black President!

Of course, the legitimate argument from the left counters the comfortable premise of the “few bad apples” thesis. The left analysis, as well as the sociological understanding, of racism is as a systemic phenomenon that imbues our very institutions. This adds a layer of complexity to an analysis on race that, frankly, many Americans are unwilling to embrace for any number of reasons. Getting rid of bad apples is easy; reforming the very foundational systemic structures that support our society…well, that’s a lot more complexity than we have time for. After all, Game of Thrones is going to be on and winter is coming.

And…Black President!

After all, black police officers would never target a black suspect based on race, and certainly would not allow anything to happen to said suspect at the hands of racist police officers. So this is a non-problem.

Now I don’t presume to speak for said black police officers in this particular case, but the sociology is clear on this. It is not only possible for a black police officer to reproduce the racism intrinsic to his or her precinct, but is rather probable in light of the human capacity to conform to norms even when it is clear that those norms are wrong.

A young black man, for example, decides that he wants to be a police officer. This profession appeals to him. Perhaps he wants to give back to his community, but he is attracted to the force because of the discipline, the camaraderie, the sense of duty and honor. Indeed, he may even be attracted to the status and the deference that is due to a man with a uniform, a badge and a gun–often a deference he can find in no other relations. After all, there are many ways to give back to one’s community. Why police work? One who has issues with conformity, authority and falling in line with group expectations is not likely to be attracted to the force regardless of the renegade cop archetype that Hollywood loves so much.

As an institution, the police force acts as a gate-keeper, accepting only those who will conform to the norms and traditions of the institution, rejecting those who do not “fit” the expectations of a police officer. A prospective cop will undergo education, training, acceptance into the institution and rather inflexible pressures to conform to the systemic expectations of the profession. This is regardless of his or her color.

In fact, the pressures to conform for a black officer, especially a black female officer, may be even more intensive and more acute than for a white officer. One’s color or gender serves as an indicator that this person does not fit the norm, forcing such a person to pay special attention to conformity. Any step out of line can be viewed as a confirmation that “those people” don’t belong. Rigid conformity may indicated that “she’s one of the good ones.”

Challenging the accepted order, on the other hand, can lead to social isolation and ostracism, sanctions that all human beings will try to avoid. As Solomon Asch revealed in 1951, people will conform, even when they know they are wrong in doing so.  On a practical level, with regard to law enforcement as an occupation, ostracism may very well mean loss of a job and a bad reputation within the profession, bringing with it punitive economic consequences on top of the social and status impacts.

In short, there are significant pressures on individuals to conform to the norms of an organization regardless of the moral context. These social pressures apply equally to any individual without regard to racial context. There’s no reason to believe that a black police officer is less subject to these pressures despite the racist implications of the system. We like to believe that we are autonomous individuals making our own choices, and to a certain extent, we are. But individual autonomy and agency takes place within a social context that complicates the paradigm presumed to constitute “our own choices.”

In 1948, sociologist Robert Merton published Discrimination and the American Creed, in which he decoupled the practice of discrimination from prejudicial beliefs. Merton realized that discrimination as a human action was more complicated than simply attributing this behavior to prejudiced individuals. Yes, prejudiced people are likely to discriminate, and unprejudiced people are likely to not discriminate, but this was not the only pattern. Merton also elaborated that, due to social context, unprejudiced people may still discriminate. He refers to such people as “fair weather liberals.” According to Merton, “The fair-weather liberal is the man of expediency who, despite his own freedom from prejudice, supports discriminatory practices when it is the easier or more profitable course. His expediency may take the form of holding his silence and thus implicitly acquiescing in expressions of ethnic prejudice…Or his expediency may take the form of grasping at advantages in social and economic competition deriving solely from the ethnic status of competitors.” There is no reason to believe that black police officers are immune to falling into the “fair weather liberal” category.

There is nothing new about a systemic interpretation of racism. Merton and Asch did their work over sixty years ago. For about twenty years it seemed that the sociological and psychological contributions to our understanding of race relations was becoming the dominant paradigm. The aspirations of the civil rights movement required standing up in the face of individual racists, but also in reforming a society founded on over four hundred years of racial and ethnic subjugation. Great progress was made during that time.

But that progress was not the final punctuation at the end of this tragic story. As the United States turned its back on the reform movements of the post World War II era and embraced the staunch individualism lauded by the New Right we abandoned the very discourse that might be used to promote change at the institutional level. Racism was simplified into a discourse of personal choice that traps us in a shallow understanding of personal lived experience. It makes for easy memes, but also impacts our empathy for very real human suffering and offers an easy, but unreasonable, justification for inaction when it comes to instituting reform.



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