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The Bias Against Black Bodies

NY Times, Feb. 19, 2014


The Michael Dunn case has caused us to look once again at the American culture and criminal justice system, and many don’t like what they see.

But we shouldn’t look at this case narrowly and see its particular circumstances as the epitome of the problem. They are not. The scope of the problem is far more expansive, ingrained and elusive.

This is simply one more example of the bias against — and in fact violence, both psychological and physical, against — the black body, particularly black men, that extends across society and across their lifetimes. And this violence is both interracial and intra-racial.

A 2011 study found that black parents were the most likely to spank their children. After the study was released, Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who advocates against corporal punishment, and who also happens to be black, told CNN: “We have such damage in the black community. When you add to that parents beating their kids, it’s sending the message that violence is an O.K. way to solve problems.” Poussaint added later, “violence begets violence, anger begets anger, and the loss of control makes it all worse.”


Charles M. Blow


And for many black children, when they go to school things don’t get much better. According to the Center for Effective Discipline, corporal punishment and paddling in school is allowed in 19 states; these include all the states except Virginia in the Black Belt, which stretches across the South. The center found that African-American students make up “17 percent of all public school students in the U.S., but are 36 percent of those who have corporal punishment inflicted on them, more than twice the rate of white students.”

This inequitable treatment in schools is also exerted in other ways. As USAToday reported in May:

“The average American secondary student has an 11 percent chance of being suspended in a single school year, according to the study from the University of California-Los Angeles Civil Rights project. However, if that student is black, the odds of suspension jump to 24 percent.”

It continued:

“Previous studies have shown that even a single suspension can double a student’s odds of dropping out, said Daniel Losen, a former Boston-area teacher and one of the authors of ‘Out of School and Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools,’ released in April.”

Even on the streets, they can’t escape it.

In New York City, from 2002 to 2011, the Police Department stopped and frisked millions of citizens, but nearly 90 percent of those were black and Hispanic, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Eighty-eight percent of those stopped were innocent.

And, according to a 2011 report from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, although black, white and Hispanic drivers were stopped by the police at roughly similar rates, “black drivers were about three times as likely as white drivers and about twice as likely as Hispanic drivers to be searched during a traffic stop.” It doesn’t take a leap of logic to understand that if you search for contraband, you’re more likely to find it.

The inequity continues into the justice system, even for juveniles. As Frontline pointed out:

“A number of recent surveys have shown that there are profound racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, that African-American and Hispanic youth are more likely to be tried as adults. They are more likely to receive longer sentences, they’re more likely to be in locked facilities, and on and on and on, even when charged with the same offense as whites.”

In fact, a January study in the journal Crime & Delinquency found that by age 23 nearly half of all black men will have been arrested at least once. This compares to 44 percent of Hispanics and 38 percent of whites.

This disparity continues into the adult prison population. While blacks are only 13 percent of the population, they make up 38 percent of the state prison population nationwide.

Part of this last problem abides in the jury box.

A 2010 report from the Equal Justice Initiative found that “people of color continue to be excluded from jury service because of their race, especially in serious criminal trials and death penalty cases.” And among the people who do make it onto juries, a 2001 study published in Psychology, Public Policy and Law found, white jurors demonstrate bias more often when race isn’t a prominent feature of a case than when it is. So, much of this bias would likely slip by, away from the glare of media attention.

It is no surprise then that many of these young black men, having endured a life of violence and suspicion and inequitable treatment, would have a vastly altered relationship to authority and even the basic concepts of fairness and hopefulness. A small number of these young people, having been baptized in brutality, can internalize it and then act it out, being destructive to themselves and their communities. And pop culture — whether music, television or movies — can amplify the problem by either normalizing violence or glorifying it.

In that context, the repercussion of poor decisions is amplified, and the tiny minority of people who exist within any demographic group who are intent on committing themselves to wrongdoing and disruption could prosper.

That is the conundrum of the current African-American experience: How to unwind all the hurt and damage? How to rescue folks from a system and culture that threatens to drown them?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. There is no one place to start.

I often advocate that blacks fight this bias on two flanks. First, work every day to eliminate the structural and systematic biases. This is actually easier said than done, particularly since many of the people who, wittingly or not, become instruments of the bias, and in some cases are beneficiaries of that bias, deny that bias.

The second flank is to recognize that the bias is present and not make choices that would make it worse, and in fact try to countervail it. The latter is always the more delicate argument, because it calls on people to redouble efforts to behave nobly in an ignoble — and unjust — context. There is an issue of basic fairness that goes unaddressed in the discussion.

But, sadly, those seem to be the options that exist at the moment. Moving in two directions at once, fighting the system and fighting despair.

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