The criminalization of blackness — and what we can do about it
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As a sociologist who studies how white people think about race, I’m not surprised by the recent deluge of news stories that report on whites calling the police on black people for such “offenses” as napping in their dormitory common room , barbecuing in a park, not smiling or waving at the neighbor , or mowing the lawn . An abundance of social science research reveals that racism is a regular, everyday feature of life in the United States and that most people are implicitly prejudiced if they are not explicitly so.
Though whites’ self-reported attitudes have become much more racially egalitarian in the past few decades, results from Harvard’s Implicit Racial Association test reveal that 80 to 85 percent of white test-takers hold negative implicit stereotypes toward black people; this includes whites who self-identify as “not racist.”
Research also indicates that white people have implicit positive feelings toward other whites . This means they see other whites as trustworthy and provide them with the benefit of the doubt in situations that arouse suspicion or concern. The recent Starbucks incident in which two black men were arrested for waiting in the cafe without having ordered a drink serves as an instructive example. As a sociologist and a white person, I am inclined to believe that if the two customers had been white men, the Starbucks manager would have been unconcerned and ignored them.
What is even more troubling about the results from social scientific research is that whites’ negative implicit bias extends to black children. For example, psychologist Phillip A. Goff and colleagues concluded that white adults see white children as “innocents” in “need of protection” but that black boys “are seen as older and less innocent.” This finding gives us insight into why white adults call the police on black children — they don’t see them as innocent children, but rather as suspicious and potentially dangerous.
Take the example of Stephanie Sebby-Strempel, or #PoolPatrolPaula , the white woman who verbally and physically accosted a 15-year-old black boy at a community pool in South Carolina. “Get out. Get out. Get out, now!” she can be heard yelling at the boy in a video of the incident. Then she strikes the boy in the face and threatens to call 911 if the “little punk” doesn’t leave the pool premises at once.
This raises the question: Why are some whites angry at people of color today?
Some sociologists point to the diminished financial and occupational prospects of Americans as one factor animating white racial anger. As Arlie Hochschild argues in her book “ Strangers in their Own Land ,” a sizable contingent of white Americans believe that black Americans have received unfair dispensations from the state, such as affirmative action, that have improved their chances of becoming upwardly mobile and harmed the chances of white workers.
Whites’ sense of having been “left behind” has manifested in the emergence of an overtly angry white identity rooted in feelings of victimization. Empirically, whites’ racial anger is misguided. Black Americans continue to lag behind whites on almost every indicator, including but not limited to income, wealth and education. Further, though federal programs like affirmative action have opened doors for people of color, it was actually white women who benefited most from these policies.
Segregation exacerbates racial bias and white anxiety toward people of color. Although segregation is typically talked about in reference to nonwhites, whites are more isolated than any other racial group in the United States. Whites live in the most racially isolated neighborhoods , attend schools with the least racial diversity, and have the least diverse friend networks of all racial groups. Segregation is pernicious for people of color for many reasons, but noteworthy here is that many of the white people who called the police on black individuals in recent months claim that their actions were not animated by racism. Instead, they called the police because the black person appeared “suspicious” or “out of place” within the context of their neighborhood or community pool .
Because segregation leaves whites with little firsthand experience of others, television and the Internet become their primary racial educators. Both traffic in extremely negative images of people of color. Black Americans are depicted as violent criminals or unrepentant, lifelong welfare recipients. These images flit across our screens every day in television and film. American politicians and presidents even draw upon these racialized stereotypes. Think about Ronald Reagan’s harmful comments regarding “ welfare queens ”; George H.W. Bush’s “ Willie Horton ” ad; Hillary Clinton’s discussion of “ super predators ;” or Donald Trump’s statements during the campaign that African Americans lived in poverty-stricken, crime-ridden neighborhoods and threatening to send the “Feds” to Chicago to reduce crime.
[ #LivingWhileBlack victims want congressional hearing on racial profiling ]
It is important to recognize that calling the police on a person of color contributes to racially inequitable outcomes. Imagine you’re an 8-year-old girl in front of your home selling water to help pay for a family vacation and someone calls the police on you. The experience would probably terrify, bewilder and anger you. And it would teach you, at the tender age of 8, that some white people will use the threat of the police to put you in “your place” if they feel annoyed, inconvenienced or threatened.
These types of experiences are common for people of color, and each time they occur the stress and humiliation associated with these incidents accumulate. Over time, they contribute to negative health outcomes including anxiety, depression, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, preterm births, and — some researchers think — shorter life spans for black people than whites. This is not even accounting for the police interactions that result in physical violence or death. Remember 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by the police three seconds after officers arrived at the park where Tamir was playing? Or recall 22-year-old John Crawford, who was fatally shot by the police within seconds of the police arriving at the Walmart where Crawford was shopping? Neither of these is an isolated incident.
What can we do to reduce these types of unjustified encounters? White people who feel triggered by the sight of an unfamiliar black person in a space they consider theirs should understand that what they’re feeling is implicit bias. Think about the repercussions of picking up the phone and calling the police. White people who witness needless harassment of people of color should speak up and try to de-escalate the situation. Blackness is not criminal.
We are living in a racially fraught moment in U.S. history. Hate crimes have increased, and racists feel justified publicly declaring and acting on their prejudices. We can minimize some of the harm inflicted by denouncing these actions and supporting the unjustly accused. Now is the time for us all to demonstrate our allyship — in word and practice.
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