Tagunconscious racial bias

The Problem Of Race In American Society: Part II

King Memorial, Hopes and Dreams

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wrote a blog post in which I referred to a New York Times OP-ED by Nicholas Kristof last August 27th in which he posed the portentous question: Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist? And in my subsequent discussion, I confessed that after honest examination I had to admit that I fit within the class of individuals revealed by recent research “who intellectually believe in equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who also harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior,” and suggested that if most of my fellow Americans were scrupulously honest with themselves, they would come to the same unhappy conclusion.

On February 12th, James Comey, the Director of the FBI, delivered an unusually candid speech at Georgetown University about the difficult relationship between the police and African-Americans in which he confirmed this unhappy conclusion. As reported by The New York Times, “He started by acknowledging that law enforcement had a troubled legacy when it came to race. ‘All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty,’ he said. ‘At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups,’” a sad situation graphically depicted in my novel, Gideon’s Children, set in the tumultuous and transformative 1960s, and scheduled for release on March 3rd.

Further, Mr. Comey stated that “there was significant research showing that all people have unconscious racial biases. Most cannot help their instinctive reactions,” he said, but law enforcement officers need “to design systems to overcome that very human part of us all.” (italics added) The Times article then articulated how Comey proceeded to “lay out several measures that he said could ease the tension, including more interaction between the police and those they are charged to protect. ‘It’s hard to hate up close,’ he said. He then concluded by quoting Dr. King, who said, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.’ And Comey concluded his remarks with: ‘We all have work to do—hard word to do, challenging work—and it will take time. We all need to listen, not just about easy things, but about hard things, too. Relationships are hard. Relationships require work. So let’s begin. It is time to start seeing one another for who and what we really are.’”

Unlike Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and Attorney General Holder, who were roundly faulted by  police groups for their critical remarks about law enforcement, I am highly pleased to report that Mr. Comey’s thoughtful and nuanced remarks were praised by a number of high-ranking officials from various police organizations.

I, too, want to commend Mr. Comey for his honesty and courage in urging all of us, police and citizenry, to face the human part of ourselves and work to overcome our biases so that we can learn to live as brothers.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Day: A Time For All Of Us To Reflect, Then Renew Our Resolution To Expand Freedom and Equality

King Memorial, Hopes and Dreams Today we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great leader of the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement. And living in the decade that marks the 50th anniversary of the tumultuous 1960s, fresh traumatic events, from Ferguson to New York City to Cleveland to Los Angeles, mandate serious reflection on both eras.

For despite the progress in civil rights that has been achieved, race remains the foremost social, economic, and political issue that divides America and threatens to tear holes in the fabric of our society.

In a timely OP-ED in the New York Times last August 27th, Nicholas Kristof raised the portentous question: Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist? And the honest answer is: YES! For “research in the last couple of decades suggests that the problem is not so much overt racists. Rather, the larger problem is a broad swath of people who consider themselves enlightened, who intellectually believe in equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who also harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.”

Wow, I thought, could that be me? Could I, who participated in the Civil Rights Movement as a Public Defender, and who recently authored Gideon’s Children, a novel arguing for fair treatment and justice for individuals of all colors in the Criminal Justice System, harbor such an unconscious attitude?

After much soul searching, I concluded that the answer was sadly: YES! And I think that if most of my fellow Americans are scrupulously honest with themselves, they will come to the same unhappy conclusion.

How can that be? How can such a subconscious condition originate? were the next questions I asked myself. And while I am not a psychologist, sociologist, or philosopher, after due deliberation Human Nature is the answer that tumbled into mind, a quick review of history then confirming it. For throughout the long story of mankind, someone or some group has always needed to rise above another, to be on top and hence better. And while this need to set ourselves apart from our fellow beings, to make ourselves feel special and better can, of course, produce constructive achievement if guided and guarded by conscience, if the rising is accomplished by pushing and keeping others down, while shelving conscience’s dictate to act appropriately, then a tension is created that leads to trouble with a capital T.

Most of us lead ordinary lives, and are not directly involved in the higher levels of the power structure that governs our society. However, that human need to be special, to be better, is still present and can unconsciously form attitudes that lead to harmful discriminatory policies and behavior.

So, to truly honor the great man whose birthday we celebrate today, I would like to suggest that amidst our environment of busy-busy-busy, fast- faster-and-faster-yet, leading to information overload and shrinking attention spans, that we stop for an hour or two, and honestly consider how we think and feel about how we relate to our fellow beings.

Then, let us resolve to do better. As Lincoln advised, let us summon the better angels of our nature, and taking one tiny step forward each day, be the change in the world we want to see.

Happy Birthday, Martin! And God bless!