Sunday Commentary: Not Everything Is about Race – But Too Much Still Is

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

By David M. Greenwald

I have been struck by some of the comments and discussions this week.  As I noted in an earlier column, Chief Darren Pytel seems to conflate personal bias with systemic racism.

That triggered a comment: “There is no analysis which enables one to conclude that systemic racism is the ’cause.’”

I actually probably agree with that point.  It speaks toward the problem of Chief Pytel attempting to benchmark population in order to find out the exact the precise disparity between traffic stops and population, even as he acknowledges there is clear disproportionality in the system.

Later in the week in response to the Lupita letter, one commenter said, “I can agree with the author that safety protocols are very important and need to be adhered to but the author lost me when race was infused as it seems everything these days goes down that rabbit hole.”

It seems like to some people, the worst thing they can be called is a “racist”—to the point where it becomes worse to be called a racist than to perpetuate systems of racism.

And that’s the real problem here as I pointed out in response—you may not think that something like COVID is an indicator of systemic racism, but it is.

I pointed out in my response that, in fact, race creeps into this conversation in several system: (1) COVID has impacted communities of color far more than other communities; (2) There are disparate impacts on communities of color because such communities were not able to safely shelter in place; (3) The impact of distance learning is also disparate in a lot of respects.

COVID may seem like an equal opportunity killer, but it’s not.  It takes advantage of structural racism.

According to the CDC, “Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans are 1.1 to 1.9 times likelier to be infected with COVID-19 than white Americans, and Black people have died at 1.4 times the rate of white people, according to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project.”

Why?  Because people of color disproportionately lack resources, lack educational opportunities and lack jobs that allow them access to good health care and, more importantly, force them to work in areas where they cannot shelter in place and work from home.

Part of the problem is that some may be looking in the wrong places in order to see racism.  Systemic racism does not require people wearing hoods shouting racial slurs in public.  It may not even be up to individual agency.  Instead, it may be embedded structures that have been baked into the system by years of discriminatory policy.

That makes it difficult to prove that systemic racism is the “cause” of given problems.

In 2014, Duke University Sociologist Eduardo Bonnila-Silva wrote a book called Racism without Racists.

As CNN points out: “Whites and racial minorities speak a different language when they talk about racism, scholars and psychologists say.”  They note: “Some whites confine racism to intentional displays of racial hostility. It’s the Ku Klux Klan, racial slurs in public, something ‘bad’ that people do.”

While that stuff clearly still exists and it crept back in over the last five years, as Bonilla-Silva says, “The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits.”

He said, “The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers, the tea party or to the Republican Party, the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game.”

Or as I would put it—the more we focus on people rather than structures, the more we are missing the true problem.

The example that Chief Pytel gave this week shows a traffic stop where the cop pulls someone over for running a stop sign, runs the license and finds out that the person is on probation and then conducts a search.

There is individual agency of the cop here, it’s whether they should search the vehicle just because they can lawfully do so—which is problematic unless there is a good reason to do so.

Pytel, in his discussion with the council, acknowledges, “It would be naive to assume that there is no disparity because all studies have shown—and even properly benchmarked to the state study which is a better benchmarking system, show racial disparity.”

And he’s troubled by the fact that they have invested so much time and energy into unconscious bias training without denting racial disparities.

He asks “what’s the deal of still having disparity in stop data after agencies—us and other agencies—have invested so much time and energy into unconscious bias training?”

The RIPA (Racial Identity and Profiling Act) data is probably not going to answer that.  He comes at least to the preliminary conclusion that there is still a gap between recognition of bias and action by the cops.  That may well be.

But it is reasonable to ask this: is the cop searching more Black people’s vehicles because he has an unconscious bias that sees a Black subject as being more threatening—that is a plausible explanation that fits known research on unconscious bias—or is he searching more vehicles of Black people because a higher percentage are on probation and therefore searchable without consent?

Of course, the answer could be both.  But if you are dealing with the former, then you do have a case of unconscious bias.  If you are dealing with the latter, then you have structural racism that is impacting current policies.

What struck me this week is both conversations get lost in this minutiae—can we prove that systemic racism is behind it or can we merely observe its effects and attempt to find ways to reduce the inequality?

It strikes me that Pytel attempting to find the perfect benchmark, and the commenter suggesting there is no proof, and the commenter wondering why everything is about race—even things that appear to clearly have racial components because the outcomes are so differentiated by race, that the real rabbit hole is getting into this debate every time rather than figuring out ways to start reducing the racial disparities in things that should no  longer have them.

Unfortunately, we get so defensive, so bent out of shape every time someone dares to point out race, that we never get to the second level in our discussions and start addressing the inequities of the system.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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37 Comments

  1. Bill Marshall

    The example that Chief Pytel gave this week shows a traffic stop where the cop pulls someone over for running a stop sign, runs the license and finds out that the person is on probation and then conducts a search.

    Isn’t running the license “a search”?

    1. David Greenwald

      It’s not considered one from a legal standpoint. Legal definition: “search means examination of a person’s body, property or other area which the person would reasonably be expected to consider as private by a law enforcement officer for finding evidence of a crime. Ordinarily a search cannot be conducted without probable cause as the Fourth amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. “

  2. Keith Olsen

    Unfortunately, we get so defensive, so bent out of shape every time someone dares to point out race, that we never get to the second level in our discussions and start addressing the inequities of the system.

    Unfortunately people get so defensive, so bent out of shape every time someone dares to point out that not everything is about race even though some try to make it so.

  3. Ron Oertel

    If “systemic racism” is defined as a system which has a disproportionate impact on one race or another, then it absolutely exists.

    Beyond that, we enter the realm of theory.

    And if “systemic racism” is cited as a reason to not open schools, we enter the realm of “something else”.  🙂

  4. Ron Oertel

    That makes it difficult to prove that systemic racism is the “cause” of given problems.

    Systemic racism might be better-described a “result”, rather than a cause.

    I suspect that (given the definition put forth), all systems are systemic racist systems, in that they do not achieve a proportionate representation. For that matter, every country on earth is probably a “systemic racist” system in-and-of-itself, when compared to the racial breakdown of the broader, worldwide population. And using that comparison, the U.S. itself is probably one of the least “system racist” systems on the planet.

  5. Tia Will

    I gained a new perspective on this issue which dates to the founding of our country after reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. While fully recognizing our countries racial disparities in all their manifestations, she makes a strong argument for the hierarchical nature of our society and the perceived interests of those at the top in maintaining the status quo as a major component.

    So how is that hierarchy of power and privilege arranged in our society?

    Wealthy white men at the top. Then wealthy white women. All others are arranged variably over time by how closely they can emulate or support those at the top. Evidence for this can be found in the fact that Irish, Italians, Mediterraneans, and certain other groups were not always considered “white” but are now considered as such. In my own family, this was illustrated by name change by Americanizing a Sicilian last name and abandoning the language so that the children would not have accents.

    Blacks for the most part are the group found on the lowest rung of this hierarchical system not through any inherent characteristic but through their easy identifiability and the need of all hierarchical systems to have some identifiable group forever assigned to the bottom rung. This is clearly a systemic issue. It is the air we breathe, that gives our society coherence and consistency, but it is not inevitable. We could choose an egalitarian system. It is our choice, and so far, we have refused to do so.

     

    1. Ron Oertel

       All others are arranged variably over time by how closely they can emulate or support those at the top. Evidence for this can be found in the fact that Irish, Italians, Mediterraneans, and certain other groups were not always considered “white” but are now considered as such. 

      Also – one could argue that Asians are also in this category – similar to what the school board member in San Francisco is claiming.  (Though one might ask “who” is emulating “who”, to achieve success.)  And possibly/increasingly Hispanics.

      and the need of all hierarchical systems to have some identifiable group forever assigned to the bottom rung.

      For what purpose? To keep one group (out of all the others) out of the “club”?

      Workplaces in a capitalistic, competitive system will always be hierarchical.

      (Places like Kaiser being somewhat of an exception, as it’s almost run like a government system. Part of the reason that some “customers” dislike it.) 🙂

    2. Alan Miller

      Blacks for the most part are the group found on the lowest rung of this hierarchical system

      I would argue that our indigenous natives are in many ways the lowest rung.  I don’t know how one would actually measure which of the two groups has been shåt on the worst by this country.  But I argue indigenous for today because the plight of blacks and civil rights and black lives matter has received so much more attention and reform.  There are still so much subtle racism directed at native people.  In the rural midwest the tension between ranchers and natives pushed to reservations is profound.  Just look at The Six Grandfathers vs. Mt. Rushmore (The Four White Arseholes).  I mean four white faces of conquerors carved into a sacred mountain, and used as a symbol for so-called ‘patriotism’.   One thing many don’t realize is the many ways so-called ‘sovereignty’ is actually used against the very peoples it is supposed to protect.  But that’s a huge discussion.

      1. Bill Marshall

        I agree… and they are most ignored, even by Asians (continent of origin by many theories), Blacks, and some Latinx (who aren’t already partially descended from “Indigenous Peoples”… and many ‘indigenous folk’, genetically, are not in the history of evolution, migration, etc., fully indigenous…

        Which brings up another interesting point… can racial genetics play a significant part in resistance to certain genetically, or acquired diseases?  And Whose fault is that?  Systemic racism?

        Few Blacks develop Tay-Sachs (genetics)… few Asians develop Sickle-cell Anemia (genetics)… measles and cowpox/smallpox decimated indigenous populations in the americas (combination of genetics and lack of acquired immunity?)… what is the proportion of folk, across ethnic/genetic borders, who develop MS, CF, ALS (Lou Gerhig’s disease), etc.

        We do not know, at this point, how much the effects of Covid, or other viruses du jour, are dependent PRECISELY on genetics (which goes to race/ethnicity… and until we get into gene manipulation, not a damn thing we can do about it), or on societal variables… yet, many want to blame the disproportional effects, on government and society… not “science” but ‘political/social science’?

        1. Bill Marshall

          Big difference on stats re:  correlation, and stats/facts based on causation

          Yes, accidentally ‘crossed threads’, between the topic at hand, and the DJUSD Covid topic… my bad… if it can be relocated, great, but if not, feel free to delete…

  6. Ron Oertel

    I pointed out in my response that, in fact, race creeps into this conversation in several system: (1) COVID has impacted communities of color far more than other communities; (2) There are disparate impacts on communities of color because such communities were not able to safely shelter in place; (3) The impact of distance learning is also disparate in a lot of respects.

    All of this would indicate that “communities of color” (leaving out Asians, I assume) would be more interested in having schools reopen, compared to communities of “no color”.

    And yet, this is being cited as a reason to not open schools, by some.

    Could it be that there’s another reason for their “concern”?  (Such as, not wanting to go back to work/and or not wanting to run a “dual system” – since it is a choice as to whether or not to attend?)

    According to the CDC, “Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans are 1.1 to 1.9 times likelier to be infected with COVID-19 than white Americans, and Black people have died at 1.4 times the rate of white people, according to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project.”

    That would (logically) also be a reason that communities of “no color” would not want to reopen schools (and expose themselves to those of higher risk).  But again, the opposite is occurring.  Which again causes me to wonder about motivation of those who cite systemic racism as a reason to not provide an opportunity to return to school, for those who would make that choice.

    Why?  Because people of color disproportionately lack resources, lack educational opportunities and lack jobs that allow them access to good health care and, more importantly, force them to work in areas where they cannot shelter in place and work from home.

    Again, all of these reasons (with the exception of health care) would logically cause one to conclude that “communities of color” would overwhelmingly prefer to have their kids back in school.

    And given that vaccines are increasingly available (and for the most part, prevent the need for health care to treat Covid), that supposed reason also starts falling apart.

    Could there be another reason (such as the theory I put forth) regarding the resistance to providing an opportunity to return to school, on a non-compulsory basis?  (I would agree that there wouldn’t be much sense in opening them for 2 months, and then taking the summer off.  But, no one is actually putting forth that argument, and is instead citing “systemic racism” as the reason.)

  7. Alan Miller

    Unfortunately, we get so defensive, so bent out of shape every time someone dares to point out race, that we never get to the second level in our discussions and start addressing the inequities of the system.

    We?

  8. Shanetucker

    Unfortunately, we get so defensive, so bent out of shape every time someone dares to point out race, that we never get to the second level in our discussions and start addressing the inequities of the system.

    A big part of this issue has to do with the misuse of statistics in attempting to prove racial bias.  I’ll use the traffic stops  issue from last week as an example.  David (and others) continue to analyze the  demographics of stops compared to the base population demographics of the base population rates in town, including modifiers for visitors, and  claim “foul”.  However the base population data is only useful for identifying an area where one should look more deeply.  The data that is needed to determine racial bias is  data regarding the demographics of those people who are somehow engaged in vehicle violations such as speeding, expired plates, broken headlights, etc.  Once you have that data, then one has appropriate  base rate  data that can be used to determine whether there is a racial inequity in policing with respect to traffic stops.

    Bill Marshall pointed out the correlation/causation problem, another common misuse of statistics by many.  Correlation/causation problems can be compounded significantly when  one uses the wrong base rate for comparison purposes.

     

     

    1. David Greenwald

      There is a fundamental problem with that level of analysis Shane – I learned it the very first time I went on a ridealong, 15 years ago. The officer sat at a corner and pointed out how many infractions or ticketable offenses took place in front of us. The question I asked – how do you decide who to pull over? That element of discretion is what opens the door for everything else.

      1. Keith Olsen

        That doesn’t address Shane’s point,

        The data that is needed to determine racial bias is  data regarding the demographics of those people who are somehow engaged in vehicle violations such as speeding, expired plates, broken headlights, etc.  Once you have that data, then one has appropriate  base rate  data that can be used to determine whether there is a racial inequity in policing with respect to traffic stops.

        1. David Greenwald

          Actually it does. The demographics of the people engaged in vehicle violations are the demographics of those driving, because everyone is engaging in a vehicle violation at some point – most of the time they are not caught, some of the time the officer pulls them over, most of the time, even the officer doesn’t.

        2. Keith Olsen

          because everyone is engaging in a vehicle violation at some point

          You don’t know the percentages of how often any given group is engaging in vehicle violations.

          Too bad you can’t respond, unfortunately you’ve already exhausted your 5 comments.

          1. David Greenwald

            Yes, I know that every driver commits at least one vehicle violation every time they drive. That’s the whole point.

        3. Keith Olsen

          Well I guess you can respond.

          Yes, I know that every driver commits at least one vehicle violation every time they drive. That’s the whole point.

          Come on, you’re supposed to be a statistics guy.  First of all you have no way of knowing that, secondly that doesn’t show how often and at what percentages different groups commit violations.  So once again, you haven’t addressed Shane’s point.

           

          1. David Greenwald

            Part of data analysis is the need to understand the nature of the universe of data. Shane makes a point in attempting to limit that universe, the problem is that there effectively is no such limitation in the real world. One of the points that police officers make is they can always find a reason to pull someone over. Always. That’s the problem here. It gives the officer discretion – conscious and unconscious as to who to pull over And that actually serves to heighten disparities.

        4. Alan Miller

          The demographics of the people engaged in vehicle violations are the demographics of those driving, because everyone is engaging in a vehicle violation at some point – most of the time they are not caught, some of the time the officer pulls them over, most of the time, even the officer doesn’t.

          Sounds like an argument for mass hiring of police so that everyone who commits a violation is ticketed – “a cop on every corner”.  Gotta be fair, or no traffic stops ever?  Another way to be fair . . .   Or maybe red light cams, speed cams, stop sign cams unveiled en masse.  What could go wrong?  (See Judas Priest: “Electric Eye” lyrics)

      2. Bill Marshall

        The question I asked – how do you decide who to pull over?

        What was the answer?

        That element of discretion is what opens the door for everything else.

        As it does in any sport, particularly basketball, rugby, and futbol (soccer)… that’s why there are good refs (knowing how to differentiate between a trivial transgression, or a substantive foul), and bad refs (calling fouls against any infraction, and/or disproportionately favoring, or penalizing one team, or player)…  it’s called life…

        Police officers are refs… there are good refs and bad refs… the rules/laws (soccer) of the game are neutral… and are supposed to have discretion applied… in soccer, it goes farther… discretion might involve a verbal warning/advisement, that only the ref and the player are involved with, blowing the whistle (stopping the game for a moment, to make a point… little/no discussion), a yellow card or a red card… I hope you can connect the dots on how that might apply to ‘policing’.

        Your ‘point’ seems to undermine the ‘systemic’ theory, and support the ‘individual’ theory (which you will certainly deny, as you have too much invested, it appears, in the latter)… we need to re-train and/or sanction ‘bad refs’, but not blame all refs…

        1. David Greenwald

          The answer was a combination of things – most egregious offenders but also the more nebulous looking at vehicles out of place. And again that bakes into systemic racism just as the decision to search does.

      3. David Greenwald

        Something to think about Keith – I was just reading about the incident in Minnesota last night and they pointed out that you can be pulled over for no reason other than having an air freshener hanging from your rearview mirror.  I believe that’s true in California as well.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Violence and property damage, prompting more capital flight from “underserved” areas, and increased law enforcement response.

          Followed by an article next week, regarding what society (at large) needs to do. Other than avoiding those areas, themselves (which is the “automatic” response).

          Oh – and maybe carry a few protest signs, in the “woke” areas of the country. You know, to prove what good people they are, themselves. (While also implementing the “automatic” response, personally.)

          Wash, rinse, repeat.

  9. Ron Oertel

    I would think that there isn’t a “system” in the entire world which doesn’t result in disparate outcomes (in terms of skin color, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc.)  In other words, all are “systemic racist” systems (or systemic sexist, ageist, etc.).

    That is, unless the desired outcome is “forced upon” a system.  And even then, it’s likely to under/over-represent some categories.

    Causes for disparities are not necessarily found within the systems, themselves. That’s the significant error that some make in regard to their beliefs.

  10. Edgar Wai

    David, when you go beyond complaining about officer personal biases to complaining about tbe police perpetuating systemic racism, you are barking up the wrong tree.

    The police is supposed tobe procedurally fair. They should not be commended for reversing systemic racism.  They are supposed to perpetuate systemic racism (without adding to it).

    If an individual officer search more black people on probation than white people on probation. Then it is a case of individual bias.

    If the police can decide to not search more if a person is on probation, then your argument should focus on abolishing that practice regardless the race of the suspect.

    Expecting the police to differentially treat people on probation based on race (search less if the person on probation is black) is outside what the police should be doing.  You need a law if you want such affirmative action to reverse systemic racism using the opposite institutional racism.

    1. David Greenwald

      “David, when you go beyond complaining about officer personal biases to complaining about tbe police perpetuating systemic racism, you are barking up the wrong tree.”

      Except I would not characterized what I’ve done as “complaining”

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