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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