Monday, January 19, 2015

Marking the Civil Rights Movement: Racial disparities as justification for racism

Ferguson protest at U Penn, by SOUL
(UPDATED, Jan 20)

One of the things that makes US racism so powerful and durable is that the more destructive and awful we make the misery, disparities and injustices of race, the more natural and right the system seems to people.  The outcomes of racism are held up as proof that our racism is right and just.

This was driven home to me a number of years ago when I directed a research project to help advocates and public health officials communicate about racial disparities in health.

One of the clearest findings is that whenever you speak about racial disparities in health outcomes (like rates of diabetes or heart disease or life expectancy) people assume that Black people just can't make smart decisions about their health.  Sharing information on disparities just serves to confirm long-standing racist assumptions about Black or Hispanic people.

Strike one.

If you try to show that Blacks and Hispanics are growing up in neighborhoods and settings that are disadvantaged and destructive, it just confirms in people's minds that this isn't just a sum of individual failings, but a collective failure of an entire race or people.

Strike two.

Complain that it's unfair or problematic that we have too many Black families in poverty, ill-health or being torn apart by the criminal justice system, and the best you can hope for is that people bite their tongues because they know it's impolite to voice what they really think of all that.

If you demonstrate that Black families and Black communities have had the deck stacked against them structurally and historically, people will shrug and shake their heads, because winners are those that overcome their obstacles and losers are those who fail to overcome their obstacles and who then blame others and whine about the unfairness of it all.

Strike three.

In our research, the only way we found around this was to talk exclusively about inputs rather than outcomes.  If you can show that a Black man who goes to the doctor for hypertension is much less likely to be given a prescription than a white man, then that is something everyone can agree ought to be corrected.  If you can show that we spend on average $700 less per year on a Black student compared to a White student - and that such disparities persist even within the same school district - this is something people agree ought to be corrected.

But these kind of "smoking gun" statistics can only address a small part of the picture.  Even more problematic is that such facts are not only harder to come by, but people dislike them, try to evade, sideline and find flaws with them.  Ultimately - they forget and discard them.  It is too hard and too troublesome to keep this kind of information in mind when the prisons, ghettos and news reports are full of Black people who prove that this whole societal disaster is their fault - not ours.  With such a lens firmly in place human psychology makes it fairly easy to sort everyday interactions in a way that confirms one's prejudices.

Social scientists have ample proof that the US enacts and enforces a race-based caste system.  An integral building block in this has been attitudes about the moral inferiority of Black character and behavior,  a portrait which remains relatively constant, whether articulated via the Bible, biology, social darwinism, or flawed culture.

Speaking as a social scientist, it is depressing that a half-century of research has given unprecedented insight into our racist system, and this has not only failed to alter that system, but in effect has served to bulwark its solidity instead.


I feel like this blog post comes across as hopeless and I don't mean for it to be so.  I am discouraged that the kind of strategic framing that we specialize in seems inadequate to the task of countering racism.  I am even more discouraged that the facts that social science has uncovered have been inadequate to the task of countering racism, and have often instead been folded into racism.

I put my hope in desegregation.  By that I don't mean busing or affirmative action - though I support both.  I mean breaking down the two-worlds experience that divides African-Americans from so many of the rest of us.

And that is something that we can all play a role in from our varied positions in this riven society.