Hope in the face of systemic racism

The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of former Ferguson, MO police Officer Darren Wilson served as a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter Movement.  The BLM movement is a protest movement comprised of individuals with multiple race-based grievances against the criminal justice system in the United States. From courts that fail to indict a ham sandwich, to the disproportionate presence of People of Color in jails and prisons (or under parole or supervision) compared to whites, to a ‘War on Drugs‘ that heavily targets people of color, to policies like Stop & Frisk or Broken Windows (both of which unfairly target communities of color) the criminal justice system in the United States is drowning in racial disparities.

When the system says that a police officer doesn’t have to stand trial, despite his use of an illegal chokehold maneuver that resulted in the death of a civilian…

When the system imprisons Black and Hispanic citizens at a higher rate than their white counterparts…

When Blacks and Hispanics make up the vast majority of those stopped and frisked (supporters of the policy claim it keeps weapons and drugs off the streets, yet 9 out of 10 people stopped are innocent, whites use drugs at nearly the same rate as People of Color, and white people stopped and frisked are more likely to be in possession of weapons)…

…the system is fucked up.

There’s another area where the racial disparities in the criminal justice system can be seen: confrontations between law enforcement officials and civilians. Here are a few such confrontations:

  1. On 1/15/15, a bomb threat was called in to the Community Action Center of Sentinel, Oklahoma.  After determining the address the threat was made from, law enforcement officials descended on the residence of Dallas Horton and his wife.

According to the Mayor, the suspect would not let the law enforcement officers inside. So they broke down the door.

Officers cleared the first room. But as they entered the second room, one suspect shot Chief Ross three times, twice in his bullet proof vest and once in the arm, according to the OSBI.

The Chief actually borrowed the bullet proof vest from one of the deputies just before entering the home, according to the OSBI.

After firing numerous shots, the suspect surrendered himself to the officers. OSBI officials said no officers fired their weapons during the incident. The suspect and his wife were taken into custody.  Their names will be released once they have been booked into the Washita County jail.

Despite the fact that the suspect had a weapon and was firing on the police, the officers did not fire their weapons, and he was taken alive.  I wonder…what’s his race? (<—that right there is a rhetorical question)

  1. On 9/10/14, Darrien Hunt, a black man cosplaying as a sword-wielding character from a Japanese anime series, was shot and killed by Utah police officers.

At the time of his death, Hunt was dressed up as a Japanese samurai (what’s calledcosplaying“) and wielding a decorative sword. Police said he became violent and attacked them with the sword when they tried to take it away, but an autopsy found four of six gunshot wounds hit Hunt on his back.

The police officers involved won’t face any criminal charges. Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman found the officers who shot him, Saratoga Springs Corporal Matthew Schauerhamer and Officer Nicholas, to be “justified in their use of deadly force against Mr. Hunt. Their belief that deadly force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury was reasonable.”

Hmmm, shot in the back multiple times. Killed because the officers felt the low bar justifying deadly force was met. Oh, and Hunt was carrying a blunt-edged replica of a samurai sword, which would not have presented any danger to those officers.

  1. During the overnight hours of Christmas Eve 2014, two intoxicated white men walked into a Walmart, took a BB gun out of its packaging and began firing it in the store.

The Post Falls Police said a couple of intoxicated men walked into a Walmart in Post Falls and began shooting a BB gun.

It happened overnight when the two males walked into the store and took a brand new BB gun out of its box.

Police said they then loaded the gun and fired four separate times while inside the store.

The two eventually walked up to a loss prevention officer and asked if he wanted to join them.

They then walked out of the store, but several officers and a deputy were able to locate and arrest the two men.

Please note that these men were firing the BB gun in the Walmart store.  Anyone doing so is placing the lives of others in potential jeopardy, and should be arrested. Kudos to the officers involved for doing just that.  For some reason, the officers in the next example chose to employ lethal force against their BB-gun wielding suspect.

  1. In August of 2014, police shot and killed John Crawford III in an Ohio Walmart. Crawford, a black man, was carrying a BB-gun, but was not pointing it at anyone or threatening anyone.

The video shows Crawford, while talking on a cellphone, picking up a pellet gun, which was out of its package and sitting on a shelf. His family said he was talking to the mother of his two children. Crawford continues to walk through Wal-Mart aisles and passes by other customers, who do not appear to react to his presence. The Xenia Gazette reports that Crawford passed by Ronald Ritchie, the man who called 911 and told a dispatcher that there “was a gentleman walking around with a gun in the store,” that “he’s like pointing it at people” and the man appeared to loading what looked like a rifle and “waving it back and forth.” (A month later, Ritchie told the Guardian that Crawford never pointed the gun at anybody).

The video shows Crawford continuing through the store. He paused at some store shelves, and it appears he’s still on the phone, fiddling with the gun as it swings, pointed toward the ground. Then, police enter the frame to his side; you can see Crawford turn his head, fall to the ground, scramble in the other direction, then turn back around before ultimately falling to the ground. It’s unclear whether he dropped the gun before being shot or after.

Crawford did not fire the BB gun and didn’t pose a threat to customers or the police. Nonetheless, an investigation into the incident resulted in no charges against the officers involved. It was found that they were justified in using lethal force. How? I’ve no motherfucking idea, since Crawford wasn’t posing a threat to anyone, including the officers.

  1. 55-year-old Walter C. Peppelman (a white man) was arrested on 1/10/15 for-among other things- resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.

Police initially received a call around 6:10 p.m. from a woman who reported that someone driving a white Jeep Grand Cherokee with the license plate “Pepboys” was following her.

The woman told police that the driver of the Jeep had cut her off on Jonestown Road, leading her to beep her horn. The driver of the vehicle then began slamming on his brakes and later followed the woman for several minutes in the parking lot of Kohl’s, she told police.

Lower Paxton Township police Officer Brian Egli arrived at the parking lot and spoke with the woman, he reported in charging documents. During their conversation, the officer heard another woman scream across the parking lot, and he reported walking toward her.

The officer said he found the other woman, Peppelman’s wife, crying and visibly upset. After asking her what was wrong, Egli said Peppelman approached him and chest bumped him while saying there was no problem.

After telling Peppelman he was under arrest, Egli said Peppelman punched him in the left temple. The officer then called for backup, which eventually led to Peppelman being handcuffed and taken into custody.

Police reported smelling a strong odor of alcohol on Peppelman as he was placed under arrest. They also said they confirmed he was the driver who followed the woman in the earlier alleged road rage incident.

Interesting. Even though he assaulted the officer and resisted arrest, Peppelman is still alive. Unlike the next person on this list, who did NOT assault a law enforcement officer, and IMO, the level of “resistance” he offered doesn’t rise to the level of resisting arrest (he was vocally complaining about the harassment he’s endured at the hands of the NYPD).

  1. Nothing Eric Garner did on July 17, 2014 justified his death at the hands of the NYPD. Nevertheless, the video taken by Garner’s friend Ramsey Orta shows that tactics used by the officers directly contributed to the death of Garner. Despite this, a grand jury declined to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, the man who used the illegal chokehold maneuver that led to Garner’s death.
  2. Jordan Brown, a 23-year-old white male was arrested on charges of possession and distribution of cocaine, felony assault on a public servant, and a felony charge of attempting to take a weapon from an officer.

A pair of Midland police officers and a lone MPD officer were conducting surveillance at the 4400 block of W. Storey Avenue at 3:40 a.m. because of possible narcotic activity when they noticed a car leaving the residence soon after it had arrived. The vehicle headed west on Storey and failed to signal 100 feet before making a turn at the intersection of Storey and Amigo Drive. The lone officer made a traffic stop of the vehicle, which was being driven by Brown. The officer, suspecting that Brown was involved in drug activity, asked him to step out of the vehicle, according to the arrest affidavit.

Brown complied and the officer attempted to pat him down for weapons. Brown allegedly fled the scene, running northbound on Goliad Drive. The officer pursued Brown, who allegedly jumped two fences and ended up running on Alamo Drive, according to the affidavit. The officer caught up to Brown and tackled him in an attempt to arrest him.

Brown began trying to hit the officer in the face and upper body, according to the affidavit. The officer, who was unable to radio for backup because his mic had been ripped off, said Brown began reaching for his service pistol, according to the affidavit.

The officer said he hit Brown in the face multiple times to regain control of the situation. Brown then allegedly pushed the officer off him and attempted to flee, but the officer was able to restrain Brown again, according to the affidavit. The officer said Brown grabbed and trapped his hands and then he placed his elbow to Brown’s face to release his grip. At that point other officers arrived to assist.

Despite the fact that he assaulted an officer, tried to take his gun, and was in possession of cocaine, Jordan Brown is alive to face a court of law, unlike the next person on the list.

  1. Michael Brown, Jr was shot and killed by ex-police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014.  Wilson claimed that Brown assaulted him and tried to take his gun.  During grand jury testimony, he stated that “it look[ed] like a demon”, the “it” being Michael Brown, Jr. I guess dehumanizing someone to the point that they aren’t even 3/5 of a human being is necessary to justify an extrajudicial execution. Me, I think that Wilson’s dehumanization of Brown is a manifestation of unconscious biases and attitudes he holds about African-Americans (certainly, he holds some views of Black men as ‘Brutes‘).

Darren Wilson is not the only individual working within the U.S. criminal justice system with racial biases. The theory that unconscious biases help explain systemic racism in the criminal justice system is supported by a growing body of social science research:

Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji was once approached by a reporter for an interview. When Banaji heard the name of the magazine the reporter was writing for, she declined the interview: She didn’t think much of the magazine and believed it portrayed research in psychology inaccurately.

But then the reporter said something that made her reconsider, Banaji recalled: “She said, ‘You know, I used to be a student at Yale when you were there, and even though I didn’t take a course with you, I do remember hearing about your work.’ “

The next words out of Banaji’s mouth: “OK, come on over; I’ll talk to you.”

After she changed her mind, Banaji got to thinking. Why had she changed her mind? She still didn’t think much of the magazine in which the article would appear. The answer: The reporter had found a way to make a personal connection.

For most people, this would have been so obvious and self-explanatory it would have required no further thought. Of course, we might think. Of course we’d help someone with whom we have a personal connection.

For Banaji, however, it was the start of a psychological exploration into the nature and consequences of favoritism — why we give some people the kind of extra-special treatment we don’t give others.

In a new book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Banaji and her co-author, Anthony Greenwald, a social psychologist at the University of Washington, turn the conventional way people think about prejudice on its head. Traditionally, Banaji says, psychologists in her field have looked for overt “acts of commission — what do I do? Do I go across town to burn down the church of somebody who’s not from my denomination? That, I can recognize as prejudice.”

Yet, far from springing from animosity and hatred, Banaji and Greenwald argue, prejudice may often stem from unintentional biases.

Take Banaji’s own behavior toward the reporter with a Yale connection. She would not have changed her mind for another reporter without the personal connection. In that sense, her decision was a form of prejudice, even though it didn’t feel that way.

Now, most people might argue such favoritism is harmless, but Banaji and Greenwald think it might actually explain a lot about the modern United States, where vanishingly few people say they hold explicit prejudice toward others but wide disparities remain along class, race and gender lines.

The research done by Banaji and Greenwald is further supported by recent research by psychologists Samuel Sommers and Satia Marotta from Tufts University.

In an overview of recent research, Tufts University psychologists Samuel Sommers and Satia Marotta write that, while overt prejudice is surely a factor in some cases, “unconscious—or implicit—racial biases can also taint legal decision-making.”

“All of us, regardless of personal ideology or professional oath, are susceptible to such biases, even when making life-and-death decisions,” they write in the journal Policy Insights From the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Sommers and Marotta examine the way unconscious racism influences decision making at three levels of the legal process: policing; the decision of district attorneys to press charges; and the conduct and outcomes of criminal trials.

Starting with the police, the researchers cite the U.S. District Court’s 2013 ruling on the New York Police Department’s “Stop and Frisk” policy. “Of the more than four millions stops the NYPD conducted between 2004 and 2012,” they write, “52 percent were of African-Americans and 31 percent of Latinos, despite respective general population rates in the city of 23 percent and 29 percent—and although stops of African-Americans and Latinos were actually less likely to yield weapons or contraband than were stops of whites.”

That same data showed that “use of force occurred in 23 percent of stops of African-Americans and 24 percent of stops of Latinos, but in only 17 percent of stops of whites.” This pattern was found in spite of the fact that “African-Americans and Latino New Yorkers were actually less likely to possess contraband than their white counterparts.”

The researchers point to two ways to address this issue: Using hiring decisions to shape “more diverse police forces,” and making changes in how young officers are trained. “Experience with simulated building searches, in which officers interact with actors, some of whom ‘attack’ using weapons with non-lethal ammunition, does predict reduced bias,” they report.

Conscious or unconscious racism also plays a role in how a black person is treated once arrested. The researchers point to a 2008 study that found “prosecutors more likely to charge capital murder, and seek the death penalty, in cases with black defendants and/or white victims. This, combined with the fact that more than 90 percent of all guilty verdicts result from plea bargains and not juries, demonstrates a clear need for further study of how race shapes attorney perceptions and decision-making,” Sommers and Marotta write. They report there is “a dearth of data on prosecutorial discretion.”

“Race can influence what happens in court as well,” the researchers add, noting a 2005 analysis of 34 studies that finds “a small, but significant, effect for racial bias in both verdict and sentencing decisions.”

In addition, a 2008 study found that “in almost 200 actual juries in felony cases with black defendants … the greater the percentage of whites on a jury, the more likely it was to convict a black defendant. This association persisted regardless of crime type, or strength of prosecution case.”

Another way to combat implicit racial bias is to offer counterstereotypes:

Calvin Lai and Brian Nosek at the University of Virginia recently challenged scientists to come up with ways to ameliorate such biases. The idea, said Harvard University psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, one of the researchers, was to evaluate whether there were rapid-fire ways to disable stereotypes. Groups of scientists “raced” one another to see if their favorite techniques worked. All the scientists focused on reducing unconscious racial bias against blacks.

“Within five minutes, you have to do something to somebody’s mind so that at the end of those five minutes you will now show a lower association of black with bad. And so this was run really like a competition to see which ones of them might work to reduce race bias and which ones don’t,” Banaji said.

The results were as surprising for what they didn’t find as for what they did. Teaching people about the injustice of discrimination or asking them to be empathetic toward others was ineffective. What worked, at least temporarily, Banaji said, was providing volunteers with “counterstereotypical” messages.

“People were shown images or words or phrases that in some way bucked the trend of what we end up seeing in our culture,” she said. “So if black and bad have been repeatedly associated in our society, then in this intervention, the opposite association was made.”

Banaji, who has been a pioneer in studying unconscious biases, said she has taken such results to heart and tried to find ways to expose herself to counterstereotypical messages, as a way to limit her own unconscious biases.

One image in particular, she said, has had an especially powerful effect: “My favorite example is a picture of a woman who is clearly a construction worker wearing a hard hat, but she is breast-feeding her baby at lunchtime, and that image pulls my expectations in so many different directions that it was my feeling that seeing something like that would also allow me in other contexts to perhaps have an open mind about new ideas that might come from people who are not traditionally the ones I hear from.”

If racial counterstereotypes help shatter unconscious racial biases, then it is imperative that greater diversity initiatives occur at all levels of society.  That diversity can and should take on many forms and here are a few suggestions:

  • Hollywood movies need to portray more women and men of color in leading or supporting roles (outside the stereotypical ones)
  • White people need to develop a circle of friends that includes PoC (75% of white USAmericans have a circle of friends that includes very few People of Color)
  • Comic books need to show more PoC in unique, non-stereotypical roles (a great example of this is Sam Wilson, a black man who is the current Captain America, the living symbol of the United States)
  • Greater racial diversity among elected officials (PoC make up roughly 37.2% of the U.S. population, but account for only 10% of positions at the local, state, and federal level.  Meanwhile white people-who make up 31% of the population-account for 65% of elected officials) (source)
  • Further diversification of children’s programming so that children of varying races and ethnicities can see themselves portrayed in a positive light

Hopefully we’ll continue to see greater diversification initiatives at all levels of society because so long as racial prejudices and stereotypes exist in the criminal justice system, the lives of People of Color will never be treated as if they matter.

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Hope in the face of systemic racism
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