Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Discouraged After Dallas

"Do not be discouraged..."

 Those were the words of Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the wake of the horrific assassinations of five Dallas police officers.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch
Credit: By United States Department of Justice - Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46091993

Was she encouraging the peace officers of our nation as they try to deal with the fact that they have become hated pariah and hunted prey from a segment of our society?

After all, she is the chief law enforcement officer in the country.


Her encouragement was for the Black Lives Movement protestors across the county.

“To those who seek to improve our country, through peaceful protest and protected speech, I want you to know that your voice is important. Do not be discouraged by those who would use your lawful actions as a cover for their heinous violence.” 

We have been here before. I have written about it before. The George Zimmerman case. Ferguson, Missouri. I guess I need to write about it again.

We continue to hear that there is an inherent bias by the police and justice system against African-Americans. I agree with that general conclusion.  I have no doubt there is bias if you want to use that word.  If you are black in America there is undoubtedly a greater chance that you will be pulled over in a car.  You will be looked at with greater suspicion in a convenience store.  You will find it harder to get a fair shake in a court room.

It is not right.  However, profiling and stereotyping are fundamental to the way the human brain operates.  It is not fair but that is the way the brain is wired.  We are too quick to jump to conclusions based on past experiences, emotions, events, associations and their consequences.

The fact is that we all stereotype because all of our brains use shortcuts to make decisions. It is the way the brain is wired. These shortcut pathways make decision making easier. Our brain is a wondrous thing. A good portion of the calories we burn in a day go to fuel this enormous power plant. Therefore, the brain always tries to make decisions that use the least amount of effort and energy it can. These shortcuts are called heuristics.

It does not mean that the decisions based on these shortcuts are always right. But they have generally served the human species well for the most part because it helped us adapt and survive. We could make quicker and more efficient decisions even if we weren't right all the time.

For example, we learned early on that it was dangerous to go outside the cave at night because a higher percentage did not return as compared to when others left in daylight. We learned to avoid the plant with the funny looking berries. Uncle Abner made that mistake, may he rest in peace. Once we found a "safe" place we tended to stay there despite the fact that had we ventured over the hill we very well may have discovered an even better place.

If you are human you use heuristics, bias and stereotypes every day. If you don't know better you are going to start with a default position as you assess things. For example, if you are looking at a product you are not familiar with and you have two items to choose from, you are going to assume the expensive option is better. If you move to a new city and need to open a bank account, you are going to assume that the bank with 50 branches and the skyscraper downtown is better than the bank with one office. After all, if they got that big they must have done something right.

In both cases, a closer and detailed look may show you are totally wrong, but you will undoubtedly have an initial bias based on prior experience.  Your brain is not going to start from ground zero when there are already paths established previously to rely on. There is bias built into your brain based on your experiences since you were a baby.

Prior to the 1950's, Asians who lived in the United States were stereotyped as cheap, poor, uneducated laborers.  Products from Asia were derided as nothing more than cheap junk. That stereotype no longer exists. It literally has been turned on its head. Our actual experience has shown the prior generalization was wrong. In fact, it has been replaced with another stereotype that is also an overly broad generalization.

Today, students in high school and college cringe when they see Asian-Americans entering their classrooms on the first day of class. American businesses have learned some hard lessons from their Asian counterparts.  The old stereotype is gone.  That change did not occur suddenly because people just started to think differently one day.  It changed because people were forced to change their thinking because of what they experienced and the behaviors and results they saw from greater and greater numbers of Asians they came in contact with.

Bias exists all around us. Bias is built into your brain. We stereotype. We profile. We discriminate. What troubles me is that we seem to be incapable of accepting this fact of life. We can't change the bias in the brain. You can only affect the experience that creates the bias that gets built into your brain.

It is more than ironic that the Black Lives Matter crowd is participating in exactly the same kind of bias that they accuse the police of. They are profiling and stereotyping all police officers based on the actions of a few. You could call it Blue Racism.

What is the experience that causes African-Americans to distrust the police? Without question, they clearly get scrutinized more and hassled more by the police.

Why is that?

Look at homicide statistics (all of this data is from most recent Department of Justice Study on "Homicide Trends in the United States"(2011) and you can better understand why the police might take a longer look at a young black male wearing a hoodie than an Asian carrying a physics textbook. This data covers a 30 year period.

  • Blacks are 8x more likely to commit murder than a white person.
  • 90% of homicides are committed by males.
  • 93% of black homicide victims are killed by other blacks.
  • Young black males are 1% of the population but commit 27% of the homicides.

I found one other piece of data in that report was also very troubling if you are a woman.  45% of women are killed by an intimate. For men that number is only 5%. White females are slightly more likely to be killed by an intimate than black females.

If you want to look at the broader context involving all crime statistics here is a comparison of black vs. white crime rates based on normalized population rates.

Credit; Inforg.am
U.S. Census Bureau and FBI data (2010)

If you are a police officer on patrol what would your experience tell you about when to be extra cautious and when you might be more inclined to use your weapon if you felt endangered? That is only a chart of statistics above. Bear in mind that a police officer is dealing with the reality of those statistics day in and day out on the street. They live it everyday. And hope to live another day.

And this most assuredly is not a white/black issue.  In fact, the DOJ statistics cited above reveal that 2/3 of police killings actually involve an offender and police office of the same race! (p.33)

Why do we keep hearing about a police and a justice system that is unfair to African-Americans?

What no one wants to talk about is why does this bias exist?

These statements are particularly interesting when you look at who is overseeing these systems today at the federal level.

The President of the United States is an African-American. He was also elected on what many believed to be the promise of racial healing. All we seem to have gotten is racial hell. Our President seems to be more interested in dividing us than uniting us.

The Attorney General of the United States is an African-American. Her predecessor  (Eric Holder) was also African-American.

African Americans have been overseeing our nation's law enforcement system for almost eight years. Why all of this talk of institutional bias when you look at who is on top of our governing and justice system today? The same is true in many of the major U.S. cities where African-Americans run city government and/or the police department. Witness Dallas whose police chief is African American. However, it did not prevent five peace officers being murdered.

We are hearing plenty about what the police needs to do to improve the situation.

We are hearing plenty about what whites need to do to improve the situation. For example, here is what Hillary Clinton said in the aftermath of the Dallas police shootings.

"I'm going to be talking to white people -- I think we're the ones who have to have to start listening to the legitimate cries that are coming from our African-American fellow citizens." 

These are both substantive steps that can improve the situation.

However, we hear almost nothing from anyone suggesting that the most substantive thing than can be done can only come from within the African-American community. Real change in bias is only going to come about if the experiences and interactions with and within the community change for the better. To be successful, this only can be done with leaders of that community speaking out, changing the narrative and changing the culture from the inside-out.

Where are the voices talking about the nearly three out of four African American children born out of wedlock? Where are the voices decrying the culture among black youths that seems to glorify drugs, gangs and violence?   Where are the voices speaking out about the fact that only 54 percent of African Americans are graduating from high school?

Crime is largely a function of poverty and poor home environments.  The absence of a father in the home is a significant factor in this equation. That is why I think it is especially ironic that there is so much energy being devoted to enabling gay marriages in this country but you hear almost nothing about encouraging African Americans to marry (or anyone else) before having a child.

Failure to complete high school is almost a certain path to poverty in this day and age.  We are spending massive amounts of money on welfare and other programs to help the poor but you hear little about the massive failure of young African Americans to graduate from high school.  We are spending enormous sums of money on the symptoms but pay little attention to the underlying disease.

That is why it is so discouraging to see our President and Attorney General (and Hillary Clinton), who could do so much on this issue, choose to play to their political base rather than pointing out all the necessary steps to get us beyond that which divides us.

Attorney General Lynch says, "Do not be discouraged."

I have to tell you,  I am discouraged. I have to think most clear thinking Americans are feeling the same way today.

No comments:

Post a Comment