We need to stop dismissing racial bias

Man, this is sad, and tiring, and exhausting. The lack of a trial for the police officer who killed Michael Brown. The murder of Tamir Rice by overreacting police officers in Cleveland. And as announced this afternoon, the police officers who strangled Eric Garner to death in a chokehold will not be indicted.

It’s sad, and it’s scary. It’s scary because it brings to life the truth that racial prejudice is still alive. I read about slavery in the 1800s, and the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s in my history textbooks. Racial discrimination is a lot safer there. In textbooks. When racism is something in a textbook, we can even point to it and give ourselves a pat on the back as a society. Look how far we’ve come! Emancipation Proclamation! Martin Luther King Jr. Day! Progress!

The news doesn’t give us that same luxury. Reading about the lack of justice for Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, among many other similar incidents over the past few years shows us the reality of the situation– that it’s 2014, and the tension is still there.

If the news is a scary reminder, then Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the social media world are in many ways even scarier. I’ve read comments and arguments by people I personally know, and I’ve found many of them to be alarming. White friends of mine invalidating the experiences of my black friends by trying to refute posts about their perspectives, or their experiences as a member of a disadvantaged group. Every “this isn’t about race” post, every “defend Darren Wilson” post, or every “why does nobody talk about discrimination against whites” post, is pretty demoralizing. And while many people will insert a freedom of speech defense in response, it can’t be denied that such posts are at the very least horribly insensitive.

The media reminds us that racial prejudice is still alive, and that’s scary.

Social media often reminds us that racism exists within our circles of friends, family, and community. And that’s even scarier.

I know that a lot of people would rather this not be about race. I personally would rather it be not about race. I don’t choose to point out racial imbalances because it’s fun or fashionable. I choose to point out the role race plays in such incidents, because if we let such things go unnoticed, we’ll let them go unchanged.

But, alright, there are a few common counterarguments.

There’s the one where people will justify Wilson’s actions saying that his life was endanger by Mike Brown charging at him. Brown was a big guy, and Wilson reacted out of self defense. There are people who will say that the NYPD was just doing its job during the strangulation of Eric Garner.

Even if you take on the assumption that Mike Brown and Eric Garner had the absolute worst of intentions, there is no excuse for lethal force on an unarmed suspect. There is Ezra Klein’s piece on how unbelievable (to use the word literally) Darren Wilson’s testimony is, but even if you believe it, there is no excuse for using lethal force on a suspect who is unarmed. On the matter of chokeholds, those were banned by the NYPD over twenty years ago.

Still, even with those very basic pieces of evidence in play, people will still argue for the innocence of the Ferguson PD and the NYPD. Fair enough. I think there should be an opportunity for their innocence to be argued, along with a prosecution arguing the case against them. The fact is, these incidents are not going to trial. At best, what happened during the altercations are hazy, but without even a chance for a case to be made in either direction, the officers are presumed innocent, and the deceased are presumed guilty.

Is this about politics?

Some will chalk this up as an argument about politics, and take the side of whoever they typically side with. I’ve heard from many people who identify as conservatives who believe this is an incident being blown out of proportion and exaggerated by Obama and the liberal media. I’m not particularly liberal, and if you do favor a system of small government, then isn’t an unchecked police force a serious concern?

Is this due to race?

That’s the other big dispute I hear. “Why does this have to be about race?”

Well, because it largely is.

And letting that sink in is, as I mentioned earlier, pretty scary.

I don’t get why Ferguson and Eric Garner are controversial topics right now. Honestly. I mean, I get why they’re alarming news stories, I understand that they force us to see inequality and disunity pretty close to home, but I don’t get why it’s so challenging to get people to understand that being like “Go cops! They had it coming!” is a pretty inappropriate gesture towards Black Americans in the wake of these events. I don’t get why people want to tell people who experience discrimination on a daily basis, “No, you aren’t a victim of racism. You’re a reverse racist!”

I don’t get it, and I wish there were some way to make To Kill A Mockingbird a mandatory reading assignment for the entire country.

I don’t get it, but I have a partial theory.

What if we’re just really scared to fully acknowledge the presence of racial discrimination?

I understand that. As a racial minority myself, it is a lot more comforting to believe the microaggressions of discrimination I experience won’t ever compare to what my thicker-accented parents and grandparents put up with. And as someone who is mostly a privileged member of society, it’s a lot more comforting to believe that I represent the progress made by my heritage. I don’t own slaves, enact Jim Crow laws, or wear a white hood. Therefore, I’m not racist. I’m not Paula Deen or Donald Sterling, so, um, I guess I’m in the clear!

If you deny the role of race in the events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York, then you avoid having to confront the reality of racism still being an existing thing.

Because, if you acknowledge the current existence of racism, then you lose certain things. You lose the ability to believe MLK’s March on Washington was a “Mission Accomplished” moment. You lose the comforting illusion of living in a fair and equitable society. You lose your ability to feel good about yourself as a product of societal progress, and in fact, you’re forced to come face to face with the possibility that you contribute to such injustices in some way.

When you put it like that, yeah, I would much rather not admit that racial prejudice is still a thing.

In fact, as a privileged member of society, I could still probably get away with sweeping this under the rug. Of staying silent on the issue, and practicing my usual habit of avoiding most controversial things over social media.

But like I said, I don’t think this is a thing that should be controversial, and even as it is, I know many other people who do not have the same luxury of staying silent on the issue.

And I think if I were to stay silent, it would signal that I was okay with things the way they are.

This is the way things are. Our country and its systems have lately shown a habit of practicing selective justice, which, isn’t really justice at all.

On the night of the ruling on Eric Garner’s case, spoken word artist Propaganda tweeted the following:

MY OWN DAUGHTER said "Daddy I'm scared for you because when police kill black men the don't get in trouble!" WHAT DO I TELL HER?!! #tears

The reality is that black men face a ridiculously disproportionate amount of confrontation and brutality by the police.

There are individual stories. There’s the story of Senator Cory Booker, who in 1992 was a Rhodes Scholar and senior class president at Stanford, yet was detained and treated as a dangerous suspect with guns at the ready. There’s the story of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates who was arrested for “breaking in” to his own home.

But if individual stories can be dismissed as isolated incidents, statistics showing proportions of color in arrests and incarcerations cannot. Young black men are 21 times as likely to be incarcerated as young white men.

As much as there is to be learned from reported cases and statistics, however, there’s no comparison to what you can learn from personal relationships. Through my own friendships, I’ve learned of the discrimination that has been widely felt by the black community. A story I’ve heard repeated by many of my black friends has been that of a time where they were treated with an uncalled for level of scrutiny.

It was not too long ago where I learned about a talk that many black parents have with their children when they start to come of age. It’s a talk about not keeping your hands in your pocket when you enter a store, about always keeping the receipts to your purchases, about making the least threatening gestures as possible in front of police officers anticipating an overreaction to any misinterpretations.

I think of how many times in the course of one day I tell shopkeepers I don’t need my receipt, and I know I experience this piece of life very differently.

In very general terms, police officers are heroes to white Americans. They keep the streets safe, they respond to crises, and help bring justice.

To black Americans, and Americans of other ethnicities, police officers are dangerous in that they quite often assume the worst of you. They are overarmed, under-monitored, and exemplify systematic injustice.

I believe both lenses are valid, and to each observer, both are largely true.

Whenever an incident like Eric Garner occurs, however, the latter belief is confirmed.

When Darren Wilson is let off without so much as a trial, it sends a message to the community that if your fears become reality, and if a loved one is shot in an instance of overreaction, there will be no investigation. The shooter will walk free.

I know that many people worry that police are being villified throughout all that’s happening, and I think it’s important to point out that I believe the amount of well-intentioned officers do outweigh the bad. Every day there are truly heroic stories of police officers. But it is fully possible to believe that this is a minority of law enforcement, and still be outraged at the lack of accountability. In fact, anyone who truly respects a badge of the law should feel disturbed by a member who threatens its public integrity. A true supporter of law enforcement understands that destroying public trust is absolutely counter to their mission.

Moving forward, acknowledging the injustice committed in these recent instances, and acknowledging the living presence of racism in today’s society doesn’t invalidate the historical progress we’ve made as a country. It doesn’t even necessarily mean we’re as nasty as the white-hooded villains of our history books.

But maybe it does, and maybe the only way to find out and prevent that is to examine ourselves thoroughly.

Are we human enough to be able to reiterate somebody else’s experience and perspective in a way that demonstrates a degree of understanding? Do we take time to listen to these perspectives? What do our friend groups look like? What roles do we play in an inequitable system, where people who look different aren’t afforded the same experience? What can we do?

Sometimes, one of the most frustrating things is realizing how much work is ahead of us. Even if there was a way to convict Darren Wilson and the officer who choked Eric Garner to death, a lot of the damage has been done. The flames of mistrust have been stoked, and in our own lives, we’ve discovered just how close we live to some real prejudices.

But all the work ahead of us is worth it, if it makes our country a better place. As disheartening as this month as been, I do believe that it’s better now than it was in 1850 or 1964.

But often, I think about the history books I’ve read, and the chapters that covered that era. I like to think that if I lived in that era, I would’ve been one to take the side of the oppressed, to denounce systems of injustice, and to not stay silent.

When I wonder about what I would’ve been like back then, I realize that the present is a good time to find out.

Philippe Lazaro2015