John Bior Deng: Racism, Classism

This post is some commentary that initially was a part of the post John Bior Deng: R.I.P..  So, my thoughts here are about the social context of a white officer shooting a black homeless guy.

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Racism is very central to this topic, but it’s mixed with classism… and the two can’t be entirely separated.

Would Bohnenkamp aggressively confronted a clean-cut white guy in a business suit if that person had dropped a bottle?  Probably not.  Would Deputy Stotler have shot a clean-cut white guy in a business suit if he was holding a knife after being beat up by a homeless black guy?  Probably not.  If this case had been investigated by an all black (or even just a mixed race) group of officials instead of an all white group of officials, would they have written a different report about the justification of a white guy shooting a black guy?  Probably so.  If Deputy Stotler had been a black guy who shot Bohnenkamp because he was beating up Deng after disobeying his commands, would racism have been considered more seriously by the all white investigators?  Probably so.

People constantly complain any time race is brought up, and it’s almost impossible to explain racism to someone whose racism is unconscious.  We’re all prejudiced in various ways.  It’s just human nature.  Are these racism deniers ideologically motivated?  Are they being disingenuous?  Or are they some combination of naive and ignorant?

Polls show that a large percentage of people believe that racism is an issue in the US and that a large percentage perceive racism in themselves.  Think about that, and then consider that the extremely racist people are the ones who are least likely to admit to it (even on a poll).  Research has even proven people are racist.  It’s mostly unconscious, of course… even for those who are aware of racism.

Psychologists have studied in great detail how people form social identities, how people create a sense of belonging, and how people exclude those who are different.  Humans (like any other animal) identifies with those who are most similar to them.  Studies have shown people tend to have spouses and friends who are like them.  People tend to help and hire those they can relate to.  This is commonsense (which just so happens to be supported by science).

Even if a police officer intentionally tries not to be racist, he is still going to profile.  It would be difficult to do his job without profiling.  If Deputy Stotler hadn’t profiled Deng and Bohnenkamp, he wouldn’t have been able to act.  He had limited information and had to make a quick decision.  He was forced to simplify these people in front of him into stereotypes according to his cultural biases and past experience (we all do this all of the time and research shows that first impressions don’t easily change).  Anyways, he isn’t going to stop in that moment to ask himself whether he is being racist… but it’s obvious in hindsight that his judgments were influenced by various prejudices.

I don’t know how such implicit racism can be changed.  Maybe it never can be fully ended.  Still, there seems to be something worthy in at least just being honest about it.

Let me go into more details by citing some sources.

I was listening to an interview of Dan Ariely who is the author of Predictably Irrational.  He pointed out one particular statistic which is significant.  Different type of people were tested on honesty.  Police officers only came out as average on honesty (meaning they’re no more trustworthy than the rest of us), but police officers perceived themselves as being more honest than others (which implies that officers are better than average at ignoring, forgetting, and/or rationalizing away their moments of dishonesty).  So, if the police are as honest and dishonest as the rest of us, then what is the norm (and shouldn’t we expect officers to be above the norm)?  Here is an article about the commonality of dishonesty in everyday life:

Dishonesty in Everyday Life and its Policy Implications by Nina Mazar and Dan Ariely

My point being that the police aren’t above the typical self-deceptions, rationalizations, and situational morality that are common to all of humanity.  The police aren’t, by virtue of their profession, therefore moral exemplars for all of us to blindly trust.  We should question the actions of police as we would question the actions of anyone (be they rich or poor, black or white).  Therefore, in an incident involving the police, the witness acounts given by the police should be given no more weight than the witness accounts by the general public (but I’m willing to bet that most investigations do give weight to the former).  The question of honesty vs dishonesty is very relevant to racism because there isn’t as much overt racism these days, but racism still has great influence on us as individuals and on society as a whole.

Here We Go Again by Charles M. Blow

It doesn’t have to be that way. Most Americans know that racism is an issue in this country. The question is how much (that’s where the arguments start) and if — and to what degree — that racism animates critics of the president.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in January found that 71 percent of whites and 85 percent of blacks think that racism in our society is at least somewhat of a problem.

How much discrimination is there? The world may never know, but we admit that we misjudge it.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted in January of last year found that 60 percent of whites agree that they underestimate the amount of discrimination that there is against blacks and 59 percent of blacks agree that they overestimate the amount of racism against them. How can we measure truth when everyone’s twisting it?

A better question might be how much racial prejudice are people aware of and willing to acknowledge.

An ABC News poll released in January asked, “If you honestly assessed yourself, would you say that you have at least some feelings of racial prejudice?” Thirty-eight percent of blacks answered yes, as did 34 percent of whites.

Then the question becomes whether this racial prejudice plays a part in the opposition to the president. Again, it’s impossible to know, but a 2003 study by Rice University researchers and published in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies offers an interesting insight into its potential to be present: “One of the greatest challenges facing black leaders is aversive racism, a subtle but insidious form of prejudice that emerges when people can justify their negative feelings toward blacks based on factors other than race.” Sound familiar?

I put in bold a very important insight.  On the Iowa City Press Citizen online comments section, people constantly talk about taking care of the problem with public housing on the South side.  It just so happens that many black people happen to live in that neighborhood.  It’s useless for people to deny racism because most biases work unconsciously.  Going by the statistics, I feel particularly mistrustful of anyone who outright denies racism.

The Deng case has to be understood in the lager context.  America, obviously, has a long history of racism which lingers on.  However, the larger national context relates to the local context.  Iowa City isn’t just mostly white but also mostly upper middle class (I’ve heard it’s the highest concentration of educated people in the US).  At about the same time Deng incident, another supposed homeless guy (who was white) died by falling from a construction site.  What became clear was that some people considered the homeless to be less worthy than other citizens.  Some people even expressed happiness that there was less scum in the world.  It was questionable whether the other guy was even homeless as he was a local guy with family in town who may even have been working at the construction site, but the paper labelled him homeless and so he officially was.  To be poor, homeless or simply a minority is to stick out in this town.  You’re inevitably going to get more attention including attention from the police.

The racism/classism issue became even more clear with the news reporting (and online comments) about violence in one part of town.  Relative to many places, the violence was extremely minor and it was only a few troublemakers who were causing most of it.  But, to many Iowa Citians, this was a crime wave that was destroying our entire world, our safe little haven.  The blame was rather distorted because people don’t bother to look at facts, but fear without facts just makes some people feel even more certain (and makes them louder) about their opinions.

The problem that was focused on was public housing.  Despite the fact that public housing is based on laws set at the state and national level, people wanted to blame the evil liberals on the city council.  I find that rather funny.  Last year, 2 white professors were charged with sexual misconduct (both which led to their suicides) and at that time the evil liberals at the university were blamed.  It’s always the liberals fault in this town.  Furthermore, last year a white banker was caught stealing money which led him to kill himself along with his family and a white mother killed her children.  Did any of the fear-mongerers now complaining about the poor and homeless ever complain last year about the crime wave of upstanding white citizens?  No, they didn’t.  Did the people now arguing for a curfew for teenagers argue for a curfew for middle-aged people?  No, they didn’t.

This is a topic that could be written about endlessly and deserves much deep consideration and analysis, but I’ll end it for now.  For more of my thoughts, the following are some blog posts of mine inspired by these recent local news events:

Officer Shoots Homeless Man: Comments

Homelessness and Civilization

Cultural Shift: Generations, Race, Technology

If you wish to study the issue of racism for yourself, Wikipedia always a good place to start (as always check out the links at the bottom of the Wikipedia pages):

Racial profiling

Race and crime in the United States

Race and inequality in the United States

And here are some interesting articles about unconscious prejudices:

Scanning Brains for Insights on Racial Perception by David Berreby

Harvard’s baby brain research lab by Roger Highfield

The Implicit Prejudice by Sally Lehrman

Researchers Try to Cure Racism by Brandon Keim

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