Discrimination and Privilege
These days we are barraged with examples of racist behavior toward Black people in the United States. How can it be that twelve year old Tamir Rice, playing with a toy gun, can be dead two seconds after the arrival of police while in Peterborough a white man is peacefully subdued by admittedly brave and exemplary officers after he fired a shot from a real gun in their presence? How is it that while studies show equal marijuana use among Black people and White people, four times more Black people are charged and convicted for the offense? How is it that White people are more likely to be referred for certain life-saving cardiac tests than Black people? I have no doubt that everyone here suspects racism in some or all of these examples and that we are deeply grieved by them.
But the other side of racism and discrimination is privilege. If someone is being denied benefits, someone else is receiving an increased chance at those benefits. Think about this. A study in California mailed resumes to national job openings with the only variation being the first name of the applicant, Brendan or Jamal, Emily or Lakisha. Guess who got fewer return responses? A similar followup study was done communicating with legislators. Again Brendan and Emily were much more likely to get a response than were Jamal or Lakisha. This was true, by the way, for both Republicans and Democrats. One more. Buyers presented equal financial backgrounds to car dealers. White people, on average, were offered prices $700 less for identical vehicles.
Now I wouldn't imagine that these human resource screeners, or legislators, or car salesman think of themselves as any more racist than we think of ourselves. It points to something a good deal more insidious going on. It points to something pervasive in our society which favors some and disfavors others. It points to a system of racism that is embedded into the very fabric of our society.
This was more than a bit of a revelation to me when I began to consider the number of jobs I have applied for, the communications I have had with legislators, the automobiles and homes I have purchased over the years. I've had a leg up in those efforts because others have been held back. I didn't seek that favor and I didn't do anything directly to cause that favor, but nevertheless there it was.
Guilt is not the issue here. But understanding and awareness is. It becomes my job to recognize this general bias and to act when and where I can to decrease it. Apologies are not needed. Instead of apologizing I’m learning to substitute apologies with the words “I'm here to listen and learn.” Recognition, reflection and action are the constructive routes forward if we will but take them.
In the words of Rev. Fred Small of the Cambridge UU Parish, “Those of us who are white, like me, are not responsible for white privilege. That comes automatically, whether we want it or not. But if we do not work to end it, we become responsible for maintaining it.” In this month where we are reflecting on our covenant to affirm AND promote a responsible search for truth and meaning, this seems like a good place to begin.
Beyond the Streets
Black Lives Matter has gotten considerable media attention recently, but unfortunately much of it focuses on angry confrontations in the streets over police violence. Now police violence is certainly there and the likelihood of it’s being used is magnified by several hundred times when the suspect is a Black male. And Sandra Bland reminds us that Black females don’t always get off the hook either. Yet focusing only on initial encounters with the police masks much deeper problems with our criminal justice system.
You will recall that the United States has the highest percentage of its population in prison of any country in the world. According to the United States Bureau of Justice, in 2014 6% of all black males ages 30 to 39 were in prison, while 2% of Hispanic and 1% of white males in the same age group were in prison. There was a total of 516,900 black male sentenced prisoners in the United States as of December 31, 2014. In 2014 black males between the ages of 18 and 29 had a rate of imprisonment 10.5 times that of white males of the same age group. These are simply astounding figures.
So what happens after the people are arrested that can account for these figures? Well, these persons are cursorily told of their right to a lawyer, but since “lawyering up” isn’t popular with police and poorly educated African Americans or poor whites often have no idea how to acquire a lawyer, the interrogation proceeds. With the number of arrests taking place these days, our courts simply cannot handle all the cases that would result if everyone had a trial, so police are trained that the goal of interrogation is to obtain a confession - not to learn the truth of what occurred. What’s more, the police are allowed to lie in what they say to the accused. For example, they can say they have evidence they actually do not have or they can say that a possible accomplice has already confessed and implicated them even if this is not the case. The idea is to get the accused to plea bargain, to convince the person that his or her best option is to avoid a trial in which they would have little chance of getting off, and to settle for a much lesser sentence. If it takes 12 or more hours of continued interrogation to get the confession, that’s okay. Unfortunately, many African Americans do believe they would have little chance with a mostly white jury so they will go along with this even if they are not guilty. This makes a travesty of our supposed value in believing someone innocent until proved guilty. If you are interested in seeing an example of this kind of interrogation, I suggest you watch Netflix’s recent documentary series, “Making a Murderer” where the accused is not black, but rather a poor white with limited intelligence. There is liitle doubt that this kind of interrogation occurs more frequently when the accused is African American.
I don’t have time to tell you about all the other flaws in our broken criminal justice system, but I want to tell you about another major one - the reliance on eyewitness identification in trials. Faulty eyewitness identification has been the major problem with the cases where the convicted person was later exonerated by DNA testing. Why? Unlike what many believe, the memory of a specific event is not recorded intact in our brains and that is the case with a traumatic event just as it is with everyday events. We now know that when we recall a memory we are actually actively constructing it at that time. Not only is memory often inaccurate, it can be influenced by intervening events. There’s usually a lot of time between a crime and the trial and during that time, the victim can be influenced by things like the confidence of the police that they have got their man. They can be influenced by a police lineup put together out of those of the same race who are available at the time, resulting in only the accused actually resembling the description of the offender. There are many other factors that can have similar effects on memory and there is ordinarily no attempt to control for these things.
I’ve only touched the surface of what can and does go wrong in system that leads to major injustices in a society like ours where racism, often unconsciously held racism, is pervasive. If you have an interest in learning more, I suggest you read, Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado who is a law professor at Drexel University.
This house is a house of freedom, built and sustained by the gifts of those who come to receive what they need and give what they can. This house is your house: may it always be worthy of the gifts it receives from you.
What can we do?
Joel and Anne Huberman
Joel: Today we’ve heard some good reasons for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. But I can’t imagine what actions I can take, when I see only a few people around me in this area who are not white. What can I do?
Anne: Well, a simple thing to do would be to provide financial support. The Black Lives Matter movement needs money. You could go to their web site, http://blacklivesmatter.com, and click the "Donate" button.
Joel: OK, that is simple indeed, but I feel as if I ought to do more.
Anne: My next suggestion involves a bit more effort on your part. You could write a letter to the editor, or a longer op-ed, in one of our local newspapers, explaining why you support the Black Lives Matter movement and encouraging others to do the same.
Joel: That does indeed involve more effort. Despite what I've learned in this service, I don't think I know enough yet to write a letter to the editor. Where could I go to learn more?
Anne: Well, there are lots of books about systemic racism in this country that would give you plenty of information for a letter to the editor. One is Michelle Alexander's book on the criminal justice system, The New Jim Crow. Another on the same subject is Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy. The Unitarian Universalist Association, which this church supports, has prepared study guides for both books, and they're available online. The study guide for The New Jim Crow is at http://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/documents/lfd/commonread/crow_discussion.pdf. The study guide for Just Mercy is at https://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/justmercy_discguide.pdf.
And are you aware, Joel, that the Black Lives Matter movement is very different from the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties? It's not led by male clergy. It's led by people of all ages and gender orientations. Much of the business is not conducted in meetings but over social media such as Twitter. If you really want to keep track of what's happening in the Black Lives Matter Movement, you’ll have to join Twitter, then go to the UUA web site on Black Lives Matter to find a list of Twitter addresses for Black Lives Matter activists. (Go to http://www.uuworld.org/articles/5-ways-support-black-lives-matter and look at section "2. Connect" to find the Twitter addresses.)
Joel: Well, I've resisted joining Twitter for many years. I think that now I may need to give in to the trend of the times.
Anne: Great! Since you're getting involved in social media, another way you can support Black Lives Matter is to spread the word, let your friends know you support Black Lives Matter, by posting about it on Facebook and Twitter, and by making your support obvious in every one of your e-mail signatures. And you could find yourself a Black Lives Matter pin like mine and wear it. (Just Google "Black Lives Matter pins" and pick a vendor.)
Joel: Make my support obvious... That gives me some great ideas! I could speak to the people who determine policy in our church and advocate for a Black Lives Matter banner to be put over our Church door, in addition to the rainbow flag we've got there now. I could try to persuade folks in our church to follow up on the offer made by the Reverend Keith Magee, who spoke in our Lyceum last summer, to set up some sort of exchange with his Black church in Boston. And I could urge church families to host black Fresh Air kids. And I could wear a hoodie to show that it’s not only Black people who wear hoodies.
Anne: Now you're thinking! Have you also thought about looking for opportunities to advocate for state and national policy changes needed to ensure equal treatment of blacks and whites? Current inequalities may not be obvious to you, but folks in the Black Lives Matter movement can tell you about flaws in our criminal justice system, in our housing policies, in our health care policies, in our family policies, and in many other areas.
Joel: Yes, those are also great ideas! And another idea just occurred to me. But to explain this idea I need to reveal one of my hidden secrets. Despite my best efforts to remain color-blind, I have to admit that my initial response, when I meet black people, is different from my response when meeting white people. I can work on changing that response, and we can all work on becoming more aware of our own feelings.
Anne: So there’s a lot we can do! It’s clear that if we are to live up to our UU First Principle, and truly honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person, then we must proclaim, with words and deeds, that black lives matter. Stay woke!