Recently, there has been a myriad of news stories where racial bias lead to the police being called on innocent black people. It’s important that these stories be heard, and that the black men and women who lived through them are given the opportunity to tell them. Additionally, it’s imperative moving forward that we, as Americans, recognize these stories as part of a long history of racial antipathy, and how it has lead us to the current reality of mass incarceration and the disproportionate murder of innocent black people by law enforcement officers.
In the month of April, a few instances of racial prejudice became headline news. In Philadelphia, two black men that had arrived early for a business meeting at Starbucks were harassed and then arrested without committing a crime. In a Nordstrom Rack just Outside of St. Louis, the police were called on three black men buying clothes two of them needed for their high school prom. At a Pennsylvania golf course, the police were called on five women after course employees claimed they were playing too slow. The incidents of the past months are nothing new. The racial antipathy Americans feel has been woven into the cultural fabric. The country’s racist past is present in every moment of bias today, and it’s led to the death of innocent or nonviolent black people at the hands of police, as well as the racially charged American project of mass incarceration.
When the police were called on Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson in a Philadelphia Starbucks, both innocent men were arrested on the charges of trespassing and creating a disturbance. While the charges were later dropped, the message their arrest gives to the world is that being black is grounds for suspicion and arrest. Graciously, both Nelson and Robinson have chosen not to sue the state, but instead received a symbolic one-dollar payment and secured a 200,000-dollar grant program for high school students interested in becoming entrepreneurs. “The most important thing is the foundation, the fact that we have a seat at the table to work on reforms, being included in the racial bias training, leading forward. And hopefully other companies take what Starbucks is putting into perspective and follow,” Nelson said on Good Morning America. This incident received serious media attention, and Starbucks shut down 8,000 stores for racial bias training. Even if the concerns shown by Starbucks are both a step in the right direction and sincere, it will not be enough to tackle the race problem in America.
Bryant Marks, an implicit bias instructor and Morehouse College psychology professor, said that racial bias training has taken off since 2014, when a young black man named Michael Brown was murdered by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The question of whether or not implicit bias training even works is up for debate. Many of the biases we hold are reinforced at a young age, and even when we recognize them it can be difficult to overcome, especially in a one time 75-minute session, such as those offered by Marks. A study performed by the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2015 said that implicit bias training might even have a negative impact, causing some people to further reinforce their implicit biases. By forcing people to engage and recognize their biases, they can become resentful and reject the message. Because of America’s history of racial antipathy, biases have been created by a shared history, and through customs and traditions. For many people in America, getting past an implicit bias means changing what they believe to be facts.
While no lethal force was used in the recent incidents that have gathered so much media attention, many incidents of racial bias lead to the murder of black people with impunity. A good amount of those stories won’t make the news. The implicit biases that lead to the recent incidents could have easily turned violent or deadly for the black people involved, and their bravery in dealing with each situation must be commended.
Through analysis of FBI data, Vox’s Dara Lind revealed that the U.S. police kill black people at a staggeringly disproportionate rate compared to white people. In her research it was shown that although black people make up 13 percent of the population, they account for 31 percent of all people killed by police without attacking. Her report also showed that black people are more likely to be arrested on drug charges, even when the rates of drug usage among black people are the same as whites.
As it’s been proven in the past, media attention of racial biases will only last so long, and will not lead to serious change. Also, racial bias training will not be able to combat the problem of racial bias at the root. The root of the problem is the social fabric that has carried structural racism into the present. The first step towards a better America for black people is to recognize history for what it is, a brutal and ugly story that has not yet been faced by the greater portion of Americans. A history that is fundamental in understanding why we still face such a serious racial problem today.
A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, entitled Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, shows that the way we teach slavery in schools is in need of an intervention. The report is meant to assist teachers teaching students about slavery. Showing students that slavery was not some “peculiar institution,” but rather a part of the construction of the country. One harsh fact from the report was that out of 1,000 high school seniors asked why the South seceded, nearly half didn’t know it was because of slavery. Slavery is also often taught in a way that depicts it as a strictly southern problem, just as the racial biases of today are seen as a problem of just a few bad people. Both of those statements are incorrect. Slavery was a U.S. American problem, and the racial problem of the United States is not separate from it—it is part of who we are.
As the recent stories of racial prejudice become part of the past, we must remember that our inability as whole to face that past for what it is has created the present condition for black people in America. The burden of slavery must no longer be carried solely by black people, forced to be calm in moments of degradation, forced to be killed without justice, or forced to grieve the loss of a loved one as the killer lives freely. It is time white Americans recognize history, condemn it, and face its structural presence in our churches, schools, police, and prisons. Only then will we be able to culturally process our problems with racism, and begin the shift to a more egalitarian society.