Number 577 June 12, 2015

This Week: Understanding Racist Systems

"Quote" of the Week: "Our Unconscious Is Running the Show"
Thinking About Police Violence, Thinking Systems
Odds and Ends on the Subject of Racism


This week's Nygaard Notes consists entirely of a lengthy look at police violence and a certain way to think about it. If you haven't read the last Nygaard Notes (#576), you'll want to do so before reading this one, as this issue builds directly on the concepts spelled out last week. In fact, the last issue was in a sense the preface to this week's essay, in which I attempt to integrate the concepts.

The Occupy Wall Street movement that came to visibility in 2011 caught a lot of grief in the mainstream for being too vague, for not having specific demands, for lacking a definable political program that political leaders could pretend to implement. I said at the time that the Occupy movement's reluctance to advocate for certain "policies" was "the very strength of the movement. We're talking about transformational politics, not 'reform,' and this insistence on 'thinking big' is why the Occupy Wall Street movement is so exciting to me, and I think why it is so threatening to the Powers That Be."

It's crucial that we support the Black Lives Matter movement for the same reason. There will surely be some people who can only think individualistically and will want to settle for reforms, such as police dashboard cameras or token hiring of police from targeted communities. It's not that these things are bad, but a movement is not built on reform. When we are systemically aware, we situate all demands in the context of transformational politics. This issue of Nygaard Notes is aimed at helping readers to think clearly about the nature of the system in which we're all immersed, and how we might seize the Black Lives Matter moment to begin to chart a course aimed at transformation of our lives, and the world in which we live them.

To summarize: It's the system!



"Quote" of the Week: "Our Unconscious Is Running the Show"

"Our minds automatically justify our decisions, blinding us to the true source, or beliefs, behind our decisions. Ultimately, we believe our decisions are consistent with our conscious beliefs, when in fact, our unconscious is running the show."

From the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity, their Second Annual State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2014, released on April 2nd.


Thinking About Police Violence, Thinking Systems

Here's a summary of what I talked about in the last issue of Nygaard Notes in relation to police killings of unarmed black people:

* There are different levels of racism that all work together to produce the racial injustice that we see when cops kill unarmed people of color.

* We all—cops included—harbor implicit biases that affect, in an unconscious manner, our understanding, actions, and decisions.

* Even though they are unconscious, once we know that we have these biases—which are part of what I call the Propaganda ABCs—we also know that there are things we can do to change them, or at least there are things we can do to reduce their power to influence our actions

If all of this is true, then the fact that direct action to reduce racist violence by police is still rarely seen in this country tells us that racism is a function of the system. Many people who have taken to the streets in Cleveland, Ferguson, New York City, Minneapolis, Detroit, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and dozens of other cities know this very well, and have been saying it loudly and clearly: It's the system.

This essay is aimed at the many people who hear this statement and think that it's just a slogan with no practical meaning. After all, how does anyone change "the system"? Doesn't change happen one person at a time? Isn't it true that there are good people and bad people, and the best we can do is to elevate the good people into positions of power, while we punish and/or marginalize the bad people? Doesn't it let killer cops off the hook when we insist on blaming "the system" instead of the people doing the killing?

I think the following systems-oriented analysis argues against all of those ideas. Come along with me as we do a brief "systems analysis" of police violence.

Events in Context

Before we consider any individual act of any sort, we have to place it in context. Is it an exception, or is it part of a pattern? If it's an exception, then we can deal with the individual case and hope it doesn't happen again. If it's part of a pattern, then we have to go deeper.

In the case of violence by police, it's clearly part of a pattern. In fact, police violence has been called "an American epidemic." And the epidemic doesn't affect all equally. A ProPublica report from this past October found that "The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police." In other words, young black males were 21 times as likely to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts. The actual number of killings is undoubtedly higher since, as ProPublica reports, "The data ... is terribly incomplete. Vast numbers of the country's 17,000 police departments don't file fatal police shooting reports at all, and many have filed reports for some years but not others."

So, whether we are talking about Cleveland, or Ferguson Missouri, or any of the localities too numerous to list here, it's clear that we have a problem with police violence, and it's equally clear that the burden falls very heavily on people of color. If we want to do something to change this, it's essential that we understand what is going on. To help us understand, let's try to use Race Forward's Four Levels of Racism frame to understand what we're seeing in the news.

Recall that INTERNALIZED RACISM is "all the prejudice, bias, and blind spots you as an individual might have within yourself as an individual." Does this play a part here? No doubt it does. If the officers doing the killing harbor no prejudice, bias, or blind spots when it comes to race, how can we explain the racial disparity in police killings? Our understanding is deepened when we understand INTERPERSONAL RACISM, which is "what happens when we act out that internalized racism on each other." Keep in mind that police officers are not a separate species. Police are a subset of the population in general, and thus are subject to the same implicit biases that affect all of us. And bias against blacks is very widely shared in U.S. culture.

If police violence were a rare and random incident, then we could maybe stop here. But, as we saw above, it's not rare, and it's not fair: In many communities the pattern repeats itself year after year, and people of color are the victims, again and again and again. Let's take the example of Minneapolis. One local news site (MintPress News) reported a couple of years ago on the effectiveness of the Office of Police Conduct Review board, a body that supposedly holds police officers accountable to the community. At that time, MintPress reported that, "of the 439 cases of police misconduct that have been brought before the city's year-old misconduct review board, not one of the police officers involved has been disciplined." Statewide in Minnesota, law enforcement officers have shot and killed at least 60 people since 2008, 26 percent of whom were black. Blacks make up roughly six percent of the overall population.

It was just the end of last month when the American Civil Liberties Union released a report called "Picking Up the Pieces: A Minneapolis Case Study." The study found "a startling disparity in the way police enforce low-level offenses... Black people in the city are 8.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for low-level offenses [and] Native Americans have it no better. They are 8.6 times more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses than white people." And, as recent news has illustrated, such police/citizen encounters can turn deadly, especially when the subject of the arrest is black.

The details differ, but the overall pattern is typical of police forces around the country. The Washington Post, in a story last August about the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson MO, reported that "the [police] department's problems stretch back years and include questions about its officers' training and racial sensitivity."

Last September—long before the death of Freddie Gray—the Baltimore Sun published an article looking at police violence in that city over the past four years. The Sun reported that "Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones—jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles—head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement. And in almost every case, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the victims—if charges were filed at all." And, guess what? "The victims are most often African-Americans."

None of this is new. Those old enough to remember the vicious beating of black cab driver Rodney King by Los Angeles police in March of 1991 will not be surprised to recall this news item, reported by the New York Times on July 10th of that year: "A little more than four months after a videotaped beating of a black motorist by Los Angeles police officers stirred national outrage, an independent commission today issued a harsh indictment of the Los Angeles Police Department as an agency that has tolerated excessive force and overt racism among its officers." I remember having a friend in Philadelphia in 1974 asking me if it was true that the Minneapolis police were as racist as she had heard. (an eye-opener for me at the time).

Speaking of Minneapolis, the extraordinary grassroots watchdog group here in the city, Communities United Against Police Brutality, has published a list of 31 "Solutions to police brutality, racism, and misconduct that could be implemented by the City Council and Mayor of Minneapolis." The list was revised in September of last year. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, none of the suggested actions have been taken.

Police Violence: Thinking Systems

Recall that, when we use a Systems Orientation to guide our thinking, we are interested in outcomes more than we are in motivations or intentions. In other words, we look at what actually happens, and we don't worry so much about what someone may have wanted to happen, or what it was that they were consciously trying to make happen.

Let's return again to the case of Minneapolis police. For us to say that there is a pattern of INSTITUTIONAL RACISM in the Minneapolis Police Department does not require that we establish any level of conscious bigotry or blatant bias on the part of any individual, no matter how much power they may have in shaping the policies and practices of the police force. All we need to know in order to determine if INSTITUTIONAL RACISM is present is that there are outcomes produced by the institution that can be observed over time that form a pattern of injustice that unfairly impacts certain racial groups.

To say that we are looking at institutional racism is simply to say that the institution we are considering—in this case, the Minneapolis Police Department—routinely produces racist outcomes. It does not mean that everyone, or anyone, in the institution is what some might call a "racist."

The case for institutional racism becomes even stronger when we not only see patterns of racialized injustice, but we also have knowledge of specific steps that can be taken to address the various aspects of the problem. If we see the pattern, and if remedies are readily available (which is not to say that they are easy to implement), and nothing of substance is done by anyone, then a diagnosis of INSTITUTIONAL RACISM is more or less confirmed.

When it is reported at all, racialized police violence is normally and typically reported as a "local" story. That is, it's reported as a story of concern only to a small audience of people who live or work near the scene of the incident being reported. This has two unfortunate effects. One is to "localize" the public's thinking about a given event, allowing the familiar "bad apple" argument to stand (as in, "Violence is only perpetrated by individuals who have something wrong with them, and has nothing to do with me, or with the majority of 'good apples.'")

The other effect is more subtle. If we are lucky and the reporting on a local incident of police violence offers enough context to see that it is not just a problem of one "bad apple," but is part of a pattern of police misconduct, then we may be able to see and talk about the issue as an INSTITUTIONAL problem. That is, we may be able to see and say that there is something wrong with the entire department. Here is where we talk about the "culture" of the department, and problems "stretching back years," and so forth. That's all good. But it still leaves us with a problem.

The problem is that such local reporting is that it has the effect of obscuring the STRUCTURAL nature of racism as it affects police departments in the U.S. and beyond. That is, we may be able to see the problem in the Minneapolis police department, or the Memphis department, or the Miami department, but we can still hold to the "bad apple" argument. Only this time the bad apple is the department, not the individual cop. And this is a serious misunderstanding.

The horror of our racist legacy, and the current reality, in the United States is so great that many white people want desperately to believe the "bad apple" story, as it lets them off the hook. And what is this "hook" of which I speak? The hook is the idea that racism is an ideology that serves a social function. As Charles W. Mills defines it (paraphrasing Tommie Shelby), racism is "a set of misleading views that distort social realities in ways that serve to create, perpetuate, and justify racial domination and unfair racial advantage." This is a STRUCTURAL understanding of racism, and it contrasts with the individualistic understanding which Mills tells us reduces racism to "a racially-based 'ill-will' that is the product of the individual's vicious heart."

Individuals and Systems Are Parts of Each Other

This is a point at which a lot of people get confused. They think that racism must be either a problem of "vicious hearts" or else it's just a nameless, unaccountable "system." But when we are systemically aware, we see that it's both. Or, rather, that each is a part of the other. Individuals act in accordance with the systems that shape their lives. And the systems in turn are shaped by how individuals act. There is no single cause, or culprit.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in a remarkable 1973 book "How Institutions Think," pointed out that we can learn more about a society by observing what is not acceptable than we can learn by asking about what is honored. Her phrasing is a little academic, but here's how she put it:

"The theory of social deviance is another kind of backdoor approach to cognitive sociology: it examines the rejects. Too much interpretation can be put up on positive statements about what behavior is most honored. Much clearer evidence comes from studying aversion. The rules for avoiding reprehensible behavior and the punishing and purifying after disapproved contact are more clearly known and easier to elicit. A sociological theory of rejection can be more securely based then a sociological theory of value because of the public nature of penalties and prohibitions which follow negative attitudes."

And here's where we see that knowledge of the individual is a part of, and informs, our knowledge of the system. When we see a cop shoot an unarmed black youth, we need to keep watching to see what happens. Is there a broad and loud call for, as Mary Douglas puts it, "punishing and purifying." Such a call would tell us that such behavior is socially unacceptable. Recent months have brought us much news of young black people being killed by police, in all sorts of locations throughout the society. But what patterns do we see in the response to these incidents? The patterns are what tell us about the dominant values of the society.

The Meaning of "Black Lives Matter"

I'm really not the one to say what Black Lives Matter means. Maybe nobody is. But a part of what it means to me is that the patterns we see with police violence tell us that the black lives that are being lost do not matter within the dominant system. This can be seen in big ways—when police killings going unpunished, when killer police face no charges, when juries fail to indict, and when there aren't even records maintained at any level of the killings. But it can also be seen in small, symbolic gestures. Consider a small newspaper report from last month.

The story was a part of the ongoing coverage of the case of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African-American man killed by police in Baltimore. In that case, many people were happy when charges of manslaughter and murder were brought against the six police officers involved in his death. But look at what the local newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, reported on May 28th: "Inside the gates of Baltimore's jail, suspects who face charges for murder, manslaughter and other violent crimes typically are escorted from police vehicles in handcuffs. But when three of the city officers charged in Freddie Gray's death arrived, they were not restrained — and one was greeted with a hug."

There's a powerful message there. Whatever may have been the rationale for treating the police differently than other criminals, such treatment makes it appear as though police officials do not consider these alleged killers to be dangerous, as if the violence involved in taking a black life is not important, as if this black life does not matter.

Looking at police violence tells us a lot: We see racism at the INDIVIDUAL level, for sure, as each individual interaction unfolds in ways that are shaped by INTERNALIZED and INTERPERSONAL RACISM. And we see—as in the case of Minneapolis—overwhelming evidence of a failure to take meaningful steps to address the "startling disparity" in treatment of different racial groups by police. This allows us to place the individual events into a context of INSTITUTIONAL RACISM. And when we see similar patterns unfolding all over the country—and not just the country, the problem extends beyond the United States—then we can begin to understand that racism is not simply a matter of "vicious hearts" or "ill will," but is a part of the STRUCTURE of our society.

In his 2004 essay, "Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness," the philosopher Charles W. Mills makes this point when he speaks of "the crucial reality that the normal workings of the social system continue to disadvantage blacks in large measure independently of racist feeling." [emphasis in original]

Mills suggests that a structural understanding of racism would be served by referring to the larger, culture-wide phenomenon as "white supremacy." This term would be useful, says Mills, as it "forces us to confront the possibility that the basic structure [of the U.S. social system] itself is systematically unjust. Corrective measures to end racial injustice would thus need to begin here."

The Black Lives Matter movement continues to do the work necessary to keep the national news attuned to the many individual incidents of police violence that are normally reported only locally. By elevating such incidents into national news, it forces the dominant (white) culture to begin to acknowledge the patterns that it had previously—and amazingly—been able to ignore.

This week's "Quote" of the Week says: "We know that the system is failing everyone, including the police." Black Lives Matter activists are demanding that we consider a problem that is bigger than individual cops, bigger than individual police departments, bigger even than the justice system. The structures of white supremacy extend to injustice in income, employment, housing, incarceration, immigration, health, and more. It's not a matter of a few bad apples. As the activists keep shouting: It's the system! It's not just a slogan. It's a call to think big, to see things as they are. Then to get to work.



Odds and Ends on the Subject of Racism

I'm going to be writing a lot more about racism and how we think about it but, since I have a little extra room in this six-page version, here are a few online resources that seem relevant to this issue of Nygaard Notes.

I've talked about Implicit, or Unconscious, Bias the past two issues. To get a hint of how your own unconscious biases differ from your conscious ideas, take the "Implicit Association Test" which can test your associations around race, and also around age, weight, gender, and about a dozen other areas.

I don't often recommend videos, but here are a couple of good ones:

One is a 4-minute video from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. It's about systems and how they impact our communities.

Secondly, I recommend spending three minutes watching comedian Aamer Rahman's "Reverse Racism" joke. He nails it.

My fellow Minneapolitans may wish to read the ACLU report I mention in this issue called "Picking Up the Pieces - Policing in America, a Minneapolis Case Study."

This article, headlined "It's Racism, Not 'Principled Conservatism': The South, Civil Rights, GOP Myths—and the Roots of Ferguson," shows how race can be disguised in political discourse. It's not a very good disguise, in this case, but it's good practice for seeing how the "race card" is often played, but encoded.

I haven't discussed the little-known philosophical area of "White Ignorance," or sometimes "Racial Ignorance." I hope to discuss it in the not-too-distant future. If you want a sneak preview, you can find a little summary online called "Several Perspectives of Racial Ignorance," by a graduate student at Ohio University.

A philosopher named Charles W. Mills has written some very interesting stuff on the subject of racial ignorance. He's a scholar, so it's a little hard to read his academic prose. But the ideas buried under that prose are important. Try his short (six-page) paper called "White Ignorance and Hermeneutical Injustice: A Comment on Medina and Fricker." (Who are Medina and Fricker? you ask? A couple of philosophers.).