Saturday, March 7, 2015

Fifty Years After Selma, Myths and Stereotypes Persist

All too often, online conversations about race in our polarized society deteriorate into accusations and name-calling. Commenters who have probably never met the person about whom they are passing judgment, refer to black teens as "thugs" or "gang members," and accuse them of wearing the wrong clothes or being disrespectful to authority.  I've also read comments that arbitrarily assume whenever a black person is questioned by police that "he must have been up to no good."

And yet, life is rarely that simple, and not every scenario can be divided easily into good guys and bad guys; nor can we assume that one race is more criminally inclined than another.  For example, many of my black colleagues jokingly talk about the "crime" of "driving while black," and as it turns out, they are more right than some of us want to admit.  In fact, in some cities, even "walking while black" can get a person in trouble.  The U.S. Justice Department just issued a scathing report about the Ferguson, Missouri police department, and in the report, it discussed such practices as the overwhelmingly white police department "... conducting “pedestrian checks,” in which they stopped people walking down the street and demanded to see their identification without any probable cause."  Further, "When people refused to comply with — or even questioned — unconstitutional orders, police sometimes responded with force. Stun guns ... were commonly used even when officers were not threatened."

And consider this: "Blacks in Ferguson accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests over a two-year period studied by investigators. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of those charged. A black motorist in Ferguson was twice as likely to be searched, according to the report, even though searches of whites turned up drugs and other contraband more often."  And as if that were not bad enough, black people who could not pay their traffic fines were jailed, while white people's fines, according to the report, either were dismissed by sympathetic court officers, or the inability to pay did not result in incarceration.  In fact, there was evidence that suggested fining black residents of Ferguson for even the most minor offenses was a major source of revenue for the town.  (You can read the full report, along with commentary about it here:, and here:  I would like to tell you that the attitudes found in Ferguson are unique.  But they are not.  There are other cities in which the same practices occur.  In 2015, that's not something to be proud of. 

Please don't misunderstand me.  I am not saying all police officers, especially white police officers, are racists.  Many, perhaps most, work hard in their communities and try to do the right thing.  Nor am I saying that all black people who are arrested are being persecuted.  There are certainly black criminals, as there are white ones.  But it seems the law is often applied very differently for the black defendant than it is for the white one, and evidence backs that up.  And yes, I know we have come a long way in our society:  when I was growing up in the 1950s, society was still either de facto or de jure segregated.  And then, in 1954, Brown versus the Board of Education was decided, ostensibly ending segregation.  But pro-segregation attitudes did not go away, and in many cities, there was great resistance to integrating schools; or admitting black people to previously all-white restaurants and hotels; or allowing black people to vote without being subjected to a civics test that no white person was ever asked to take.

Attitudes take time to change, and in the mid-1960s, there was tangible evidence that much remained to be done.  Many Americans were horrified by what they saw on TV in cities like Selma, Alabama, where marching for civil rights could subject peaceful protesters to being attacked by vicious dogs or beaten with clubs by police.  Even the bridge the protesters wanted to cross, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, was a reminder of racist attitudes:  it was named after the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.  It still bears that name to this day.

Bigoted assumptions have a long and unpleasant history in America, going back to the days of slavery and continuing up to the present.  I know that some online commenters believe racism is now a thing of the past  (we have a black president, so everything is now fine); I am told there's no need to discuss racism anymore.  But it does still need to be discussed.  True, I am white and racist attitudes don't affect me in the same way they affect someone who is black.  But that doesn't give me the right to stand back and remain silent.  I'm a professor of communication and ethics, and I believe I have an obligation to continue the discussion:  to call attention to, and ask my students to analyze, the discourses and arbitrary assumptions that continue to associate people of color with criminal behavior.

I've seen it in my own life.  I was a Big Sister here in greater Boston, and my Little Sister was an absolutely adorable black girl, age 10, polite, courteous, just a really sweet kid.  One day, we went to a mall to get some things at a local department store.  She asked if she could look at the new DVDs, and I told her I was going to look at clothing; we agreed to meet in a few minutes.  But before I could get to the clothing department, I noticed that store security was following her.  Keep in mind:  she had done absolutely nothing other than walk through the store separately from me.  But suddenly, she was the object of scrutiny.  I wondered why:  did she "look suspicious"?  Was she "up to no good"?  I walked over to the store security person and inquired if there was a problem, telling him she was with me.  That seemed to make everything okay in his mind.  But it didn't make me happy at all.

A friend of mine, also black, is a member of the clergy.  He has told me several times about how when he is wearing his clerical uniform, he is treated far more respectfully than if he is in street clothes.  He too has been stopped by police for "walking while black."  Okay fine, some readers might say these stories are anecdotal and why worry about it?  After all, misunderstandings will happen. Well, that may be true, but for people to still be subjected to negative assumptions for no logical reason irritates me.  And as someone who teaches political communication, I know that some of these discourses about the sinister or dangerous black criminal can show up in attack ads, usually implying that one candidate isn't sufficiently "tough on crime."  Some of you may recall the infamous 1988 "Willie Horton" ad that helped to sink Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign, with its innuendos that he allowed black rapists to leave prisons on furloughs.  Unfortunately, such ads can still be found, and they still resonate with certain segments of the population who genuinely believe that black people, especially black men, are to be feared.

So now what? Fifty years after the brutality of Selma, we have indeed come a long way.  But the misunderstandings, the myths, and the racial stereotypes persist, often with deadly consequences.  I don't believe for a minute that I can single-handedly change attitudes that have endured for several centuries.  But I do believe it's up to me, up to all of us, to decide where we go from here.  The unjust way the law is enforced in many communities of color is a fact, and there needs to be an honest discussion about it.  The DOJ report about Ferguson should not be ignored, and it must not be turned into online attacks about all the alleged "thugs" who live in that town.   There really is something terribly wrong, and pervasive negative stereotypes about black people are a big part of the problem.  Now, with reminders of Selma in 1965 fresh in our minds, we cannot keep insisting everything is fine.  We cannot defend a system that punishes innocent people for walking down a street or driving a car.  If we do not take some action to make things better, then fifty years from now, our children will still be confronting the same set of problems; and they will wonder why our generation didn't do something to solve them.

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