In commenting on the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer, President Obama said, “I think all of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident. But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
What soul searching is the president talking about? The answer is implied in his eloquent, understated remark. The president was asking what many are afraid of asking directly, an issue that has all but disappeared from public discourse: why are young black men so at risk in today’s society?
Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, writes that there are more African Americans in jail today that were in enslaved in 1850. Black men constitute more than 40% of all US inmates, although blacks are about 10% of the US population. Other studies show that most of those imprisoned are in for non-violent offenses. And a recent Supreme Court decision noted that more than 90% of all convictions are as a result of plea-bargaining and many who plea to a lesser offence lack proper legal counsel.
It is impossible to separate race from our social fabric. This week I asked a class of mine to consider the following scenario: There is a teenage party one night that erupts into a fight. A boy’s life is threatened and he runs home to seek safety. A short while later, the four boys that attacked him arrive at his front door with baseball bats. The boy’s father tells them to leave but they refuse. He takes out a gun and shoots one of the pursuers to death.
I asked my students whether the father should be prosecuted for the shooting. Six of seven said that he should be. ‘He had other alternatives,’ they said. ‘He could have shot in the air or at their legs.’ The students were using their considered judgment in deciding the father’s guilt.
Then I gave the characters a racial identity. The boy who ran away was black, I told them, and his attackers were white. So it was a black father protecting his son from a group of baseball wielding white boys. Now the entire class agreed that the father should not be prosecuted. There was no reason to ask why they had changed their minds. All the students in my class are African American. They were using what is called associative memory.
Their experiences caused an emotional reaction to the second scenario, while the first scenario could be considered more coolly. But the situation regarding race is even more complicated, as a new study published by Michael Tesler in the American Journal of Political Science. Tesler looked at the Affordable Care Act (the health care overhaul enacted in 2010) and finds that blacks are increasingly supportive of health care under Obama, while white conservatives have become increasingly critical under Obama.
Tesler tested this out by presenting subjects with the identical information, in one case attributing its advocacy to Obama, in the other to Clinton. The only difference between the two presidents was race. Tesler’s study is consistent with others that look at factors other than political orientation that contribute to support or opposition to policy issues, race being a salient one.
Voters are inclined to support policies advocated by those with whom they share core identities, namely race and religion. These political positions include war, welfare and crime. My class discussion confirms what these numerous studies show: race and religion have a great deal to do with attitudes towards war, welfare and crime. This is a bias that is inherent in everyone’s thinking. We tend to give the benefit of the doubt to those who are like us, while we are skeptical of those with whom we do not share core identities.
An ongoing tragedy in America is that blacks and whites don’t have conversations around racial matters. I am living in the South this semester and racial experience is not a topic in mixed company. People are polite; I’ve not met a racist that I know of. People mean well, but they don’t really know one another. Many good-hearted whites are burdened with the guilt of the history of a racist family; many blacks don’t care to put themselves into a situation in which they are vulnerable or need to explain themselves.
We need soul searching. We need soul talking. We need social science research to reveal our hidden biases, assumptions and perceptions. Trayvon Martin won’t be the last black male tragically killed and our prisons won’t be emptied soon. Let’s hope that somewhere, soon, people we talk to one another about what is really important. Being nice to one another doesn’t go far enough. We need to be honest with each other—and with ourselves.
The wounds of slavery haven’t yet healed.