Acknowledging the Racism that Saturates Our Nation

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“What parents have done for decades who have children of color, especially young men of color, is train them to be very careful when they have…an encounter with a police officer.”

– New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, ABC’s “This Week”

The Mayor added that “With Dante, very early on, we said, ‘Look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do. Don’t move suddenly. Don’t reach for your cellphone,’ because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.”
This testimonial by Mayor de Blasio on December 7, 2014 was taken as a declaration of war, at least of words, a metaphorical Pearl Harbor of sorts, by a significant number of officers in the New York Police Department. Ed Mullins, head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association characterized the Mayor’s comments as “really hypocritical and moronic” proving he “doesn’t belong” in New York City. The majority of NYPD officers turned their backs in protest at events in which de Blasio spoke following his on-air comments.
But what was the fuss all about? The Mayor, who is white, and his wife Chirlane McCray, who is black, talked with their biracial 17-year-old son, Dante, about what he needs to remember if ever in the presence of a police officer.
Many white parents often dread engaging with their children in “the talk”: you know, the one about the so-called “birds and bees.” The trepidation they feel compels them sometimes to put it off as long as possible or never to bring it up at all. While this version of “the talk” may also engender anxiety in parents of color, they must not only broach, but delve deeply into another form of “the talk” with their children, and in particular with their sons, that most white parents never have to consider.
Since the time white people first forcibly confiscated land from and committed genocide upon native peoples, and then kidnapped, enslaved, and transported Africans across the vast oceans to the “Americas,” some law enforcement officers as well as civilian white residents of the United States routinely profiled and targeted people of color for harassment, arrest, violence, and murder simply for walking down the street or later for driving cars while being black or brown.
Parents of color from all walks of life throughout the country engage with their sons and daughters in what they refer to as “the talk” once they reach the age of 13 or 14 instructing them how to respond with calm if ever confronted by police officers. Parents warn youth that if ever approached by police, walk toward them and never run away, keep hands out of your pockets in plain view, don’t raise your voice, always act in a polite manner, and never show anger or use derogatory language. Parents of these young people know full well the stigmata embedded into their sons and daughters by a racist society marking them as the expression of criminality, which perennially consigns them to the endangered species list.
This was openly and honestly confirmed recently by what might seem as the most unlikely of people. James B. Comey, a white man and a Republican, and current Director of Federal Bureau of Investigation, in a speech on the topic of race and policing at Georgetown University on February 12, 2015 acknowledged the bigotry both within law enforcement and the larger society, which “…isn’t epidemic in law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts.”
As an Irish American, Comey talked first about historical prejudice and stereotypes toward the Irish: “Law enforcement’s biased view of the Irish lives on in the nickname we still use for the vehicles we use to transport groups of prisoners. It is, after all, the ‘paddy wagon’.”
He continued by discussing the “hard truth” of other forms of racism:
“Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias. Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us.”
Comey then referred to a song from the Broadway musical, Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” a stanza which goes:

Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.

Coincidently, as Comey was delivering his speech this week, students in my Social Diversity in Education course at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst took an online survey I assigned titled “The Implicit Bias Test.” It assesses individuals’ level of bias regarding a number of differing variables.
The overwhelming majority of students found the test extremely shocking, with some calling the bias test “biased.” One student took the section assessing perceptions of physical size, which showed that she had a strong preference for thin people over heavier people. She was so upset by her score that she refused to continue taking the remainder of the test, especially the section assessing racial bias.
Researchers Charles and Massey interviewed 3,924 undergraduate students at 28 selective colleges and universities on their perceptions of various racial and ethnic groups-959 Asian-Americans, 998 whites, 1,051 African-Americans, and 916 Latino/a students. Results indicated that “black people are rated most negatively on traits that are consistent with American racial ideology. White, Latino, and Asian students are all likely to perceive blacks as violence-prone and poor. They also rate black people more negatively than themselves in traits like lazy, unintelligent, and preferring welfare dependence.”
These students represent the very types of people who eventually enter police training academies and take their place patrolling the streets. These are the very types of people who eventually enter the classrooms and teach our young people. These are the very types of people who eventually enter politics. These are our future and current leaders. These are also the types of people who are just like many of us in their attitudes and biases.
So, where did they (we) learn these attitudes? They most certainly did not invent or create these negative belief systems. Rather, we all are born into a society that teaches us these views.These systemic inequities are pervasive throughout the society. They are encoded into the individual’s consciousness and woven into the fabric of our social institutions, resulting in a stratified social order privileging dominant groups while restricting and disempowering marginalized groups.
Other researchers, Artiles, Harry, Reschly, and Chinn, contend that “bias is more than the personal decisions and acts of individuals. Rather, bias against minorities should also be thought of in terms of historical residua that are layered in social structures and that may lead to various forms of institutional discrimination.”
By our challenging social institutions, we are taking a necessary step in reducing and one day eliminating cultural bias to ensure that these institutions work for everyone regardless of race and other social identities. But this is surely not enough.
Rather, racism represents a major societal problem: the systematic and hierarchical ideology of white superiority and white privilege. We much look into the mirror at ourselves as well as within our social institutions. Especially for us white people, we must come to consciousness of our social conditioning and the ways we have internalized notions of “race.”
Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray demonstrated good parenting in their talk with Dante by understanding the realities of “race” in the United States. Rather than condemning them, we all should give them praise. One way we as a nation can do this, first, is to acknowledge that racism has, in fact, saturated our nation since its inception. Once we do this, we can take steps to cure this destructive blight that threatens the very lives of people of color and the continued survival of the country itself.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).