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Buddhistdoor View: Learning from Race Issues in the United States

The iconic image taken by freelance photographer Jonathan Bachman of protestor Ieshia Evans facing police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on 10 July. From

It comes as no surprise that recent publicized incidents of young black men being shot by police in the US have been tinged with questions of racism or racial bias. One recent and significant case was that of Alton Sterling, who was shot several times while pinned to the ground by two policemen in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on 5 July. Another was of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot in his car by police after being pulled over on 7 July in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. The deaths of these men, which subsequently saw different sides heatedly taking contrasting interpretations attributing blame for the tragedies, sparked a wave of public protests across the country and, more disturbingly, resulted in a series of apparent reprisal attacks targeting police. On 7 July in Dallas, Texas, five police officers were killed and seven wounded by gunman Micah Johnson at the end of a peaceful protest organized by the activist movement Black Lives Matter. On 17 July, another three officers were killed by shooter Gavin Long in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The New York Times recently reported on a poll that counter-intuitively suggested that while black men and women in the US were “more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground, or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where, and when they encounter the police”—when it came to the most lethal form of force, shootings by police, the study found “no racial bias.”

This is not actually good news. Ronald G. Fryer, a Harvard professor and author of the study, speculated that this divide was related to certain intangible costs: “Officers face costs, legal and psychological, when they unnecessarily fire their guns. But excessive use of lesser force is rarely tracked or punished. . . . In the view of Mr. Fryer, who has spent much of his career studying ways in which society might close the racial achievement gap, the failure to punish excessive everyday force is an important contributor to young black disillusionment.” (The New York Times)

The promise of a post-racial society in America, it seems, has yet to be achieved and the issue of racial equality continues to cast a shadow over the nation. In a demoralizing but perhaps unsurprising poll jointly conducted by broadcaster ABC and The Washington Post, 63 per cent of respondents said that race relations generally were bad and 55 per cent said they were worsening. Washington, DC-based journalist Barrett Holmes Pitner argues in The Guardian that racism is such a pervasive problem because much of conservative “white” America upholds individual liberty as the definitive trait of being American, “preferring to identify individual instead of collective problems and solutions.” This makes them less sympathetic to structural, societal explanations for racism. In contrast, many African Americans and other ethnic minorities see racism as systemic: “the product of a series of structures, laws, regulations, and practices that disproportionately harm people based upon the color of their skin, ethnicity, or religion.”

Whether America’s racial malaise comes down to the collective or individual, Holmes Pitner rightly concludes that there are “seismic flaws in America’s ideological foundations, and the increased agency of black Americans has made it far harder to paper over these cracks.”

One of the conditions that have shaped the increasingly wobbly foundation of American ideology is implicit bias, or, in the words of the Kirwan Institute, a think-tank focused on race relations, “implicit social cognition.” Implicit bias can be said to influence an entire community, but works at an individual level as well. The Kirwan Institute defines implicit bias as “attitudes or stereotypes [both favorable and unfavorable] that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” David Amodio, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, explains that implicit bias is shaped not by personal experiences or beliefs, but by how societal messages, such as the portrayals of black Americans or other minorities, are represented in the media or other popular channels. (livescience)

These collective, society-shaped biases then manifest unconsciously in the individual. They are “activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.” (Kirwan Institute)

By this definition, implicit bias sounds almost inevitable in any human society. Implicit bias seems to function as some kind of “imprint” in our minds of how the community around us views something or someone. Much like the primitive “flight or fight” instinct, this might have served useful social purposes in the primeval past, but in a civilized society is not really helpful in managing conflicts. The Kirwan Institute argues that awareness and understanding of implicit bias is essential to mitigating its pervasiveness in American healthcare, housing, education, employment, and the criminal justice system, although this can be applied to essentially any society in which a dominant ethnic majority and culture seeks to treat minority members inclusively. Notably, the institute posits that we can never get rid of implicit bias completely: we can only weaken its grip on our subconscious.

If this implicit bias is so deeply ingrained in all our psyches, then perhaps the best we can do as individuals is to acknowledge its existence and try to recognize it when it arises. Examples of implicit bias include a lone pedestrian in an American city projecting assumptions at the sight of a group of young black men in hoodies on a street corner, or an English-language tuition center in an Asian country giving a teaching position to a Caucasian person over an Asian English speaker simply on account of their physical appearance. It could mean police officers frisking young black men more often and more harshly than young white men in the US, or in Europe it could mean assuming that a beggar on the streets of Paris or Milan is a member of the Roma ethnic community.

From this perspective there is no collective solution, no top-down government decree that can excise implicit bias. Yet, as Buddhists, we can apply mindfulness practices to situations or contexts in which we interact with people and observe our thoughts and reactions—whether we feel instinctively favorable or unfavorable towards them. It is vital, therefore, to try to understand how collective messages about entire communities can influence our personal view of individuals, whom we should treat as such rather than subconsciously painting them as a caricature of our unspoken projections.

We should also try to appeal to other individuals within our social circles to adopt similar practices, in the ultimate hope that the more widespread adoption of mindfulness of our implicit biases will eventually filter into public institutions, including the courts of law, the police, schools, businesses, and governments. Questions that highlight how we all subtly express biases towards other people are extremely uncomfortable to confront and don’t make for happy discussion, but observing our own minds honestly and with clarity almost always stirs up discomfort.  

See more

8 in 10 Seek ‘Major’ Focus on Race as Most Say Relations Are Worsening (ABC News)
Another deadly day in Baton Rouge. Will we heed the warning? (The Guardian)
Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings (The New York Times)
How Racism Persists: Unconscious Bias May Play a Role (livescience)
Understanding Implicit Bias (Kirwan Institute)

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