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We must banish prejudice. Religious, patriotic, racial prejudices must disappear, for they are the destroyers of human society. We must become the cause of the unity of the human race. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 25.
One friend of mine, a cop who I’ll call Hank, loved to joke about his role, and the role of the police, in society. He had a sly, sarcastic sense of humor about himself and his job.
“Well,” Hank told me one afternoon as he was about to go to work, “off to ruin everyone’s day.” A genuinely kind, thoughtful person, Hank did not enjoy giving traffic tickets or arresting people. He felt it helped the innocent if he policed the guilty, so he did his job, but it definitely didn’t make him feel good when he ruined someone’s day. “Here goes the noble knight off to battle the forces of darkness,” he jokingly said another time. He had a pretty high degree of empathy for others.
Hank served on an all-white police force in a large suburb of Los Angeles, and at one point two officers on that police force were involved in an incident that further marred its already-racist reputation. The two white cops pulled over a car with four young black males in it. Apparently words were exchanged, and the cops used their nightsticks and metal flashlights to beat a couple of the black kids bloody. The kids went to the hospital, but the cops, who claimed self-defense, received no reprimand or sanction.
My friend Hank wasn’t involved, although he knew the cops who were. When I asked him about it, he closed ranks. “Those kids shouldn’t’ve mouthed off like that,” he told me. “And they weren’t kids, either—they were huge.”
“Whoa, Hank,” I said. “Wait a minute. They were in high school. So they deserved to wind up in a hospital bed for something they said?”
“Hey, you don’t mess with cops,” Hank said with a shrug. In other words, he didn’t seem to have a good answer. Don’t get me wrong–I never encountered any overt racism in Hank—but I could feel his fear when he talked about those two cops and their encounter with four adult-sized black teenagers. Even more obvious, I could feel the fear he and his friends on the force felt they had to instill in others.
Ever since then I’ve wondered about that fear. Where does it come from? How does it start?
To try and answer those questions, I started looking into some research on the subject. Did you know that even well-trained police officers tend to over-estimate the ages—and the guilt–of the young black males they encounter? In one recent UCLA study of 176 police officers across the country, published by the American Psychological Association, researchers learned that the police “are highly likely” to see black males as young as ten as older, and as guiltier, than their white counterparts. The author of the study, psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, said:
Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent. – “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, March, 2014.
The study’s researchers also reviewed police officers’ personnel records to determine use of force while on duty, and unsurprisingly they “found that those who dehumanized blacks were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize blacks.” But here’s the little-noticed, and to me, even more significant part of their research findings:
The study also involved 264 mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public U.S. universities. In one experiment, students rated the innocence of people ranging from infants to 25-year-olds who were black, white or an unidentified race. The students judged children up to 9 years old as equally innocent regardless of race, but considered black children significantly less innocent than other children in every age group beginning at age 10… – ibid.
Those young white college co-eds, besides judging black children as more culpable, also overestimated the age of young black boys by an average of 4.5 years. To them, a 12-year-old looked almost 17.
What’s going on here? Why do so many white people—and not just college students, but the police, too—have such fear of black people, especially young black males, even children? Does it come from plain-variety racial bias; or the old slavery-era myth of superhuman black strength; or that tough-guy, thug-life rap video stereotype; or is it some new, emergent variant of prejudice that simply contains a big component of fear? Even more importantly, in this era of racial diversity and relatively widespread integration, is our fear and prejudice so deep-seated that we’ve forgotten we’re all human beings?
We’ll get to those crucial questions in the subsequent essays in this series. But now that they’re on the table, let’s see if we can agree on a simple ground rule for this discussion. Here it is: each of us should do all we can to eliminate every trace of racial prejudice, in others and in ourselves. Fair enough? If we can all agree on a single basic assumption—racial prejudice does no one any good, and we’re all better off without it—we can examine its causes, take a hard look at its impact, and hopefully find ways to further rid ourselves of its ill effects.
That ground rule comes from the Baha’i teachings, which say, in no uncertain terms, that we should consider racial prejudice a thing of the past, an irrational fear and a damaging superstition:
Concerning the prejudice of race; it is an illusion, a superstition pure and simple, for God created us all of one race. …In the sight of God there is no difference between the various races. Why should man invent such a prejudice? – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted in Dr. J.E. Esslemont’s Baha’u’llah and the New Era, p. 160.
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As far as stereotypes – they can be tricky things – insofar as there can be an element of truth in them; no matter how small or deeply buried behind whatever hype. And trying to deny that can be counter-productive.
I’m a member of a highly-stereotyped group: rural, white males of religious faith who ...own firearms and hunt. That demographic conjures up all sorts of images and terms, some of them not so flattering. (“bloodthirsty rednecks” and “knuckle-draggers” spring immediately to mind.)
But here’s the rub: Having been a member of that demographic and lived in this culture my entire life, I know enough and, I hope, am honest enough to realize we earned some of those stereotypes. In other words, for all its good (and there is plenty), the rural, white, Western American culture does have a negative side to it. And those of us within it probably should be the first to deal with it.
And for what it’s worth, I’ve noticed some prominent blacks speaking or writing to the idea that urban black culture also earned some of its own negative stereotypes, and thus that community should be prepared to face and deal with the factors behind them. Such ideas often aren’t well received (and indeed can draw such catcalls as “Uncle Tom”), but I think it’s important to acknowledge them.