Race, Hollywood, and the Boycott

With film industry icons like Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Spike Lee, and Michael Moore boycotting the 2016 Academy Awards at the end of this month due to lack of nominations for black professionals, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided in late January to broaden racial and gender diversity in Academy membership.

Its board of governors has committed “to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” Further, older members that are no longer active in the film industry will be phased out.

Spike Lee summed up the sentiment of Oscar protesters, who connect their discussions on social media using #OscarsSoWhite, when he said:

[H]ow is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches. 40 white actors in 2 years and no flava at all.

While the 2015 and 2016 Oscars were and are characterized by a lack of diversity in acting roles, in 2014 Lupita Nyong’o won best supporting actress for 12 Years a Slave. She became the fourteenth black woman or man to win an Oscar in the Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, or Supporting Actress categories in the 88-year history of the Awards.

Over that same span of time, three black directors were nominated for Best Director, but none won. Steve McQueen became the first black producer to win Best Picture in 2013, for 12 Years a Slave.  

The whiteness of the past two years is troubling to many, as it was partly built on films Academy voters used to praise white professionals while ignoring the black professionals who worked on the same projects. Creed had a black star and black director, but only its white actor earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Straight Outta Compton had a black cast, director, and producer, but its white screenwriters were nominated for Best Screenplay. Many consider black acting performances in Beasts of No Nation, Concussion, and last year’s Selma unjustly ignored (Selma was nominated for best picture, but its black actors and black director received no nominations).

However, The Economist, looking at the Oscar wins since 2000, says, “The number of black actors winning Oscars in this century has been pretty much in line with the size of America’s overall black population.”

Blacks are 12.6% of the American population, and 10% of Oscar nominations since 2000 have gone to black actors… But blacks are under-represented in the roles that count for the Oscars, getting just 9% of the top [acting] roles since 2000… [But] once up for top roles, black actors do well, converting 9% of top roles into 10% of best-actor nominations and 15% of the coveted golden statuettes, a bit above their share of the general population.

The Economist concludes that the lack of diversity starts in drama schools and casting offices, putting blacks at a disadvantage in the competition for the Oscar wins (for example, black male directors are nowhere near the black population percentage, and black women directors are “nearly nonexistent”). It also notes Hispanics and Asians receive even less representation than blacks. Yet black underrepresentation is slight and confined to landing top roles in films, and by extension nominations, but then disappearing when the Academy votes on its winners.

So while there is work to be done to increase black representation in film roles, and to correct widespread conscious and subconscious anti-black biases that research undeniably demonstrates exists, it is pleasing to note African Americans are not underrepresented among Academy Award winners in recent history.

Yet it is perhaps beneficial that #OscarsSoWhite launched a discussion on Academy voting methods, as what’s truly lacking isn’t so much diversity among the victors, it’s diversity among the Academy voters, as well as a more democratic process of voting.

The Oscar nominees and winners are chosen by the 6,000 Academy members, a voting group about 94% white and 76% male. It’s only about 2% black.

To become a member, certain qualifications must be met; for example, qualifications for an actor include:

(a) have a minimum of three theatrical feature film credits, in all of which the roles played were scripted roles, one of which was released in the past five years, and all of which are of a caliber that reflect the high standards of the Academy,


(b)  have been nominated for an Academy Award in one of the acting categories

Once qualifications are met, “each candidate must receive the favorable endorsement of the appropriate Branch Executive Committee before his or her name is submitted to the Board of Governors for final approval.”

So while there are only slight disadvantages for blacks in film roles and nominations, the board of governors clearly needs to enact the reforms #OscarsSoWhite inspired. With 9% of top film roles, 10% of Oscar nominations, and 15% of the wins all going to blacks, either the Academy has been slow to admit blacks to membership or simply does not admit enough of them to offset the large number of old and new white members. As the Los Angeles Times wrote this month,

The academy has invited 452 people to join its ranks over the last two years, an unusually high number even though 20 of them were non-voting slots. By accepting more members, the academy hoped to bring more women and minorities into the organization.

Although the two new classes are noticeably more diverse than in past years, they failed to change the face of the academy in a material way because new members make up such a small percentage of the entire constituency, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Since membership is controlled by the board of governors, there’s no democratic way to broaden diversity in the Academy. That power rests with the few. If the board does not take purposeful action, as it has decided to do, the demographics of the Oscar voters largely remain static.   

And by extension, if the voting body does not become more diverse, Oscar nominees and winners could tend to look the same year to year. So if a group is underrepresented at any point during the lifetime of the Academy, whether blacks, or Asians (underrepresented in nominations and wins compared to top roles and national population), or Hispanics (underrepresented in wins compared to nominations, top roles, and the national population), etc., there is no democratic, bottom-up, grassroots way to correct this.

This is quite different from a selection process like a popular vote. A meme went around the Internet recently about the NBA All-Star lineup being dominated by black players, to mock the #OscarsSoWhite boycott. It read: “2016 NBA All-Star Game has zero white players selected. Boycott for more diversity. #NBASoBlack.”

Yet the All-Stars are selected by a popular vote that is open to anyone–so not quite an adequate comparison. If white NBA fans (about 40% of viewers) felt there weren’t enough white players, they could theoretically “get out the vote” and see change, even if the 45% of NBA viewers who are black preferred to vote for black players. They could theoretically expand the pool of voters. Change the voter base, change the outcome.

The same mechanism isn’t in place for the Academy. Ordinary Americans can’t vote for nominees and winners. It’s just several thousand voters whose numbers and demographics remain unchanged except by a decree from the board of governors.  

Considering the Academy is never going to switch to a popular vote, the changes #OscarsSoWhite sparked are necessary to raise the 2% of black Academy voters to a percentage more equitable to their population in both the film industry and the country.

The Black Panthers

Beyoncé and her dancers, clad in black leather and black berets, their hair Afroed, reminded the world as it watched Super Bowl 50 of the Black Panthers, a radical leftist organization birthed in the 1960s by white American oppression.

Beyoncé and her dancers stood together on the football field and raised their fists in the traditional radical symbol “power to the people,” a sign of both solidarity with allies pushing for positive social change and defiance against oppressors.

After the performance, a group of dancers raised their fists once more. One unfolded a piece of paper inscribed with “Justice 4 Mario Woods.” Woods, reportedly armed with a knife, was shot to death in a heated confrontation with both black and white San Francisco police in December. Super Bowl 50 was held in San Francisco.

The performers also posed for a similar photo hailing Black Power off the field after the show.

The halftime performance came one day after Beyoncé’s music video “Formation” came out, which drew fire from angry whites for its “anti-police” message. In the video, Beyoncé sits atop a sinking police cruiser, a black child dances in front of a line of policemen in riot gear, who eventually raise their hands, graffiti on a wall demands police “Stop Shooting Us,” etc. “Formation” was one of the songs performed during the Super Bowl.    

The Black Panther Party, founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, was largely inspired by the ideology of Islamic minister Malcolm X (Beyoncé and her women formed an “X” at one point, likely a reference to him). Malcolm X summed up his view on violence, in accordance with his faith and belief in self-defense, when he said in 1963, “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” 

Formed in 1966, the year after Malcolm X’s assassination, the Panthers aimed to promote self-defense against police abuse and white vigilantes, to unify workers against capitalist exploitation, to embrace black pride, to make African Americans politically powerful and economically self-sufficient, to end illiteracy, hunger, and poverty in black communities, and to fight and die at any time for freedom.

Marxist ideas of transferring power to the common people–giving black people the economic, social, and political power to control their own destinies–attracted many. So did the idea of revolution, violent conflict, as a way to achieve basic human rights.

It was, after all, a time of virulent racism (it should be obvious to all that blacks faced far more severe and deadly oppression than the American colonists who rose up in revolution against the British).

White employers refused to pay blacks the same wages as whites, or hire them for more skilled, higher wage positions; white banks refused to provide home loans to blacks; school districts gerrymandered attendance zones to keep black and white schools distinct; white businesses fled from budding areas of black commerce; white producers charged black stores more for goods.

White residents fled from black neighbors; white real estate agents steered blacks away from nicer homes in white areas; white city councils, city planners, and developers refused to invest and build in black areas; white voters rejected tax increases that would benefit black schools and neighborhoods; white landlords refused to properly maintain property inhabited by black families.

White policemen beat and abused blacks suspected of committing crimes against whites, but ignored black on black crime in the ghettos; white judges and juries handed black criminals longer prison sentences and more frequent executions; white terrorists shot, hung, beat, mutilated and bombed innocent African Americans to keep them out of stores, schools, public facilities, neighborhoods, voting booths, and political positions.

Peaceful protesters exercising First Amendment rights were attacked and killed by police and vigilantes alike. The Black Panther Party and its message of self-protection appealed to those who saw Dr. King’s pacifism as inadequate (while respecting and upholding Dr. King’s belief in socialism).

So the Panthers made use of their Second Amendment rights: they armed themselves against a government that failed–for centuries–to protect their human rights, and in fact frequently worked to destroy said rights. They decided to defend themselves, especially against abusive policemen, whom they called “pigs.”

The Panthers used (what else?) the Declaration of Independence to justify revolution against the State. In their Ten-Point Program, which outlined their demands (the first being “We Want Freedom”), the Panthers reminded blacks and whites alike:

…governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government…

…when a long train of abuses and usurpations…evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

Yet the Party was more than organizing for self-defense and revolution. Nationally, the Party was renowned for organizing dozens of community programs such as free clothing, shoes, food, education, legal representation, and health clinics for communities of color. They worked with welfare organizations, churches, and local businesses (some white) to ease black poverty.

They organized black history classes, including some that introduced whites to the horrors of slavery and oppression; this glimpse of true history left many whites terrified, tearful, and angry enough to join the fight for civil rights. They held rallies, marches, and strikes to push for black equality.

And although Panther women faced frequent sexual pressure and advances from the men, and sexism in general, the Party aimed to liberate women and promote equality—it was “empowering,” a “source of pride” and “strength,” in the words of one female Black Panther leader.

By the early 1980s, the Black Panther Party was destroyed. From the outset, the U.S. government and local authorities worked to undermine and eliminate it.

The FBI, which has a long history of working to destroy leftist and civil rights organizations (the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, etc.), installed spies, helped assassinate Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in Chicago, forged letters to create disunity, illegally imprisoned activists, destroyed property like food meant for distribution to the poor, and attempted to discredit the Party through propaganda. The FBI authorized municipal police to terrorize members at home, at meetings, and at protests.

When Bobby Seale was arrested for protesting at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, he was not allowed to choose his own lawyer—he was gagged and bound in the courtroom. Many Party leaders were forced to flee the United States to avoid death or imprisonment.

The Panthers’ deadly clashes with police also lost them support from more moderate black civil rights groups and more affluent blacks, and of course progress in civil rights legislation also convinced some their promised revolution was no longer necessary.

(See Reynaldo Anderson, On the Ground: The Black Panther Party in Communities Across America; Gaidi Faraj, Unearthing the Underground: A Study of Radical Activism in the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army; Paul Alkebulan, Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party.)

Today, with the rise of more radical movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, Beyoncé’s homage to the Panthers should come as no surprise. It is a time of immense anger toward the State and white-dominant society.

Research shows nearly all whites hold subconscious anti-black biases, and a solid majority consciously believe racist myths about blacks (whites in simulations are much quicker to shoot both armed and unarmed blacks). Black job applicants with identical resumes as white applicants are still less likely to be called back for an interview, and blacks are less likely to be offered a quality home loan than whites with the same (sometimes worse) qualifications and income levels. Likewise, whites receive better medical care at the same facilities than blacks with identical diagnoses and medical histories.  

Blacks are more likely to receive longer prison sentences and the death penalty than whites who commit the same crimes. They are more likely to be pulled over and searched while driving lawfully than whites driving lawfully. Unarmed Americans killed by police are consistently twice as likely to be black than white.

How Poverty Breeds Racism in White Minds

We cannot end anti-black racism without ending poverty.

Poverty perpetuates racism in three ways.

First, disproportionate black poverty perpetuates racist white myths of black laziness. Second, black poverty breeds black crime, which reinforces in white minds ideas of the deviant, aggressive, violent black man. Third, black poverty leads to lower academic performance from black children, leading to white myths of lower intelligence in blacks.

Behind each of these racist beliefs, one can easily conclude, is an appalling lack of historical and sociological context.

For example, were (conservative) whites to accept the historical causes behind intergenerational black poverty–centuries of white oppression that confined black Americans to the lowest wages, the most miserable housing and schools, barred them from colleges, work programs, and welfare like Social Security, and banned them from positions of social, economic, and political power–the whole idea that their impoverished condition is due to laziness or irresponsibility or poor parenting would seem absurd.

The notion that whites don’t hold such ideas to be true is nothing more than white denial, rooted in a lack of education easily rectified by reading works such as Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (Tim Wise).

Wise provides research that shows about 60% of whites will openly admit to trusting negative stereotypes about lower intelligence, higher aggression, and greater laziness in blacks. 25% of whites say an ideal neighborhood would be free of them.

Psychological research shows nearly 90% of whites hold subconscious anti-black biases.

Experiments reveal that resumes with “black” names are 50% less likely to earn an interview than identical ones with “white” names. Blacks are less likely to be offered a quality home loan than whites with the same (sometimes worse) qualifications and income levels. Likewise, whites receive better medical care at the same facilities than blacks with identical diagnoses and medical histories.  

Blacks are more likely to receive longer prison sentences and the death penalty than whites who commit the same crimes. They are more likely to be pulled over and searched while driving lawfully than whites driving lawfully. Unarmed Americans killed by police are usually twice as likely to be black than white. And so on.      

White inability to understand how past and present racism preserve intergenerational poverty today (it did not, shocking to many whites, end after the civil rights movement of the 1960s) helps keep racism a contemporary problem.

They fail to grasp how in each American city, only 150 years ago, former slaves started with nothing (no money, no wealth in home or business ownership) and battled racist sentiment, practices, and policies daily to build for themselves what they could, but still had little in comparison to whites to pass on to their children. And even with the weakening of the Jim Crow era only 50 years ago, blacks were still disproportionately poor and subject to savage racism. And today, many children of the civil rights era are still poor and have fewer opportunities due to anti-black biases, whether conscious or subconscious.

But that framework of historical fact does not fit well in conservative ideology.

In conservative thought, any person willing to work hard, be responsible, and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” can rise out of poverty. The poor are therefore lazy, not working hard enough, irresponsible, lacking ambition. This likewise stems from a lack of education concerning socio-economic realities that ensure nearly all Americans will die in the social class in which they are born (see Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen).

If conservatives believe the poor are poor due to laziness, what then is the logical conclusion (historical context being ignored) when a conservative hears that blacks are 2 to 3 times likely to be poor than whites (see Colorblind, Wise)? That while there are more poor whites in the U.S. due to their sheer numbers (67% of the U.S. is white, 13% black), the average black American is nevertheless more likely to be impoverished?

There is only one conclusion: blacks are more likely to be lazy. It is a faulty premise, and a conclusion seeped in old beliefs of biological and cultural inferiority.

Consider now that poverty breeds crime.

This holds true regardless of skin color. But due to our racial history, the American landscape is characterized by crime-ridden slums in inner cities, dominated by minorities, surrounded by wealthier white suburbs. Within the “ghettos,” theft, murder, and gang violence inspire in conservative white minds racist ideas of blacks being more aggressive, dangerous, prone to criminality by nature.

The majority of Americans who commit crimes are not black, again due to population numbers. However, blacks, due to disproportionate poverty, commit crimes disproportionate to their population. For example, blacks make up 13% of the U.S. population, but about 20% of violent crimes are committed by blacks, about 40% of the people who rob others at gunpoint are black, etc. (Also, because we live fairly segregated lives, blacks are nearly always the victims of blacks, whites nearly always the victims of whites.)

If one cannot accept that our history led to disproportionate poverty, which led to disproportionate crime, the only alternative is to attribute black crime to innate deviancy and bloodlust.

Finally, black students in poor schools do not perform as well on standardized tests as white students in fine schools. For example, the average ACT score for blacks is about 17, for whites about 24.

To those willing to consider sociological context and study research, the cause of this is not difficult to ascertain.

Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience high-stress homes, absent parents, abandonment, displacement, homelessness, hunger, violence and sexual abuse, exposure to alcoholism, drug use, and crime, poor health, depression, developmental delays, decreased concentration and memory capabilities, and a host of other health problems.

A 2015 study showed that parts of the brain tied to academic performance are 8-10% smaller in children from very poor households.

Might this and the sad state of schools in the inner cities–low-quality teachers, crumbling facilities, overcrowded classes, a lack of books, supplies, physical and mental health care, and student worry over gas leaks, mice, and freezing temperatures–have something to do with lower test scores?

Or is it, as some conservatives feel, due to bad parenting (“black parents just don’t care enough about education”) or lower intelligence in blacks?

It is a sad state of affairs that yesterday racism bred minority poverty and today minority poverty is breeding racism.

To say that poverty is breeding racism is not to shift blame away from whites who consciously hold and spread anti-black biases–they should confront their misunderstandings through personal studies of history and social class. Rather, it is to suggest that if certain social conditions could be alleviated, if we could end poverty, it would go an enormous way to also ending racism. It could eliminate the misguided thinking of many whites and at the same time undo the worst sins of American history.

The Death of Tamir Rice and the Death of White Ethics

The death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio, has perhaps highlighted better than any similar case both the dire need for justice system reform and the extent to which some whites struggle with even the most basic concepts of ethical thinking.    

On a frigid day in November 2014, Rice was playing with a pellet gun in an open-carry city, outside a recreation center. A 9-1-1 caller reported a “guy…probably a juvenile” pointing a gun that was “probably fake” at other people, “scaring” them. The pellet gun was missing the orange tip that indicated it was fake, and somehow the caller’s suggestion it wasn’t real (nor that Rice was likely a child) was not relayed to the officers heading to the scene.  

The police drove their vehicle onto the grass, pulled up next to Rice, and an officer-in-training, Timothy Loehmann (formerly declared unfit for duty by another police department due to emotional instability), allegedly fearing that Rice was reaching for his pellet gun, shot him within two seconds of coming to a stop.

Watch the video here; the police arrive at the 7:07 mark.

According to the Cleveland police, Loehmann had his door open and shouted three times at Rice as the vehicle approached him. The police did not park at a safe distance, take cover, and demand via loudspeaker that Rice drop the gun and surrender. Such actions would have clearly made the situation safer for themselves as well as for Rice, and possibly led to a far different ending.

After Rice was shot, his older sister, playing nearby, ran toward him, but was forced to the ground by the officers; she was handcuffed and put in the police cruiser.

Officers then stood around Tamir as he lay wounded. One officer had his hands on his hips when a man, identified by police as an FBI agent who was in the neighborhood, entered the frame and administered first aid. It was the first medical care the boy received in the four minutes that followed the shooting.

Rice was taken to the hospital, but died the following day.

Tamir Rice’s name became a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter activists and other enraged Americans, black and white, seeking to reform a nation where, due to both conscious and subconscious anti-black biases, blacks are far more likely to be killed by police than whites.

In court, the city blamed the boy, insistent of his “failure…to exercise due care to avoid injury” and claimed the boy’s family was suffering damages “caused by their own acts.”

This is a pattern of white behavior seen throughout American history: blacks, even those who are children, or unarmed, or nonviolent, are consistently blamed for their own deaths, not only due to their actions toward police in the moment, but life choices beforehand.

Black victims, writes Anthea Butler,

…are vilified. Their lives are combed for any infraction or hint of justification for the murders or attacks that befall them: Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Michael Brown stole cigars. Eric Garner sold loosie cigarettes. When a black teenager who committed no crime was tackled and held down by a police officer at a pool party in McKinney, Tex., Fox News host Megyn Kelly described her as “No saint either.”

Early news reports on the Charleston church shooting followed a similar pattern. Cable news coverage of State Sen. and Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME who we now know is among the victims, characterized his advocacy work as something that could ruffle feathers. The habit of characterizing black victims as somehow complicit in their own murders continues.

In other words, black foolishness, shortsightedness, aggressive nature, or criminality lead to black deaths. “If you don’t want to get killed by police, stop breaking the law!”

This line of thinking conservative whites use is rarely applied to themselves or their own children. If a white conservative, or his or her son or daughter, ever made the mistake of stealing cigars, illegally selling cigarettes, mouthing off, disobeying, or even getting physical with a police officer, said white conservative would likely not find a policeman justified in shooting to kill. He or she would expect the police to find a nonviolent, non lethal solution to the situation. He or she would want to live, or want his or her child to live, to see a constitutionally-guaranteed day in court.

Even prosecutor Tim McGinty, the white attorney assigned to show the grand jury what criminal charges the officers could possibly be charged with, participated in blaming the boy for his death.

After the grand jury refused to indict the policemen, a common occurrence in the U.S. judicial system for police that kill both whites and blacks, McGinty explained police actions in this case were “reasonable” and that Rice’s “size made him look much older” and that he had “been warned his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day…”  

In other words, Rice’s physical appearance and his refusal to listen to reason are why he is in a grave, not the fact the police are likely infected by conscious or subconscious anti-black sentiment, didn’t give Rice a reasonable chance to surrender, and don’t carry non lethal bullets, a technology readily available that could save thousands of American lives.

McGinty, abandoning any facade of neutrality, said, “…the evidence did not indicate criminal conduct by police.”

The victim’s family declared in a statement:

Prosecutor McGinty deliberately sabotaged the case, never advocating for my son, and acting instead like the police officers’ defense attorney… In a time in which a nonindictment for two police officers who have killed an unarmed black child is business as usual, we mourn for Tamir, and for all of the black people who have been killed by the police without justice. In our view, this process demonstrates that race is still an extremely troubling and serious problem in our country and the criminal-justice system.

McGinty recommended to the grand jury that no charges be filed. A Washington Post editorial explained recently how grand juries are designed

…to be a tool of prosecutors. They don’t hear from both sides in a case, like a trial jury would. They hear only from the prosecutor, who decides what evidence and testimony is presented.

The family called on the Department of Justice to “conduct a real investigation,” and quickly a petition for such an inquiry and a new jury exploded online.

To many conservative white Americans, this was a tragedy, a tragic misunderstanding, but police actions were justified, meaning right or reasonable, because the police believed Rice was about to pull out a real gun and open fire.

This, of course, ignores the fact that had the officers parked at a distance and tried to talk Rice into putting down his fake gun, which he probably would have, the officers would have felt much safer than if they were mere feet away from the boy after charging in. The police put themselves in “danger.”

Tamir Rice’s death revealed how confused conservative white ethics have become, marked by the inability to apply the same set of moral principles to others that are applied to oneself or one’s own family.

The decisions of the police, and the decision of the grand jury, that left Tamir Rice dead and his killers free are deemed reasonable and right by many conservative whites. Yet if one such conservative white had a son, daughter, friend, spouse, or sibling who made the same “mistakes” as Tamir Rice (not heeding a warning, being large for his or her age, playing with a gun without an orange tip in an open-carry city, not throwing up his or her hands the instant the police arrived, etc.), would ideas concerning what’s reasonable and right change?

If said conservative white could say honestly, “If it was my son, the police acted reasonably in killing him” then he or she has been morally consistent. This writer finds that idea, that justification for his or her child’s death, equally disgusting as the justification for Rice’s murder, but at least ethical standards have been applied equally to oneself and others.

If said conservative white has a change of heart, and says, “If it was my son, the police actions were not justified,” we can see how bankrupt white ethics are in matters of race. If one is so willing to say police acted rightly and reasonably when shooting Tamir Rice, why would it not be the same for your own loved ones, were all other factors (words, behaviors, perceptions, etc.) identical?        

This is likely a testament to the conscious and subconscious racism virtually all American whites have, according to psychological studies, a demonstration that black lives are not as worthy of life as white lives in the minds of many conservative whites.

True, such a response could suggest that one values the lives of one’s family more than those of other families, an idea that could be based in evolutionary fact, yet an idea any ethical person can nevertheless decide to be abhorrent and any critical thinker can realize likely ignores, without cause, the subconscious prejudices scientific study has revealed to be present.

Nonlethal Bullets For the Police

To Mayor Sly James and Chief of Police Darryl Forté:

I am about to make a radical suggestion, an idea that runs counter to prevailing thought on justified police actions: that every civilian, even those that open fire on police officers or innocent bystanders, deserves to live if possible.

That it is right and just that all Kansas Citians, not matter how deranged or violent, deserve to see their constitutionally-guaranteed day in court.

It may seem a strange idea to those conditioned to assume anyone who fires a gun at others has automatically given up his or her right to life, even if said person suffers from mental illness. Here I suggest a higher form of ethical thinking.

In light of yesterday’s condemnatory report in The Kansas City Star that found 47 Kansas Citians died in altercations with police from 2005 to 2014 (with 56 more wounded by police gunfire), a rate higher than many similarly sized cities, it is time to reconsider how Kansas City arms its officers.

This is especially true when considering “about half the confrontations involved someone suffering from mental illness or depression or someone suspected of being impaired by drugs or alcohol.”

The accompanying analysis of the incidents in The Star found that “in at least four cases, officers first tried nonlethal force, such as a stun gun, a rubber bullet or a bean bag.” One man was shot by a rubber bullet in 2013, “but it didn’t work.” A woman in 2007 was struck by a beanbag round to “no effect.”

So in four cases (perhaps more, but this is unknown) out of 103, or 3.8%, police tried nonlethal force first. That, to any person who values life, is unacceptable.

Chief Forté insists, “If you look at the people we shot…they dictated how we responded to them.” That is without question mostly truthful, but ignores a reform that could have saved dozens of lives in Kansas City (thousands across the U.S.).

The Kansas City Police Department should be armed only with rubber bullets.

True, rubber bullets will sometimes fail to take down a criminal on the first shot (though the same complaint can be made of standard bullets). And critics will protest, calling it foolhardy to give a criminal with standard bullets an edge over an officer with rubber ones.

Yet Kansas City police officer deaths due to gunfire are extraordinarily rare. In the same period that 47 civilians died in confrontations with the police, no KCPD officers died in the line of duty, according to the Officer Down Memorial. Since 1990, 6 officers have died in the line of duty, all due to vehicle accidents.

The last officer to die from gunfire was in 1983. In total, 67 Kansas City policemen died from intentional gunfire since 1879 (averaging 0.49 a year). In contrast, from 2005 to 2014, the police killed 35 people who had a gun or were suspected of having a gun (3.5 per year).

When the scope of data is broadened to include officer deaths by intentional gunfire, assault, vehicle pursuit, and vehicular assault, 77 perished (0.56 per year) since 1879. Compare this to the 47 civilians killed by police from 2005-2014 (4.7 per year).

All this is not to devalue the lives of police officers, who deserve much admiration for their courage and sacrifice.

It is to suggest that, while acknowledging the possibility of increased risk to police officers, a rubber bullets only policy may save more lives overall (including, perhaps, police officers’: since 1879, 7 officers died from accidental gunfire; while the data does not clarify, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that an officer accidentally shot by a fellow policeman may have a better chance of living were he or she struck by rubber bullet).

This reform should be enacted in the name of all Kansas Citians, but especially the names of those whose deaths were truly senseless, like Ryan Stokes, who allegedly refused to stop running from police and was, at the moment of his death, unarmed, or Javon Hawkins, who refused to put down a sword and was killed.

True, rubber bullets can kill — they are not a perfect solution, and depend very much on who uses them and how, in the same way police can use tasers to kill (a Virginia man in 2013 was tased 20 times and died), nightsticks to kill, or fists to kill (the beating of Manuel Palacio in 2014 by the KCPD could have easily continued longer and resulted in Palacio’s death).     

Yet rubber bullets are far less lethal than standard bullets, and can therefore prevent wrongful deaths and afford every suspect his or her right to a fair trial. Reducing police killings is also, without question, the ethical thing to do in light of the statistical analyses and psychological research that indicate, due to both conscious and subconscious anti-black biases, blacks are far more likely to be killed by police than whites who commit identical crimes.

The idea that shooters deserve to be gunned down immediately usually changes if said shooter is your son, brother, sister, or mother. People tend to apply their ethics inconsistently (a practice that must change), believing it right for a stranger (especially of a different race) to be shot to death for his or her actions, but not someone they love in an identical scenario exhibiting the same behavior.

Standard bullets need not be eliminated completely; more dangerous ammunition can be kept on reserve for escalated situations, for instance if it was determined a suspect was wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Kansas City can lead by example, showing America how many lives can be saved if we use the technology available to us.

Mr. Hildreth, Anecdotes Don’t Invalidate Science

Conservative America rejoiced recently when an African American, Steven Hildreth, Jr., publicized on social media his peaceful encounter with a Tucson, Arizona police officer. Hildreth was legally armed at the time he was pulled over.

After explaining how the officer appreciated Hildreth’s respect so much he let slide a blown headlight and an outdated registration card, Hildreth wrote on Facebook:

I’m a black man wearing a hoodie and strapped. According to certain social movements, I shouldn’t be alive right now because the police are allegedly out to kill minorities.

Maybe…just maybe…that notion is bunk. Maybe if you treat police officers with respect, they will do the same to you. Police officers are people, too. By far and large, most are good people and they’re not out to get you.

True, the hundreds of thousands who shared his post and the rest of the U.S. can together rejoice that no tragedy occurred. Blacks and whites, and people of all political persuasions, can acknowledge many police officers are good people, and feel relief Hildreth and this officer interacted with civility.

Yet anecdotes like this in no way invalidate the research that shows black Americans are overall treated differently than white Americans who commit the same acts. Conservative whites, and blacks as well, delighted in this story because they see it as evidence that members of the Black Lives Matter movement and similar social justice groups are delusional, their ideas “bunk.”

Anecdotes, personal experiences, are a huge part of the story of modern American racism. But one cannot rely on them alone to measure conscious–let alone subconscious–prejudice.

A leftist could draw Hildreth’s attention to Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy killed by police in Cleveland in November 2014. Watch the video here.

Rice was playing outside with a pellet gun–in an open-carry state. The police pulled up next to him and immediately shot him. They did not park at a safe distance and demand he drop the gun and raise his hands. They did not give him the opportunity to respectfully hand over his weapon.

If all a black male has to do is treat an officer with respect, why is Tamir Rice in a cemetery?  

In court, the city blamed the boy, insistent of his “failure…to exercise due care to avoid injury” and claimed the boy’s family was suffering damages “caused by their own acts.”

This is evidence that blacks can be the victims of horrific police brutality, in the same way Hildreth’s story is evidence blacks and police officers can interact peaceably. But like Hildreth, a leftist cannot rely on this story alone to support his or her worldview.

Are we at an impasse? A stalemate between stories that tell very different tales? Or is racism measured not with individual anecdotes, but through scientific research, controlled experiments?

As documented in Tim Wise’s Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, psychological experiments reveal nearly 90% of whites subconsciously associate blacks with negative terms like “violence.”

About 60% of whites will openly admit to trusting negative stereotypes about lower intelligence, higher aggression, and greater laziness in blacks. 25% of whites say an ideal neighborhood would be free of blacks.

We can measure the results of these ideas scientifically. For example, when researchers decided to send out resumes to employers, identical except half had “white” names at the top and half had “black” names, the latter was 50% less likely to be called for an interview. The study was entitled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?

Studies like one in 2002 show that ordinary civilians in simulations are far quicker to shoot armed blacks than armed whites, and decide quicker to spare an unarmed white than an unarmed black.

Could negative ideas about black people, whether conscious or subconscious, also affect police officers?

2005 research in Psychological Science showed police officers were more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed blacks than unarmed whites. Remarkably, the bias diminished with extensive time in the simulation.

A 2006 study published in Basic and Applied Psychology found that during simulations, as Fair and Impartial Policing put it,

Officers with negative attitudes toward Black suspects and negative beliefs regarding the criminality of Black people tended to shoot unarmed Black suspects more often in the simulation than officers with more positive attitudes and beliefs toward Blacks.

Luckily, as Lorie Fridell, former director of the Police Executive Research Forum, wrote in “This is Not Your Grandparents’ Prejudice”:

Scientists have shown that implicit biases can be reduced through positive contact with stereotyped groups (e.g., for a review, see Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005) and through counter-stereotyping, whereby individuals are exposed to information that is the opposite of the cultural stereotypes about the group (e.g., Kawakami et al., 2005, 2009).

The former mechanism provides further justification for community policing methods, such as permanent assignments and positive police interactions and partnerships with the diverse individuals within a community. The latter mechanism provides the theoretical rationale for use-of-force role-play training (including computer simulations) that randomly pairs the demographics of subjects to scenarios that do and do not result in threat or danger to officers (see Correll et al., 2007).

Research from the University of Chicago in 2007 and 2009 compared community members’ and police officers’ decisions to use lethal force in simulations of dangerous situations. Both groups had anti-black biases in reaction time. But these police officers were actually less likely to act on it:

That is, ultimately the officers made the right decision and were not impacted by race.  The researchers attribute this finding for the officers to frequent, high quality, role play (e.g., Simunitions, computer scenarios) training in the use of force that can serve to extinguish the race-crime implicit bias for force decisions.

While it is clear police officers have the same subconscious biases as the rest of us, not all police officers experience the same training. Could the absence of bias-reducing training play a role in police killings of blacks like Tamir Rice, or is that “bunk,” as Hildreth suggests?

Scientific studies and analysis of real-world cases help us see that blacks are more likely to receive longer prison sentences and the death penalty than whites who commit the same crimes. They are more likely to be pulled over and searched while driving lawfully than whites driving lawfully. Large percentages of blacks report racist words and actions, large and small, as constants in life. Wise’s Colorblind documents many studies, for those who want to go in-depth.

Unarmed Americans killed in the first half of 2015 were twice as likely to be black than white. True, this is an analysis of a real-world case, not a controlled study. Yet someone like Hildreth would perhaps read that statistic and conclude unarmed blacks are more likely than unarmed whites to be disrespectful, to disobey, to get aggressive. These are very old, racist ideas, and one might wonder if conservatives have scientific studies to support them.

By being unaware of or downplaying the role of subconscious and conscious racism that research shows to be prevalent, conservatives, black and white alike, encourage others to solely blame the victim, to view police shootings without any scientific context. This perpetuates racist myths about the mentalities and behaviors of black people. Which, as the 2006 study suggests, could lead to more black deaths.

To think that subconscious anti-black biases, which nearly all whites (and even some blacks) have, could affect behavior during simulations, prison sentencing, hiring, and police stops and searches, but not the use of lethal force against civilians is naivety of the highest order.