Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community

I’m in a unique position to provide commentary on issues of race, ethnicity and policing. I’m a sociologist, and my research focuses on the relationships between media, race and crime. I’m biracial, giving me a family of Black folks who are deeply skeptical of the police, as well as a family of White folks who wonder what all of the fuss is about – and my dad used to be a cop, so I understand where they’re coming from. I wear all of these hats at once, and I’ll tell you how I see it.

I’m not surprised that there are racial and ethnic divides in opinion about Campus Safety and Hamilton Police; these divides are the norm. For example, consider data from a nationally representative poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post in December 2014. When asked, “Do Blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment as Whites in the criminal justice system?” 52 percent of Whites asserted that there is equal treatment, compared to 10 percent of Blacks and 35 percent of Hispanics. And when asked, “Do you think the recent killings of unarmed African American men by police in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City are isolated incidents or a sign of broader problems in treatment of African Americans by police?” 60 percent of Whites view these events as isolated incidents, compared to 18 percent of Blacks and 45 percent of Hispanics. These are big differences, and they cause each group to look at the other and wonder how they have gotten things so wrong.

People come to radically different conclusions about the world because race and ethnicity dramatically influence our experiences. Some groups have largely positive experiences with police and assume that everyone else does, too. Other groups have largely negative experiences, and are painfully aware that others enjoy different treatment. For instance, consider the findings of the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Blacks comprise 67 percent of Ferguson’s population, yet they account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, 90 percent of those experiencing use of force and 93 percent of arrestees. It is clear that Blacks face disproportionately high policing. This would be justified if Ferguson’s Black population was especially criminal, but this is not the case. For example, Black drivers are two times more likely than Whites to experience a vehicle search, but are 25 percent less likely than Whites to be found in possession of contraband. Ultimately, the Department of Justice concluded that disparity between Blacks’ population share and their share of police attention is the result of unlawful race bias by the Ferguson criminal justice system. This is not an isolated case, as studies of other cities draw similar conclusions.

Race bias happens even though many of us reject negative racial and ethnic stereotypes and disavow expressions of old-fashioned racism. It occurs because there is a distinction between our explicit attitudes, those that we consciously hold, and our implicit attitudes, those that reside in our subconscious, accumulated through exposure to the social world. Even though we explicitly believe that racial and ethnic stereotypes aren’t true, we still know all about them, and although many of us consciously reject racial and ethnic prejudice, our minds are also filled with hundreds of years of culture premised on the inferiority of non-Whites. Both explicit and implicit attitudes can affect our actions; our implicit attitudes are most likely to take control when we lack the motivation or opportunity to think carefully.

The way I see it, we’re in a world where some people are explicitly racist but most aren’t. But, sometimes the actions of those good people are guided by the implicit culture in their heads, leading to bad ends; in addition, they might not even realize that their actions don’t correspond to their explicit beliefs. This results in disparate treatment based on race and ethnicity, which leads to different groups having vastly different perceptions of police. So what to do? First, we can remember that our personal experiences are ours, not everyone’s. We should listen carefully to those who are different from us, and we should enthusiastically seek systematic data to help us understand our landscape. Second, we can acknowledge that regardless of our explicit, conscious beliefs, we carry implicit cultural baggage in our minds that has the ability to influence our actions. This perspective allows us to have sympathy for others, when they err, and for ourselves, when our best intentions are undermined by unconscious processes. Third, we can pledge to do better. We can seek to learn more about the world and how to be the people we truly want to be. We can also commit to having these difficult conversations, because they pave the way toward the just society that we all desire.