Am I a racist?

Good question.

How many times have we all seen someone insist one minute that he/she’s NOT a racist and then the next minute they confess to sometimes telling racist jokes.  Or, maybe they feel the need to say that blacks have a real problem with gang violence in their communities .  But, don’t call them a racist!  They mean no harm or they’re just telling it like it is….

CqPn-GCUsAENz4tDid you ever watch the first few weeks of American Idol?  If ever there was proof of our inability to conduct reasonably accurate self-assessments, this is it!  Week after week, the judges listen to countless individuals who are absolutely sure they will be the next super star – when reality is, they suck.  And, this isn’t just a fabrication of reality TV.

In 1999, two researchers from Cornell published the results of their studies on self-assessment.  Their theory became known as the Dunning–Kruger effect: a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.(6)  People tend to overestimate the their skills in everything from logical thinking to empathy.  Even in areas like generosity, we tend to overrate our likelihood to act in selfless ways. (7)

Is there the a solution to our blind-spots?  Dunning says high quality feedback is the best means of increasing our awareness. (8)  In 2003, Dunning and another colleague, Joyce Ehrlinger, published a study showing that our views of ourselves CAN shift with external cues.  While our Facebook posts may not always change the opinions others, we can’t discount the impact of those around us on our perceptions of ourselves. The research also reveals that usually ignorance rather than arrogance, that is the root cause of our skewed view of ourselves.

So, am I a racist?

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Walter Payton

I grew up in the Midwest.  My parents were from Indiana.  My father came from a family of farmers.  He used to tell stories about getting up at the crack of dawn to milk the cows.  Faith, family and hard work were values instilled in me from a young age.  While I was born in Indiana, the only years I can remember were in the Chicago suburbs.  And, the first meaningful or personal interaction I recall with an African-American was at the home of famed Chicago Bear, Walter Payton, aka “Sweetness”.  He lived down the road and had kids our age.  A few times, we went over to his house to play.  As I grew older, some of my closest friends were Asian.  They were the children of successful doctors.  For better or worse, color didn’t equate to something negative or bad.  The people I knew, were people of great accomplishment.

 

This kind of exposure was both a blessing and a curse.  It was a blessing because I grew up assuming that color wasn’t a bad thing.  It was a curse because I assumed that if you worked hard enough, you could be like the people I’d known growing up.

Fast forward a few decades….

I’m now married to a Singaporean.  Our kids are half Caucasian/half Chinese.  My experience as the spouse of an Asian immigrant and mother of bi-racial children has given me a TINY glimpse into the way racial bias lives on.  A few years ago, I started reading books, like Just Mercy, that opened my eyes the rampant racism and injustice that still plagues our nation today.

The younger me hadn’t fully understood the depth of fear, the extreme injustice and huge obstacles that make the everyday African-American experience so much more difficult. Their reality was one that made my childhood encounters the exception rather than the rule.  And, while hard work certainly played into it – hard work alone could not begin to remedy the challenges they faced.  Nobody ever said that to make the leap from a hard-working farmer to a small business owner, living in an affluent Chicago suburb wasn’t impossible for a black man….but, was probably 1,000 times more difficult than it was for my white father.  Nobody had to warn me about wearing hoodies or asked me to memorize rules for staying safe, if I were ever stopped by police.  You get the picture.  I recently read a letter published in the Washington Post, from an accomplished Princeton alumni, Lawrence Otis Graham, to his son.  He writes in the wake of his son being called the n-word for the first time; it is a heartbreaking window into their reality.  You see that for all the hard work, accomplishments and efforts to move beyond bigotry, racism lives.  I don’t think the ‘younger me’ fully understood the nuances behind everyday bias.  Even the ‘present me’ hadn’t anticipated the horror of recent police killings of unarmed black-men.

In the last 40 years, roughly my lifetime, the gaps in unemployment, income/wealth and educational attainment have either stayed the same or widened. (9)  One can better understand some of the frustration with police and/or the justice system when you study the statistics behind the African-American experience, such as:

  • The rocky road often begins in adolescence, where black youth face harsher punishments at school.  Outside of school, they are arrested twice as often as white youth, and then go on to represent 67 percent of those committed to public facilities, despite being only 15% of the juvenile population.
  • African-Americans are more likely to be searched during routine traffic stops than whites.  According to a Guardian, the final total of people killed by US police officers in 2015 shows rate of death for young black men was five times higher than white men of the same age (11).
  • Also in 2015, a total of 1,134 people were killed by police.  One in five were unarmed.  Only twenty percent had fired shots of their own before being killed.  Non-white Americans make up less than 38% of the US population, yet almost half of all people killed by police are minorities, more than half of whom are unarmed.
  • 40 percent of those who are incarcerated are black, while being only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population.  According to the Equal Justice Initiative, black men are more than six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.
  • Black males receive longer sentences (20%) than their white non-Hispanic counterparts for similar crimes.
  • All told, the United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last forty years.
downloadThis data is a summary from the Center for American Progress, The Equal Justice Initiative, The Sentencing Project and The Counted, an initiative by The Guardian

Brene Brown says that stories are data with a soul; conversely, these numbers represent lives and communities shattered.  I’ve already said that I’m not a policy expert; I’m also not a statistician, but even a non-numbers person like me can see these figures all point in a consistent direction.  For too long we’ve talked about public safety while undermining the very same.

Take the War on Drugs.  John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s White House adviser, admitted that the whole thing was created as a political tool, with African-Americans and the political left as its targets (12).   Whoops.  Nobody mentioned that *minor detail* during my countless American History and Poli Sci classes.  Sadly, little has changed in the decades since.  According to the Sentencing Project, “sentencing policies of the War on Drugs era resulted in dramatic growth in incarceration for drug offenses. Since its official beginning in the 1980s, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses has skyrocketed from 41,000 in 1980 to nearly a half million in 2014.”  What’s more, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have higher rate of arrests, according to the Human Rights Watch (13).  We’ve spent billions of dollars ($80B in 2010 alone) and there’s no evidence that we are any safer, all while African-American communities have been decimated.  To be fair, ours is a nation of law and order.  But, the mistakes of individuals do not excuse or explain ineffective public policy, especially when it is so blatant in its  disproportionate harshness towards a particular group.  As they say, two wrongs don’t make a right.

A few months ago, John Ortberg gave a sermon on Esther (14), where he walked through her story and shared how Mordecai persuaded Esther to help save the Jews.  In Esther 4:12 it says, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”.  As a congregation, he challenged us all to seriously consider, that while the troubles of the world might not be our problem, this could be our time.

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Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco

So, what to do?  I’m serious?  I see the reports, day after day of violence and fear and frustration.  But, it feels another world away.  I live in the Bay Area.  We’re progressives!  We’re not like those other parts of the country, with their racial tensions and prejudice.

 

Not.

Just google racist texts and SFPD.  Okay, fine, fine….but, aside from that, I’m sure we’re doing much better.  Not.  Again.  Here’s another example.  Bay Area tech firms have a diversity problem.  The PBS Newshour recently reported that after nearly 2 years of reporting from major tech firms in Silicon Valley, figures show that companies are still overwhelmingly white and male. (15) Only 7% of employees are black.  Oops.  Maybe we do have a problem that cuts across various socio-economic and geographic layers of the Bay Area.  According to Joelle Emerson, CEO of Paradigm, even in areas like California that talk and supposedly value diversity, we can still struggle with what she calls unconscious bias.

Fabulous….so, we’re back to the world where we don’t really see ourselves as we actually are – even here!  I’d rather take a bullet than join a white supremacy group.  But, maybe I have unconscious biases.  Maybe the violence in Ferguson or Milwaukee isn’t my problem, and Lord knows I couldn’t fix it if I tried!  But, maybe there’s still work to do.  Here.  In my community.  In me.

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My cappuccino – YUM!
So, on Saturday, I gathered over coffee with women I love and trust….women that I know care deeply about this issue.  We met because we knew that to stand silent and do nothing was not an option.  In the end, we decided to commit ourselves to a year of studying white privilege and racial justice while simultaneously looking for opportunities to build bridges with African-American individuals/communities.  The reality is that white people like me are statistically much less likely to talk about racial issues, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center.   (16)  And, while not the only problem – this is part of it.  Our white silence is not helping.

 

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Golf Course Cafe
As I walked away from the meeting, I realized how even this gathering epitomized white privilege. We’d gathered at the Stanford University Golf Course Cafe (Coupa).  Collectively, we hold a long list of degrees from the nation’s most prestigious universities.  There’s at least one, if not two, income earners in our homes.  We are property owners.  The list continues.  Some might wonder, reading all this, if we’ve not just inadvertently created an exclusive all-white group – becoming the very thing we claim to hate.  Good point.  The counter to that, first, is that after centuries of enduring racism, it isn’t the ‘job’ of African-Americans to educate me on their plight – there are plenty of books to that end.  Second, to go back to the Dunning Kruger effect or Emerson’s unconscious bias, I can’t appreciate the challenges of their world until I see the open doors, second chances and resources that have been fundamental to my life story.

 

Robert Frank, an economics professor from Cornell, has a new book called Success and Luck.  In it, he explains what he calls ‘the myth of meritocracy’.  Using his background in economics, he lays out the years of research by social scientists pointing to the role of chance in our lives, and how its impact is much larger on important life outcomes than most people think.  Frank writes, “a growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made—rather than as talented, hardworking, and lucky—leads us to be less generous and public-spirited.” (17)  It makes sense that if I give myself all the credit for the blessings in my life, like a nice home or college degree, I can more easily give someone else the blame for the misfortune or challenges in theirs. The impacts of this human tendency, while applied to societies at large, is huge.  But, here’s the good news: when you prompt people to recognize their luck and blessedness, it improves every aspect of their lives.

Anyone who has actually made it to the end of this blog post probably feels like they need a cup of coffee….OR….a glass of wine!  Or both!  I certainly hope I’m not a racist, but I likely have certain biases – I’d be crazy not to admit that.  My life has been one of both luck and privilege from the day I was born – period.  And, I’m ready to invest in some serious self-reflection with friends who will hold me accountable and be completely honest with me. My holy discontent necessitates action, in response to the injustice of today plus the hope for a better tomorrow.  And, for the sake of my bi-racial children, I pray that they may be both the enablers and recipients of a more just society.  I like the way Lawrence ended his letter to his son(18):

As we observe each other and think that we have a close understanding of what it means to be black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, rich or poor, we really don’t — and very often we find ourselves gazing at each other through the wrong end of the telescope. We see things that we think are there but really aren’t. And the relevant subtleties linger just outside our view, eluding us.

Racism my not be my problem, but the evidence of injustice is overwhelming – it is time to do whatever I can.  #blacklivesmatter  #forsuchatimeisthis

 

 

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