By: Imani J. Jackson
Conventional wisdom holds that time leads to progress, and that diversified schools, societies and workplaces lead to unlearning racism and celebrating difference. However, old habits die hard.
In this country, nothing is more habitual than the construction and maintenance of whiteness. From a Donald Trump president-elect to race-based police practices, bias rooted in white valorization remains America’s vertebrae.
In 1790, congressional limitations made American citizenship for free white people. Racial stratification remained through the civil rights movement and persists today. In Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, readers are reminded that both “ordinary citizens” and judges “defined the white race in opposition to blackness or some other form of otherness.” Further, whiteness “marked a boundary between privilege and its opposite.”
Privilege can include a market that rewards white men more than any other demographic for the same work. It can mean a right to live un-accosted by stop and frisk or driving while black stops, “show me your papers” legislative efforts, and subconscious associations that transform brown skinned people holding neutral objects into weapon wielding deviants in police officers’ minds.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines implicit bias as “referring to relatively unconscious and relatively automatic features of prejudged judgment and social behavior.” During the first presidential debate, Secretary Hillary Clinton regenerated national bias discourse when she said, “Implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.” Trump meandered from the topic during that debate. He later referenced police officers “of all colors and nationalities” who perform their duties, as if people in racial and ethnic minorities cannot effectuate white supremacist targeting.
I explored this kind of targeting when I interviewed University of South Florida Criminology Professor Lorie Fridell. Fridell’s fair and impartial policing program is being used by the Department of Justice to train law enforcement to recognize their implicit biases. For laypeople, Project Implicit is a popular resource to test for implicit bias.
Fridell said it was commonly known that people in certain groups can harbor sentiments against those groups. Conversely, the professor said stereotyping undermines good police work and is inefficient, and added that only some officers have “the gift of language,” which occurs overtly as their speech betrays their biases.
And yet, the professor’s statement in relations to gender bias, that “police can be under-vigilant with gender,” presented a topical dovetail to Clinton’s election night under-performance with white female voters. When Trump’s infamous statement about grabbing women by their private parts went viral, it could it could stand to reason that his non-consensual advances were toward white women. Despite this attack on their personhood, and his attacks on so many others, many of them voted for him. This sacrificing of self to sustain the gender and racial order is common.
Ahmed El Hady, a Princeton University postdoctoral research associate told Complex, “Many scientists don’t think about structure.” El Hady told the publication that focusing on implicit bias in individualized capacities can essentialize the problem. The risk there, El Hady explained, is the larger society that continues its systematic devaluation of black lives.
I also reached out two African American female police officers each working in a southern state. One shared that she and her fellow officers not only had to take a few cultural diversity and cultural sensitivity related courses, but they were also tested on biases. The second officer said all kinds of biases were placed together in one chapter that the officers were encouraged to read, but not tested on or otherwise held departmentally accountable for knowing. She said she and her colleagues would benefit from more exposure to bias-related material, and even black officers hold anti-black biases.
Anti-black systems and other racial biases, undoubtedly contribute to an atmosphere where nearly 900 known hate groups operate throughout the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. American police have also killed more than 900 people this year, with black and brown people disproportionately victimized. These numbers, along with Trump’s literal Ku Klux Klan endorsement and alt-right reverence, illuminate for many people of color and folks on the margins the implicit messages sent through the electorate and the explicit realities of bias-based actions.
These facts also give “the silent majority” that is “no longer silent” a particularly piercing bite.
On Trump’s website, he called for removing “gang members and drug dealers off the street.” According to him, “When we do, crime will go down and our cities and communities will be safer places to live.” From a candidate turned president-elect who routinely conflates black with “inner city,” seems to believe that black people are thugs, Latinos are rapists and Muslims are terrorists, the affirmance of a specific white national identity is apparent.
In contrast, Trump calls for fixing the “broken mental health system” and stated that “all of the tragic mass murders” of late “have something in common – there were red flags that were ignored.” The seeming sensitivity in his stance makes sense when considering that most domestic mass shooters are white men.
Only time tell which combinations of fury and fear, coalescence and resistance, empathy and retaliation the nation will need to function under a period that political correspondent, activist and attorney Van Jones dubbed American “white-lash,” the ultimate implicit bias boost. For all the exceptionalism of which America boasts, its consistently racist culture works overtime to keep its most powerful few the same group of white and male people.
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Imani J. Jackson is a columnist and policy adviser with Dynamic Education Foundation. She earned a mass communication B.A., with a journalism focus and psychology minor, from Grambling State University and a J.D. from Florida A&M University College of Law. She has written for a variety of publications including the Black Youth Project, USA Today, Teen Vogue and Politic365.