bias in our justice system

Scale of Racial Justice (Federal District Courthouse - Alexandria Va) by Tim Evanson via flickr and use under a Creative Commons license.

It is not just the criminal justice system that needs fixing.

Over two decades ago I first wrote an Op Ed piece on the value of a human life. The focus was that in this society we continue to value a human life on a sliding scale with white males at the top and black males at the bottom. Yes, our societal norms have changed over the centuries since the first Africans were brought to the shores of the Americas, but have our values, especially in terms of valuing human life, changed. If you look at what is taking place today, the answer is probably NO. As Dr. Harold Freeman once said, “In our society we see, value, and behave toward one another through a powerful lens of race”. I use race or racial classifications and not the color of one’s skin because of the exceptions in this country. Whether we admit it or not, we view present day Africans in a different manner than we do African Americans of slave descent. They are higher on the sliding scale. Even those from the Caribbean-Americans of African descent are viewed, in some cases, on a higher scale. Has anyone given any thought to why this is the case. And then there is the paper bag test. While it may not be practiced openly today, in some circles the ideals behind the practice still lingers in the African-American community as a scale of value. For those who do not know what the paper bag test is, just take a grocery store paper bag and hold it up to one’s skin. Those whose skin is lighter than the bag are typically more accepted and valued than those whose skin is darker.

Such judgments and biases might be overt or subconscious, intentional or unintentionally discriminatory, Nevertheless, they perpetuate the legacy of slavery in America by continuing to impact how we view and value each other. I wish that getting rid of this lingering legacy was as simple the suggestions provided by the likes of Charles Barkley or Morgan Freeman or the conservative anchors on cable news outlets – all we just need to do is stop talking about race and racism and it will go away. Unfortunately, this issue is so deeply woven into our societal fabric that just not talking about it will not solve the issue. Nor will marching and demonstrating about the killing of one or two black men by the police bring about change. Think about the hundreds of young black and brown men and children killed over the past few years in our inner cities. We saw the outrage about this problem with massive news coverage and then they went away. This is not to say that it didn’t accomplish anything, but has it led to solutions. I do appreciate all of the attention being brought to the perceived and real bias in the criminal justice system, but again the problem is deeper than just the criminal justice system. It is systemic throughout and occurs in just about every facet of American life – for example, the disparities and racism found in health care access and delivery, education and training systems and immigration. Has anyone given any thought to the possible issue of race and class with regards to Thomas Eric Duncan, the person with Ebola in Dallas? Was his symptoms missed or was he turned away because of the racism found in our health care access and delivery system? Think about this, he was black and had no insurance. We need to answer this question as that decision to release Mr. Duncan because of “symptoms missed” put Dallas as well as Texas and the nation at jeopardy. To solve this issue of perceptions versus realities we need an American solution, not just a black one or brown one or white one.

However, it is important to start the discussion with the persons generally at the bottom of the scale in terms of valuing human life, African American males. I wrote more than two decades ago, and then again a few months ago, these key questions, the first being the most important one.

• How do we value the life of an African American male in our society?

• What are the facts (reality) and what are our perceptions (beliefs)?

• When we are stressed or not in control of our faculties, such as when we’re drunk or in emotional or physical distress, what are those perceptions?

• Do we value that African American male near us in the same manner as we do a white male near us?

• If not, what are the beliefs that are generated around that perception of an African American male? What morals are built in terms of these beliefs at that moment?

• Where does that place the African American male with regard to our ethics?

• And finally, how does this play out in regard to our actions?

Now take all of the above questions into account with regards to the actions of police, whether black, brown or white. Think about the judgment and actions of the police officers involved in the recent shootings that have captured our attention. It all goes to Perception (beliefs) versus Reality: A person’s perception is a person’s reality whether real or not. Perceptions can play out in many ways. If a person perceives that they are being threatened, whether they are being threatened or not, they will act on those perceptions and those perceptions in turn will be their realities. Unless a person is aware of how their biases play out in terms of their perceptions, they will use whatever force necessary to defend themselves. You can say that these perceptions are not real, but to the person who believes them and fails to check them against his/her biases, they are real. And, ignoring how society keeps generating these biases in the way they portray African Americans, especially males, these perceptions/beliefs and the resulting reactions they generate only works against society’s perceived or real attempts to address this issue, even if it is a color-blind society that we keep professing to be working toward. Thus, the question is not only related to the value of the lives of the young black males who were killed, but to the values that we as a society hold when we judge the value of a life in any aspect of our daily lives, not just in the criminal justice system.

So here is my open request again for an open and honest dialog on the issue of racism/bias. Dr. David William once said in a presentation during a session at the Disparities in Health in America: Working Toward Social Justice Course, “Unconscious bias or discrimination occurs when one holds a negative stereotype about a group and meets someone who fits the stereotype s/he will discriminate against that individual”. Stereotype-linked bias is an automatic process and is an unconscious process. It occurs even among persons who are not prejudiced.” Now think about this in a society that automatically thinks of an African American male in a negative manner. You don’t have to be consciously racist to hold a negative stereotype. And perhaps that is the issue, “I am not a racist or I don’t own slaves nor did my father own slaves” or “all of this is a thing of the past”, are examples where the legacy of unconscious bias continues to impact and influence an issue, but goes unrecognized by those who have benefited from the overt segregation/racism of the past. Maybe we need to start the discussion with terminology so that we are all on the same page. No, you may not be racist, but your biases have the same impact. It like not intending to shoot me in the head, but you did and I am dead anyway, whether you intended to or not. Your bias did not intend to deny me the job, but it did whether you intended to or not. You may not intend to be a racist, but your actions may show a bias. I invite you to the Harvard test on personal bias. You may be quite surprised by the results. I often say, we all have biases; it is not important we have them it is more important what we do with them.

How many of you remember the original “Roots” series in the 70’s. It captured America’s attention. It was like the Super Bowl of shows. Stores were empty across America while the series was on. I believe it was a missed opportunity for the needed discussion on race and the impact of slavery on America. Maybe it is time for a reshowing of that series. But this time on all the channels with town hall discussions across America on what individuals and communities can do to address their issues, a kind of broader version of what we are doing as part of CANDO Houston. Changing perceptions in addressing real problems.

Maybe we can call it “fighting bias one neighborhood at a time.” We are at a crossroads that is critical to the future well being of this nation. How we choose to proceed will have a distinct bearing on where we go as a nation. It is so critical that we need to start this dialog now and not later. Someone recently wrote that it should be led by Presidents Bush & Clinton along with Oprah. Although I have not asked Oprah, I have sent my request through the people I know asking both Presidents to lead this effort. President Clinton started a dialog during his administration. Maybe it is time for him to pick up the mantel again with the help of President Bush and Oprah. America truly needs to have this dialog. If not now, when? Again, time is not on our side.

Editor's note: this story first appeared at Image: Scale of Racial Justice (Federal District Courthouse - Alexandria Va) by Tim Evanson via flickr and use under a Creative Commons license.
Lovell Jones, Ph.D.

Lovell Jones, Ph.D.

Lovell Allan Jones was born in Baton Rouge, La and was among the first African Americans to integrate school. He was also among the first undergraduates to integrate Louisiana State University, In 1968 he moved to California to continue his education, getting his Ph.D. with an emphasis in Tumor Biology & Endocrinology in 1977. He is now Research Professor at Texas A & M University Corpus Christi. In being bestow Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas Graduate School for Biomedical Science, became the first African American dual emeritus professor in the UT System, and probably one of the few, if not only in the United States. He was the director of the Congressionally Mandated Center for Research on Minority Health at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas and co-founder of the Intercultural Cancer Council, the nation’s largest multicultural health policy organization. While maintaining as active scientific program to change the nation’s approach to research dealing with underserved populations, Dr. Jones started writing essays on societal issues and the lack of progress in closing the health and health care gap almost two decades ago. His essays, on LOVELL'S FOOD FOR THOUGHT, have appeared in a number of publications, first appearing on his personal email list serve to over 2000 of his “friends.” Here is what WEB Dubois' Great Grandson said after reading this FOOD FOR THOUGHT: When my great-grandfather said in 1903 that "The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color-line." he was clearly stating the exact point that Dr. Jones makes. It was so clear to him that the prejudices rampant in America during that time were so deeply ingrained that they represented a barrier worthy of being considered in terms that would require, at minimum, a century to resolve. When I'm asked about Grandpa's quote today I tell people that the number has changed to the 21st, but the problem seems to be equally as intractable now, as intractable now, as then. He went on to write many things about the "color-line" and "The Veil" over his 95 years. One that I find most succinct and touching is attached. It comes from his 1920 book "Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil". I think it lends insight and historical perspective to Dr. Jones' statement" ...that slavery is and continues to be a source of evil. An evil that we truly have never addressed. For it prevails in our biases, those subconscious innocent biases that play out on a daily basis."

  1. Perceptions, like appearances, are deceptive and the information they provide is likely to be wrong. So, despite that fact that humans are inclined to rely on their sense of sight as the primary and most important source of information, or because of it, they need to be taught to discount their first impressions. You know, that old “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing.
    Perhaps the explosive growth of visual media has made that doubly difficult, but it still has to be done. Not so much because the misinformation is unfair to the objects of our perception, but because being deceived results in a large number of people in a constant state of ire. They are, quite naturally, angered by what they misperceived, because they don’t know it’s their own eyeballs that done them wrong.
    I suspect that the anger at having been deceived arises regardless of whether the object was/is good or bad. So, for example, the fact that Barack Obama is a good family man does not mollify the person who knew just from seeing his grin that he was going to be a disaster.
    Preconceived notions. Where to they come from? Damned if I know. Maybe it’s a matter of the other senses (sound, smell, taste, touch) being effectively suppressed. Maybe it’s a matter of the environment in which Anglo Americans are raised having been reduced to the equivalent of Plato’s cave, where only what the captives can see looking straight ahead seems to exist.
    “White bread culture.” “The bland leading the bland.” You see (note the reference to sight — appropriate when we read and write), we do have words for it. What you, perhaps, do not see, because you are focused on the objects of disrespect (“looking away” instead of “at, again”), is that the subjects or agents are plagued by a host of deficits. (Which may also account for why special provisions for physically handicapped people also make them angry. They’re jealous that nobody’s doing anything to alleviate their distress).
    Try to imagine what a man walking boldly down the middle of a street says to a person who’s afraid to go anywhere, unless she’s strapped and locked into a cage on wheels. Try to understand that cops in cars distrust ALL pedestrians for the simple reason that they have to get out of their cages to follow them. Perhaps putting cops in cars has had the effect of making policing attractive to agoraphobics.
    Perception is not about the thing perceived; it’s about the perceiving agent. Gotta discount the object.
    Which brings me to the problem of assigning value to persons and/or things. Valuation is also about the agent. And, if the agent’s perceptions are skewed, then whatever value he assigns is bound to be worthless. Best not to value at all.
    Why are people attracted to status and rank? I suppose it is because it gives them something to hold onto, metaphorically speaking. In a sea of uncertainty (confusion), being adjacent, below or above, is better than being alone. Which raises the question whether it is better to be assigned a rank than to pick one’s own.

    1. Lovell Jones, Ph.D.

      Quite a lot to digest, but you might read my op ed piece on perceptions which might give you an idea of how perceptions are formed.

      1. Well, aside from the facts that you didn’t provide a link to your long ago op-ed and “op-ed” is a journalistic designation for an opinion piece that’s contrary to what the editor of a publication likes to push, I don’t presume to know how the perceptions of native-born citizens of the USA are formed, but I do know that mine, as an involuntary immigrant, are based on experience, comparison and reflection. Moreover, while I do not reject prejudice out of hand, since it is quite reasonable for humans to accept at face value what the people who care for them report, presumably for their benefit, I am also aware that the interests of parents and off-spring do not necessarily co-incide when parents are inclined to keep off-spring at home to repay parental investment and off-spring are inclined to roam in search of opportunity and adventure. And I appreciate that the threat of an abusive other, just waiting to pounce and/or exploit, serves the purpose of keeping youth close to home without giving away the clan’s agenda.
        None of which, according to my observations, is peculiar to any race or group. Humans want what they value to stay in place and mobile creatures want to roam. How to reconcile those contradictory impulses is a perennial problem. Blaming gender or race is not likely to effect a resolution for the simple reason that, in most cases, neither is amenable to change.
        How can the contradiction be resolved? IMHO, by taking turns and sharing our obligations.

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