Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Separate and Privileged

Disparate treatment based on one's race (and/or other characteristics) is alive and well (as if this were in some doubt). Being a member or being perceived to be a member of a particular racial/ethnic group continues to give rise to differential treatment. Over the past weeks, there has been a great deal of attention to the disparate treatment African-American men in particular receive from White police officers and certainly the lethal aftermath of some of these confrontations.
The disparate treatment isn't restricted to police officers (though their reactions are of significant concern given that they carry firearms and use them). A number of filmed social experiments over the years indicate the contrasting reactions White and Black men can experience with respect to the same activities. For instance, some years ago, Oprah Winfrey presented the story a young White man named Josh Sullivan who took pills to darken his skin so that he could appear as an African-American male and experience what that was like. Here is the clip: 

In contrast to his experiences as a White man, while Black, Sullivan experienced what it was like to be stopped by the police for no apparent reason, followed around while in a shop as well as refused a place in a restaurant despite there being spaces - experiences he never endured as a White man. With respect to this privilege he held, Sullivan observed: "Whites receive this prima facie respect. I walked into a room and regardless of how much money I had in my pocket, there's a certain level of respect that I get from folks. And the first thing that I realized when I was Black was it's gone. You don't get any of that. You know White people get this respect and Black people are constantly trying to prove that they deserve it or worthy of it." 

Another striking illustration can be seen in the following footage from ABC's "What Would You Do?" It illustrates the differing reactions people have while witnessing a person commit a particular illegal activity (stealing a bike) based on the thief's race (and gender). In one instance, it is a White male, the second instance an African-American male, and the third, a White blonde haired woman. The reactions are partly comical but nevertheless revealing. One word of caution of course is that these are clips that ABC had selected and we must trust that the reactions presented are in some representative of those elicited when encountering the three different "thieves".

What we witness is that the African-American male is consistently confronted, while the other two White thieves tend to enjoy a much different experience, with the female enduring the least scrutiny. One of the more striking and interesting reactions were those of the older African-American women in the footage who gave the White male thief the benefit of the doubt on the assumption that stealing wasn't something we associate with young White men. None of this is surprising when we consider that Whiteness is often inherently associated with "goodness" and Blackness or darker skin tones are almost automatically associated with criminality, wrongfulness or at the very least suspicious behavior. (As an aside this privileging of Whiteness or fairness is replicated in other societies and cultures - see my earlier blog posting here).

These differential experiences can (not surprisingly) have profound implications for one's experience of law and law enforcement. The differences may come into play when dealing with sentencing disparities in a criminal matter, whether someone receives bail, who will be identified as a suspect or a "person of interest" or the credibility accorded to certain witnesses. And yes of course at a more basic level there is the presumption of innocence and whether it is really experienced equally.

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