Michael Brown, Ferguson, and Implicit Racism in America

by Benjamin Studebaker

In recent weeks, everywhere I look I see pieces written by people about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Some of the pieces support Brown, others attack Brown, all of them make explicit or implicit claims about what the incident means for America’s soul. All of them seem to take as a given that this incident tells us something we didn’t already know. The truth is that like any individual death (regardless of whether it was murder or an accident), Michael Brown’s does not tell us what the general trends are in America. All it can serve to do is highlight an issue. To understand what’s really going on, we have to look at that issue in a wider statistical context, and this piece seeks to provide that context.

The question of how racist America is and whether America is getting better, worse, or staying the same is a question that must necessarily be answered by looking at comprehensive samples of many thousands of incidents. No one incident is instructive. Regardless of what we eventually decide happened to Michael Brown, there are cases in which black people get wrongfully stopped, searched, or shot by the cops on the basis of race, and there are cases in which cops treat black people with dignity and respect. That one happens does not prove that the other does not happen. What’s relevant is the balance of incidents–how often do cops behave in a racist way as opposed to an acceptable way, and what can we do about those incidents?

Statistically, it is definitely true that American cops are more likely to go after black citizens than white citizens. The evidence for this is insurmountable. According to a recent ACLU report, blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be searched in Chicago and Illinois:

But the police in Chicago and Illinois often search blacks frivolously:

In New York, the racial composition of neighborhood predicts the frequency at which people will be stopped even after poverty and crime rates are controlled for. New York cops are more likely to stop blacks and Hispanics even in neighborhoods where crime rates are low and the racial composition is heterogeneous.

In Ferguson itself, the police are about twice as likely to search or arrest blacks as whites.

There’s a lot more data to this effect, if one goes looking around the internet. Most of this data is not new–those of us who have the time to keep up with this research have known about the racial disparity for years. The Michael Brown incident does not show that America more racist or less racist than it was before, it just highlights a problem that has been endemic for a very long time.

Fighting over the specifics of this incident–over whether Michael Brown committed a robbery, over whether he was surrendering or threatening the officer, and so on–does not in anyway fix this problem. It doesn’t matter if Brown was a fantastic person or a horrible person, the racial disparity exists. The police could be completely transparent and release everything they know, or they could be completely obtuse and try to cover the whole thing up. Neither policy makes a difference to the underlying problem–broad implicit racism throughout the United States.

I say “implicit racism” because, by all our available measures, explicit racism is in decline. Approval of interracial marriage has risen consistently over the past half-century:

The decline will continue, because younger Americans are the least explicitly racist:

Few Americans now explicitly think that blacks are biologically inferior, or that interracial marriages produce genetically “impure” offspring. Racism nowadays manifests itself through broad sweeping implicit judgments of black or “urban” culture.  The new racism works like this:

  1. Some fact about the state of African-Americans relative to whites (e.g. “they’re poorer than whites”, “more likely to go to prison”, “more likely to be on welfare”, “more likely to be unemployed”, etc.)
  2. The fact about blacks is attributed to black culture (e.g. “black people need to take responsibility”).
  3. Because “black culture” is to blame for blacks’ relative position, the state is exonerated from any duty to resolve inequalities, allowing them to persist.

What’s the alternative? Instead of attributing the position of blacks to “black culture”, we should attribute the position of blacks to cycles of poverty–to the position in society of previous generations of blacks. The most obvious reason why today’s blacks are more likely to be poor, go to jail, be on welfare, or be unemployed is that yesterday’s blacks were more likely to do all of these things. When your parents are poor, in jail, unemployed, or on welfare, your economic and educational opportunities in the United States are dramatically reduced. This makes it much more likely that you will repeat the behavior of your parents, to the detriment of your potential future offspring. If we go back enough generations, most blacks living in the United States are descended from slaves–people at the absolute bottom of the economic ladder. Since the end of slavery, they have been slowly rising to the national median, but as they have been doing this they have acquired a variety of racist stereotypes all of which have to do with their association with poverty and low social standing. Because blacks have been much poorer for hundreds of years, white Americans associate everything negative about deeply poor people (criminal behavior, persistent joblessness, welfare consumption, etc.) with blacks. The new racism is more classism than it is the traditional racism of the plantation owner or klansman.

This is not to say that there are no poor white people–there have always been poor whites–but Americans often cannot tell that a white person is poor by looking at him. Affluent whites have contempt for “rednecks” and “white trash” for the same reasons they harbor implicit racist feelings toward blacks–because these people are poor, and Americans hate poor people because they blame poor people for their having become poor in the first place. Having to pay into the welfare state, which provides a safety net for poor people, only crystallizes this resentment. When push comes to shove, many Americans view the poor with moral contempt, and if a group becomes closely associated with poverty, the contempt swiftly follows.

Too often, we talk about racism as if it were a discrete and separate thing from inequalities of wealth and opportunity. Yes, black people are poor because they were once slaves, but Americans still profile blacks and negatively stereotype them not simply because they are black but because they are both black and, on average, disproportionately poor. Black poverty is what gives implicit racism its resiliency, and only when blacks are economically indistinguishable from other racial groups will our society stop reproducing the “poor black person” stereotype. Today’s implicit racists often have middle class, affluent black friends. They may have respect for Barack Obama, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or Michael Jordan. But they implicitly see these blacks as exceptions to the rule, and the rule is that blacks are poor and have a “black culture” or “black mentality” that keeps them poor. Whether they admit this to themselves or not, it is, ultimately, what makes them racist.

So how do we get whites to stop profiling blacks and negatively stereotyping them? As long as the underlying cause remains, these prejudices will get reproduced. As long as blacks are, on average, substantially poorer than whites, cops will stop, search, and arrest blacks more often even when the blacks in question are not themselves poor.

Because poor blacks are often stuck living in poor neighborhoods and their kids are assigned to schools based on geography, the children of poor blacks typically end up in the worst schools. This makes the cycle of poverty difficult to break. Affirmative action programs come into effect long after the damage has been done at the primary and secondary level. To truly solve the problem, we would have to do one of two things:

  1. Physically relocate poor blacks so as to ensure that their children are in the geographic ranges of superior schools.
  2. Bus poor black children to superior schools in distant affluent neighborhoods.

Both solutions face substantial hurdles–when poor people move in any significant numbers to affluent neighborhoods, the affluent are more likely to move out. Plus, poor people cannot afford to relocate to affluent areas without a requisite government program to subsidize the cost. Similarly, affluent parents would likely oppose the busing in of poorer children because they would be concerned that their schools would have to divert resources away from their own children. If such a program were structured as a mutual agreement between the affluent and poor municipalities, the affluent locality would likely refuse to participate. For it to work, such a program would probably have to be imposed from above by the states or by the federal government.

Since Michael Brown was shot, I’ve seen a lot of people express dismay at the extent to which American society is still implicitly racist, but I have yet to see the kind of constructive proposals that would really make a dent. A lot of people are writing, reading, and sharing pieces about how awful the experience of being the victim of prejudice is or how terrible racism is. The fact of the matter is that people have been doing this for decades, but implicit racism remains persistent and continues to spread from one generation to the next, because when affluent people are asked to sacrifice their children’s resources at the primary and secondary levels to reduce the inequalities that fuel racism, they understandably put their own children first. Because politicians and political parties rely on affluent people for donations and votes, it will likely be many more generations before blacks achieve sufficient economic equality relative to whites to fatally undermine the classist stereotypes and prejudices that still shamble after them. We can keep bringing racism up and talking about how much we care to feel good about ourselves, but unless we’re going to get behind meaningful redistribution of educational resources and opportunities from affluent kids to poor kids, we’re not going to make any real difference.