Our Vision of Criminals and Drug Users

In the United States we have a habit of conflating racial minorities with criminality, drug use, and poverty. When we think about the poor areas of our town, when we think about welfare beneficiaries, and when we think about the people in our jails and prisons we mostly imagine minority individuals and groups. This is not a vision that happened by chance and it is not exactly representative of the populations that live in poverty, have been incarcerated, or use drugs. Our nation built this vision slowly but surely over time starting with the Reagan administration’s war on drugs and rhetoric that established an us versus them mentality in regard to welfare, drug use, and poverty. Very deliberately, the administration and media in the 1980s and 1990s portrayed poor blacks as “them” while suburban whites were cast as the threatened “us”.

Michelle Alexander explains how this started and was fueled in her book The New Jim Crow. She discusses the ways in which incarceration became our answer for drug use, poverty, and growing minority populations. Casting minorities as bad and dangerous people was necessary to build support for greater government control over minority populations. Over time, with continued rhetoric and continued attacks from political elites, race and criminality became entwined so closely that “colorblind” individuals could discuss race and champion policies that would lead to disparate impacts for racial groups without having the appearance of ever discussing race. Alexander shares examples in her book.

She quotes an interview with Jerome Miller, the former executive director of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives, “There are certain code words that allow you to never have to say ‘race,’ but everybody knows that’s what you mean and ‘crime’ is one of those… so when we talk about locking up more and more people, what we’re really talking about is locking up more and more black men.” Alexander also quotes Melissa Hickman Barlow from Time and Newsweek in 1989, “It is unnecessary to speak directly of race [today] because speaking about crime is talking about race.” And finally, Alexander cites a journal article from 1995 written by Betty Watson Burston, Dionne Jones, and Pat Robertson-Saunders in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Abuse to describe the way that America had come to see black people and drug use. Alexander writes, “A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: ‘Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?’ The startling results were published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups.”

What the examples above show is that our country views racial groups very differently. Black people in our minds are associated with poverty, drug use, and criminality. White people are associated with success and money. It is important to recognize how we view different racial groups so that we understand the subtext of our politicians, friends, neighbors, and Facebook-ranting relatives when they talk about harsh sentences for drug users or about policies to be tough of crime. What they really mean in these situations, based on our shared vision of who uses drugs and who commits crime, is that they will be tough on black people. We must understand also how these visions shape our implicit biases and how these expectations of different races impact the children growing up in communities across the country. White children grow up learning that black people are poor criminals and that they need to be controlled, and black children grow up learning that they themselves are dangerous, violent, and prone to drug use. This shapes how our children approach the world and find their place in society. In a very real way then, the rhetoric we use and the language we share begins to impact the way people understand their role and identity in society, and shapes the outcomes as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecys.
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Exoneration

In the United States we love labels. We fully embrace the part of our brain that wants to categorize and classify everything around us, and when it comes to people we search for the right label to apply to every person to help us understand who they are, what they believe, and what they are likely to do or think. Our brains are constantly looking for patters, and labels are a type of heuristic to make people easier to understand.

A label that has been used more and more over the last several years, but has only become more complicated, is the word racist. Most people do not think seriously about race, though unavoidably race does influence our behaviors. Race triggers tribal instincts deep in our brain, encouraging us to look at others and decide whether they are like us or not like us, and associate and act accordingly. Where we live, who we hang out with, the jokes we tell, and where we go out for dinner are all areas where our tribal brain shapes our behavior based on perceptions of race, which is to say perceptions of sameness and otherness. Without self-awareness these implicit biases are hard to observe, understand, and counteract in ourselves, but they can be observed and criticized by other people or within a larger society.

It is this conflict, the challenge of seeing how implicit bias impacts our individual decisions and the ways in which implicit bias manifests in racial injustice, that has made the label racist so charged and so difficult to understand. We want to group social injustice, white people who make jokes about minorities, and our segregated society into the racist label, but the people who are tied up in everything described by the label are unable to see how they could be described by such a term.

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book Between the World and Me describes this problem and how white people in our country have reacted to the charge of racist. “My experience in this world has been that people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” In a sense, those who are grouped under the umbrella of racist become singularly focused with making excuses to show that they do not fit within the label. They demonstrate ways in which their behaviors are inconsistent with the most obvious forms of racism, and argue that their individual actions could not contribute to the system which has been oppressive for minorities and contributes the segregation that our society sees today.

Those charged with the label racist view racism as being overt actions, demonstrable discrimination, and unabashed ill-will toward minorities. The type of implicit racism that is rampant throughout society is somehow shielded (by hiding behind economic excuses) from the understanding of what racism is for those who are criticized as being racist. Society however, can see the way that individual decisions and historical injustice have piled on to create a society that is deeply affected by racist politics. Somehow we need a new label and new description to accurately explain society and individuals without forcing an exonerative reaction form those at fault.

A Nation at Face Value

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from former FBI director James Comey, “Perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation is because we’ve come to see only what we represent, at face value, instead of who we are. We simply must see the people we serve.”

This quote came at the end of a longer segment of a speech from Director Comey that Booker included in United. In the Segment, Comey discussed the difficulties of policing and enforcing laws with equity when we as humans must deal with implicit biases. Comey specifically looked at racial dynamics within policing and implicit biases and in the quote above is meant to encourage our nation’s law enforcement to become more self-aware in its role.

Comey suggests that our nation’s values of equality and liberty exist in many ways as just a facade. Rather than truly showing that equality and liberty are important in justice, we simply say they are and act as if that is enough. We have come up with a great slogan and we say that we aspire to live in a nation that is directed by equality and liberty, but the way we treat each other and react to those who are different from us shows that these words simply exist on a banner to make us feel good about ourselves. Our belief that all men are created equal does not materialize in our actions and policies.

If we stop and reflect on what a society would look like if justice was truly equitable, we would recognize that many aspects of our actual society and criminal justice system would not fit into our ideal vision. However, instead of truly reflecting and looking deeply into who we are and how we perceive other racial groups, we look around and assume that since there is relatively little explicit racism in our country (no one demonstrating in white sheets) that racism no longer exists as a barrier to minority populations.

Comey’s speech looked at this tendency to view our country as post racial and looked at our implicit biases that negatively shape our reactions and interactions with black people and hispanics. He was honest about the problem admitting that law enforcement must understand when instincts are influenced by tribal nature which pushes them to look at outsiders in a negative light. His speech put the responsibility for implicit racism on the law enforcement officers and on society, rather than placing responsibility for implicit racism on the individual who is facing discrimination.

Interwoven

Senator Cory Booker in his book, United, focuses on the connections that we as American’s all share, and how that should impact the way we think about the world. We must rely on each other and we must be responsible to each other if we are going to live in the same country and exist with a shared future. Booker was the mayor of Newark, New Jersey and wrote about the hope that he has always maintained for the city despite the displeasure that many people felt toward Newark.

“What others scorned, Newarkers defended. Where other saw fault, Newarkers described possibilities. Where others tore down, they sought to elevate. I was taken with this spirit. It spoke to ideas I had about America and our need to see one another for who we are, fellow citizens with interwoven destinies.”

Booker has a more positive outlook than most, and part of it is because he focuses on the possibilities he sees around him and the possibilities of the people he meets. So frequently when we look at where we live and who we interact with, rather than seeing potential and rather than helping elevate the positive aspects of others, we focus on the negative and try to find fault in others. Booker was mayor of Newark during the recession, and he would have had no shortage of things to complain about, but by doing so, he would have ignored the potential of the city and forgone dreams of better futures.

I think it is important that we try to think of other people as fellow citizens before we think of them as anything else. Creating a habit of seeing another person as a fellow citizen may help us overcome the snap judgements and implicit biases that we develop and often allow to operate just below the surface of our consciousness. By seeing what we share with others and how interwoven our lives are, we can see how much we depend on society and how much society depends on us. Focusing constantly on what is below the surface, how we are reacting to another, and on our shared citizenship helps us see that by connecting deeply, we can raise up ourselves and others.

It is easy to put ourselves first, but doing so risk the alienation of others. Thinking about how another feels and will react before we think of ourselves allows us to see that our actions can improve the lives of another person. Rather than being scornful of others, we should get closer to them in an attempt to improve their day in any small measure. Rather than finding fault with another and tearing them down for their mistakes, we should fold those reflections into our own lives to ensure that we avoid the same mistakes. We are all united, and it up to us to put the world on our back and carry forth positivity and a spirit of togetherness.