Bias, Race, and Sentencing

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explains how racial bias has impacted our criminal justice system, particularly in regard to prosecutorial discretion. Our nation has begun to realize that arrest rates for black and white people are motivated by race, but we have work to do to address bias and race relations beyond initial arrests.  How we prosecute and charge individuals who have been arrested is incredibly consequential and can still be impacted by racial bias. How we view someone once they have been arrested often determines the level and type of justice the individual receives, and we do not always base our judgements on rational facts. Alexander highlights this by quoting a study conducted by George Bridges and Sara Steen that was published in the American Sociological Review. Alexander writes, “In the state of Washington, for example, a review of juvenile sentencing reports found that prosecutors routinely described black and white offenders differently. Blacks committed crimes because of internal personality flaws such as disrespect. Whites did so because of external conditions such as family conflict.”

Whether we are aware of it or not, race influences how we see other people. If we think someone is like us or has a similar background to us, we are more likely to associate with that individual and feel more inclined to give that person a break. If we feel that the other person is not like us and we feel somehow threatened by the other individual, our natural tendency is to protect our tribe by being more punitive of the other. Many of the decisions about who we will charge with what crimes are made outside of the courtroom by individual prosecutors. Before a judge has had a chance to review a case and before anyone has heard evidence in a trial, prosecutors can decide whether to drop a charge, whether to seek full penalties, or whether an individual can take a plea bargain to avoid a trial. The power of the prosecutor is addressed in Alexander’s book, but what she first describes is how our experiences and our conscious and unconscious biases affect the way we see the world and how emotional biases tie into the ways we make decisions.

Alexander continues, “The risk that prosecutorial discretion will be racially biased is especially acute in the drug enforcement context, where virtually identical behavior is susceptible to a wide variety of interpretations and responses and the media imagery and political discourse has been so thoroughly racialized. Whether a kid is perceived as a dangerous drug-dealing thug or instead is viewed as a good kid who was merely experimenting with drugs and selling to a few of his friends has to do with the ways in which information about illegal drug activity is processed and interpreted. In a social climate where drug dealing is racially defined.”

White, middle-class, college men are one of the social groups that is the most likely to use drugs, but the rates of arrest and prosecution for male college drug users far lower than the rate at which this group uses drugs. Alternatively, black men in our country make up a smaller percentage of the population and of overall drug users, but are arrested and prosecuted at much higher levels. Our nation is much more likely to assume that white college men make honest mistakes in college and will behave better in the future, allowing white college men to face fewer consequences for crimes related to drugs and other offenses. Alexander’s argument in the quotes I have shared is that we view black people as more dangerous and threatening, and we associate their crimes with personality flaws which makes us more likely to arrest and punish them. Other groups however, which may be more likely to violate drug laws and other laws, we view as having more potential and we see individuals as having made an honest mistake and deserving a second chance. We must be honest about the crimes we punish people for, and we must recognize when we are reacting to an individual based on appearance and racial bias as opposed to reacting to the crime itself.

This reminds me of a few events from the recent world. Marijuana legalization has been gaining steam across the country, but our nation’s Attorney General has instructed federal law enforcement officers to be more strict in following federal marijuana laws. Despite race being a manufactured concept, a congressional representative recently said that it was important to maintain marijuana restrictions because black people reacted to marijuana so negatively, as if there was a true biological difference between white and black people that made them more susceptible to addiction to marijuana. This comment came at about the same time that Alabama won the national championship for college football. The day after Alabama won, a meme was shared across the internet. The photo featured a high school picture from a future white pro football player next to a high school picture of a current black Alabama football player. The two were the same age, but the Alabama player was much more physically developed in high school, more muscular, and much larger. Seeing the photo, a colleague of mine remarked, “Yep, that’s a man right there.” But in reality these were two young boys. One may have looked older and his physical size and development may lead us to ascribe more maturity to him, but he still had the mind of a junior in high school. I share this just to demonstrate that many people across our nation see black people as different from white people, and see black people as being older and than white people. In the case of the congressman, we see a white man generalize a group of people with no scientific backing, and in the case of my colleague we see physical size create an image of black people that not fully representative of who the individual is.

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Creating Our Own Realities

“An August 2009 poll by The Economist/YouGov, for example, revealed that 37 percent of whites and 65 percent of Republicans thought Obama’s policies favored blacks over whites. That is a three-fold increase in from responses to similarly worded questions in October 2008 by both CBS/New York Times and NBC/The Wall Street Journal.”

Yesterday I wrote about the ways in which President Obama lead to greater polarization in our country simply by being black and being perceived as helping black people more than white people. The idea I shared yesterday is backed up by more research done my Michael Tesler and David Sears in their book Obama’s Race. The quote above shows how views of many white people and many individuals within the Republican party in particular, shifted over the first year of President Obama’s first term. The authors continue to write,

“These results seem to be more consistent with Moskowitz and Stoh’s (1994) finding that many whites effectively “alter reality” in order to rendered a black candidate’s message consistent with their prior expectations and racial beliefs than with the unbiased information processing in Hinjal’s model. Despite not broaching any race-specific policies during his first year in office, the majority of Republicans thought Obama favored African American’s.”

Many American’s allowed biases to shape their opinion of President Obama and his actions. I believe this was spurred on by conservative media and a republican party that made great use of identity politics during President Obama’s time in office. Policy truly did not matter, and ideology (liberal or conservative) did not actually matter in the opinions that people formed. What mattered is who President Obama represented. As a black man with a multicultural background, having grown up and spent a lot of time outside the United States, President Obama did not embody a tradition of white identity. This allowed latent biases about identity, race, and Americanism to shape people’s perception of who President Obama was, what he stood for, and what direction people felt the nation was headed.

Last year I did a lot of research about medical marijuana and opioids and one of the interesting things that I found, which should not have been as surprising as I found it, is that people do not judge policy based on a cost benefit analysis or in terms of how many lives a policy will improve. Instead, as Gollust, Lantz and Ubel write, “Public policy opinions are shaped by people’s attitudes toward the targets of policies, particularly whether the targets are perceived to be deserving of help.” President Obama was not perceived as being a mainstream American, and his identity as a black man meant that his policies and opinions were understood to be representative of only black people’s interests. As a result, white people, particularly within the Republican party which overtly used identity politics to drum up support, began to interpret his policies as helping only black people and minorities, who were seen as less deserving of help. Identity politics and racial predispositions were brought to the front of people’s perceptions of the Federal Government, and President Obama was not judged by his policies or political actions, but by his lack of whiteness and perceived status as an outsider.

Quarrels

Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with a quote from John F. Kennedy, “So let us not be petty when our cause is great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake”

 

The first couple of paragraphs of the chapter that starts with this quote from Kennedy introduce Booker’s dad and his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Booker writes about the incredible courage shown by his dad in the face of such a devastating disease, and what it meant for Booker to watch his dad fight through Parkinson’s while Booker was campaigning for the Senate.

 

It is easy to be caught up in the day to day relationships we have with the people around us and to focus on our interactions with people at the office, our neighbors, and our family without thinking about a bigger picture and the greater context we find ourselves within. When our perspective is narrowed, it can be easy to allow simple quarrels to shape our behaviors and actions and it can be easy for us to be tossed around by our emotional reactions to small things. Our daily interactions with others begin to take on more meaning than they warrant as we imbed meaning to meaningless actions and behaviors.

 

The quick story about Booker’s father and his fight against Parkinson’s brings Kennedy’s quote to life. It shows us that our lives are worth more than the quarrels we allow to drive our behaviors and out reactions to people and the world. When we loose sight of how important our lives are (not in the sense of galactic or history shaping importance) we allow the unimportant and petty to drive our experiences. When we step back and understand that this life is all we have, that our perceptions and experiences are all we have, we can become more self-aware of our behaviors and the way we use the precious time we have in our life.

 

Each action on its own may not shape the direction of our nation’s future, but our actions do shape the direction of our lives. Allowing petty disagreements and jealousies to shape the way we go about our lives prevents us from seeing that we have great opportunity simply by being alive in this century. As Colin Wright wrote in his book Act Accordingly, “You have exactly one life in which to do everything you will ever do. Act accordingly.”

Reflecting Your Inner Self

Without self-awareness I have found that it is easy to fall into a place where my actions do not hold to the values that I profess to live by. Even with self-awareness, I have found that there are still times where my actions fall short of what I think should be my ideal. Occasionally I know what must be done in a situation, but I desire the opposite, am held back by fear, or I am just too lazy to take action. There are times when virtues truly stand out, and times when they don’t shine through. A quick quote from Cory Booker may help explain what is taking place within me during these times. “The wold you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside you.”

My disconnect between my actions and thoughts is an example of my inner self being reflected on the outer world. I think my example branches away from what Booker’s quote truly hits at, but I think it is a useful place to start. Our actions show who we truly are inside, while our words and stories are used to tell ourselves and others what we want to hear. We may have ideals that we strive to live by and we may be able to inspire others with virtuous tales, but it is ultimately our decisions and actions that show who we truly are and what is truly important to us and driving our decisions.

Luckily for us (myself included) we can become more aware of our actions, reactions, thoughts, and habits to begin to change what we do and what it is within us that motivates and drives our behaviors. Focusing inward can show us what operating system has been guiding our lives. We can use reflection to examine our actions and determine whether we have actually been living up to the ideals we believe in. From this point we can begin to create change by first adjusting what is internal, creating an environment for what is external.

My other viewpoint on Booker’s quote, and I think the idea he was driving at more directly in his book United, relates to our perception of the world around us. A simple read of the quote is that if we are insecure in our life, we will see insecurities in the lives of others. If we are kind in our life, we will see kindness throughout the world.

Booker is sharing an idea that we perceive the world as a reflection of our inner character and opinions. We will somehow come to view the world the way we expect it. Our preconceived notions of the world, our biases, our desires, and other beliefs will be projected from inside our head onto the world we see and experience. If we choose to focus not on animosity but on love, we will see not just other people’s actions of love, but we will see where we can step in and be a force of positivity in the world. If we choose instead to be greedy and struggle for power out of hedonistic tendencies, then we will see others as motivated by the same forces, and we will see a word fraught with selfish competition.

Ultimately who we are inside is projected on to the world through our perceptions, and who we are inside is manifested in the world through our actions. Our internal values and goals shape the way we come to understand the world, which in tern shapes the way we act. We reflect our inner self through thoughts and actions.

A Monetary Yardstick

Time is a resource that does not seem to be well understood or well used in society today. We spend a lot of time at jobs we do not fully enjoy, and when we are not working and have leisure time, we are afraid of boredom and don’t know how to use time to be present in the moment. Author Colin Wright has approached this problem head on, and found some solutions.  Through his writing he has been able to reconnect with the present moment and direct his time according to his own desires. In his book, Come Back Frayed, he writes about his travels to the Philippines and what control over his time means to him. After explaining that in his life, his goals have been related to finding control in as many of his decisions and actions as possible, he writes about a feature in a Forbes article. He was profiled for the way he spends his time earning relatively little money. He writes,

 

“The response to such a story is a confused one, particularly amongst some of my entrepreneurial friends. When you’re part of that culture, a clever person dedicated to building something of value, something you believe will make the world a better place, will solve problems which plague humanity, will elevate you to a higher status, that of ‘successful entrepreneur,’ the yardstick you’ve been provided is a monetary one.”

 

Wright’s criticism is in the way that many successful entrepreneurs judge success. Financial success, bank account statements, company valuations, and access to funding become the indicators of success for most people. How we judge whether someone made an impact in the world becomes entangled with financial success. What Wright continues to explain is how he has chosen to measure success in his personal life differently. Rather than searching for greater sources of revenue and income, he focuses on freedom and expanding his ability to make his own choices.

 

When we decide that we will no longer allow financial success to be the true measure of how successful we are, we open our lives to a new realm of possibilities. Rather than continuing to spend more time focused on work and growth for the sake of financial gain, we can begin to align our lives with the things that truly matter to us, help us be present in the moment, and allow us to have a personal impact on the world. The financial yardstick we become accustom to does not do a good job of truly measuring the type of people we are or the quality of our actions. Our culture’s decision that success is equivalent to monetary wealth may help serve us well in terms of having many exciting things, but it also pushes us toward hedonism and lifestyles that can be unhealthy physically, mentally, and socially. I do not have the solution that Wright seems to have found for replacing the monetary yardstick, but I am able to recognize that a focus beyond money and beyond possessions can help us adopt a more well rounded life. The challenge is how to align life with the things that truly matter, and to find an appropriate place for money and success.

Immediate Reactions

Author Colin Wright discusses the ways in which our unconscious brain picks up on small cues and differences about people that we meet before we are able to form complete judgements of others as human beings. These small cues and differences shape the way we think about other people and influence our behavior, often times without us ever realizing.  In his book, Come Back Frayed, Wright explains this phenomenon by writing the following:

 

“It’s remarkable how our peculiarities can set us apart so dramatically and rapidly. Even before we truly recognize each other as humans, as complete people with depth and density, we recognize things about strangers that help us categorize the world. These biases, and sometimes prejudices, color the world around us with tones that guide our actions and opinions.”

 

Before we have met someone we are already preparing ourselves for what we expect our interactions with them to be like. These biases are huge because they prevent us from treating everyone as openly and fairly as we would like, and they exist within ourselves and within the other person at the same time. The way we frame the other person and the types of expectations we bring to a  conversation shape the actions and behaviors that we will have. If we instantly feel negative feelings at the sight of another, it is unlikely that our interactions with them will be positive.

 

Wright would encourage us to become more self-aware and to develop processes of self-recognition so that we can acknowledge those moments when we have immediate reactions to another person. We can develop skills to notice when the tribal part of our brain labels someone as an outsider, and drives us to act in ways that push the other person away. Becoming self-aware helps us see the ways in which these small cues influence much of the way we interact with the world, and gives us the power to better control the world around us.

 

If we fail to gain perspective over our instant reactions to other people, then we will never allow people who are different from us to truly participate in society. Our actions will be colored by the reactionary perceptions of our brain, and we will never develop the empathy needed to improve the world for all of those around us. Accepting  that we judge others before ever meeting them, and before we ever consider who they are as human beings, give us the ability to overcome biases, and to help society become more connected and unified regardless of race, ideology, age, or gender.

The Obstacle is the Way

The final section that I highlighted from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, is a quick passage that sums up the author’s personal philosophy and views of the world. Throughout the book Holiday encourages us to persevere and to find true growth in the challenges we face. He acknowledges the difficulties we will encounter, but helps us understand the ways in which our perspective can turn obstacles into opportunities. Throughout his book I was reminded of a painting that hung on the wall of Coach Kirk Elias’s office at the University of Nevada. Coach E is the women’s cross country coach, and during an internship with the University’s Sports Media department, I spent a lot of time in his office talking running, coaching, and the team. He had a small abstract painting with a person holding a big square object and a caption reading something along the lines of, “here is a large block of whatever is the most difficult for you to carry. Throughout life you will carry it more times than you expect, until it no longer becomes so heavy.” Holiday’s book takes that message and shows us how that heavy block becomes the thing that gives our life direction, not by crushing us, but by helping us develop greater strength.

 

Toward the end of holiday’s book he recaps his writing with the following, “see things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path now is a path. What once impeded action advances action. The obstacle is the way.”

 

It is so easy to become frustrated by events beyond our control, but changing our focus and perception can help us better approach our challenges. What keeps us up at night can become the thing that defines us by either crushing us, or by giving us a greater foundation to stand upon. Overcoming obstacles does not just put us further along our path, it creates an entirely new path for us. When we shrink from challenges or back away when we see difficulties ahead we limit our growth, but remembering that we will always face obstacles and that we can only grow by facing them nobly allows us to charge forward. Things are always difficult, indeed Abraham Lincoln described life as a trial, but enduring the challenges will help us reach a more meaningful place where we can make a difference in the world as an example for those who follow and run up against the same challenges.