As Americans today celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, many of us continue to grapple with how to contextualize and understand the recent deaths of several young black American men at the hands of the police. This need to explain is thrown into even starker relief with the very recent story that black men’s photos are being used for target practice by the North Miami Beach police department. The chief of police insists that this is a case of “poor judgment,” not racism, because those officers taking aim at the targets are themselves multi-racial, and because other races are portrayed in other targets. As one might expect, however, at least one of the black men whose face became a target is not personally reassured, saying, “Now I’m being used as a target? … I’m a father. I’m a husband. I’m a career man. I work 9-to-5.”
It may seem quite paradoxical to discuss a “well-intentioned racist,” but arguably, there is usually no other kind. I am often amazed by how we expect that racism (or discrimination, more generally) is something committed by self-described bigots. Like many others who study and teach about social dynamics, I frequently tell my students that prejudicial behaviors and attitudes are not only ubiquitous, but also quite mundane — they are simply the old recipe of one part distinction and another part essentialization — and they are used to stir the stew of social power.
Thanks to the attitudes and habits of our social group, inculcated in our thinking from our earliest moments, we are taught that certain differences in the world categorically exist, that such differences apply to certain groups of people, and that the ability to see such differences is a sign of a reasonable, if not outright objective, person. How you and I are distinguished from one another says a lot about how we will be understood by others, with whom we can be allied, and what options we have before us. That, in a word, is power.
Once such concepts become a part of our thinking, they often become a self-fulfilling prophecy: no matter what situations we encounter, we will interpret them in a specific way that reinforces those deeply held cultural values. If we see enough active little boys and are told that this is how they are, we will expect that boys are naturally rambunctious; if enough girls are given baby dolls and find them suitably entertaining, we will presume that girls are innately nurturing. Like those optical illusions that reveal a hidden image when examined from a different angle, it becomes very difficult to “unsee” a particular image of society once one has been trained to view it in that manner.
With this in mind, this case of the Florida police force presents another interesting permutation in the manner in which we demarcate what counts as racism. I am perpetually struck by the way in which people can so easily identify situations of prejudice in one context but then completely miss them in another, one that might maintain the same discordant power relations between two groups, but that might be mitigated by some other reasoning.
For instance, in my gender theory course, no one has trouble identifying sexism when a woman is not hired for a job because her sex renders her “unsuitable” despite what may be stellar professional qualifications. On the flip side, though, many have a very difficult time calling out their fathers, grandfathers, and boyfriends for similar acts of demarcation and essentialization, calling them, instead, “traditional,” “old-fashioned,” or “chivalrous,” but certainly not sexist.
This interesting identity shift occurs by citing the good intentions of the person who is committing what might otherwise be labeled a prejudicial act. Based on most scholarly definitions of sexism, there is a valid reason to describe a man’s constant praise of his wife’s looks as something sexist. But if others around him hear him constantly refer to the fact that she is the most beautiful woman in the world, they are more likely to think he is an amazing husband, not someone whose focus on certain standards of female beauty may lead to an overall devaluation of women, more generally.
So what this means for the case of the Florida police department is that, despite the fact that charges of racism might be mitigated by the lack of malicious intent, they still reinforce the same power relations that are the stuff of racism. Having a mixed-race group of targets being shot by a mixed-race group of officers does not fundamentally change the meanings that those officers (like all of us) apply to the diverse groups of people we encounter each day. If we can judge racism by the outcome rather than intent (a model I much prefer), then the result is the same no matter who’s doing the shooting.
photo credit: thegrio.com and grand-illusions.com