Panel: American Society Not ‘Post-Racial,’ despite African-American President

Baltimore — Despite the fact that an African-American occupies the Oval Office, negative Black male images persist in the American media, making everyday encounters for Black men drastically more dangerous than they would otherwise be.

That was the heart of the message delivered by two legal experts who spoke here during a recent forum titled “Racial Anxiety and Unconscious Bias: How It Affects Us All.”

“This is not a matter of one group being affected and one being victimized,” said Alan Jenkins, a former law professor who now serves as executive director and co-founder of The Opportunity Agenda, a nonprofit that focuses on matters of racial equality and other issues and rights.

“We’re all affected and all victimized by this media onslaught,” Jenkins said, maintaining that research shows Black men are disproportionately overrepresented as the face of seemingly intractable social problems such as homelessness and crime.

“The first big headline is the media depictions are distorted, but they are distorted in particular ways that are particularly harmful and they’re potentially so harmful that they’re life threatening,” Jenkins said, speaking to a capacity-filled auditorium at a downtown library.

As a case-in-point, Jenkins showed the audience a clip of crime news story in which a 4-year-old African-American boy stated that he planned to get a gun when he grows up.

While the statement left the impression that the boy planned to be a thug or criminal in the future, left out of the footage that aired is the part where the boy said the reason he planned to have a gun is because he aspired to become a police officer.

“My claim is not that this is standard practice,” Jenkins said. “But decisions like this are made all the time.”

Jenkins said negative Black male images persist despite the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president.

“Many of us thought when an African-American man was elected president, we would see a shift in those depictions,” Jenkins said. “But research has shown over the last four years not much of a shift.”

Jenkins was joined by Rachel Godsil, co-founder and research director for the American Values Institute, a national consortium of law professors, social scientists and others that focuses on the role of implicit bias in law and policy.

Godsil cited research that shows that racial bias potentially has life-or-death implications for Black men.

For instance, Godsil said contrary to what one researcher anticipated, his study found that police officers who were worried about being seen as racist resort to excessive force more than officers with explicit or implicit racial bias.

“If you think a person thinks you’re racist, you don’t have a lot of moral authority,” Godsil said. “So where do you go? You go for your gun. So this really does have potentially life-threatening effects.”

The situation can be just as deadly in the hospitals as it is in the streets.

Godsil cited research that shows that physicians tended to more frequently prescribe Black patients treatments that will result in surgery as opposed to a pill regimen because of stereotypes about whether Black patients will adhere to a pill regimen.

The good news, Godsil said, is that these racial biases can be corrected.

“We can overcome them,” Godsil said. “There’s really great research showing that when people are primed to realize that race can affect their thinking, they become egalitarian.”

During a question-and-answer period, Godsil recommended living among people from diverse backgrounds to overcome racial bias.

“The most successful intervention we can engage in is live in integrated environments,” Godsil said, stressing the benefits of having children interact across racial lines as early as possible.

“That’s the ideal,” Godsil said. She also recommended that school leaders strive to foster more interaction between students of different racial backgrounds.
“If you are an educator at a school that is predominantly one race or another, create opportunities with sister schools to have interactions where kids are engaged in activities together,” Godsil said.

Jenkins recommended having children work in interracial teams on problems in which no one particular member of an ethnic group will have a leg up.

“It feels artificial, but it increasingly reflects our workplaces,” Jenkins said.

The racial bias forum was part of a “Talking About Race” series sponsored by Open Society Institute-Baltimore.
The Opportunity Agenda’s research on black men and boys was funded by the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement.