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February 20, 2003

Racism is taking on more subtle forms, former Pitt law prof says

Two contemporary American race-related “dragons” — so-called rational discrimination and unconscious discrimination — have yet to be slain, according to a former Pitt law professor.

Jody D. Armour, the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, spoke on the state of race relations in post-civil rights era America, “Black Hearts in White Minds; Where Bias Lives in Blame and Punishment.”

Armour, who was on the law faculty here from 1990 to 1997, was the guest speaker Feb. 6 at Pitt law school’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture on racial justice.

Author of “Negrophobia & Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America” (New York University Press, 1997), Armour last year was named a Soros Justice Senior Fellow by the Open Society Institute’s Center on Crime, Communities and Culture.

Among other courses at USC, he teaches “Prejudice and the Rule of Law” and “Stereotypes and Law.”

Armour drew on personal incidents of discrimination, the state of the law regarding race relations and tenets of social and cognitive psychology to bolster his arguments.

He said that while there were some signs of progress for African Americans, such as a burgeoning black middle class, there were many more indicators that racism, rather than dying off, instead has taken on different, more subtle, forms.

“The old violent racism of the pre-civil rights era, the racism of the KKK-variety that wore its fascism on its sleeve, is now out of sight, and in its place is a new kind of racism: one that hides its fascist boots beneath a laboratory coat” or behind a classroom blackboard, Armour said. “It’s what I call ‘rational discrimination’ or high-brow racism or racism on stilts.”

The argument that discriminating is rational flows from the premise that many crimes are committed by a disproportionate number of African Americans, he said. “The argument goes: It’s nothing personal. It’s not that I feel racial animus toward you, it’s that it’s rational to discriminate against you because there’s a statistically rational relationship between race or racial identity and some crimes. So, as much as I may regret it, I must discriminate against you. I must not pick you up at the cab stop, I must have my security personnel focus attention on you, I must [practice] racial profiling.”

Those who brandish this “sword of propaganda,” he said, fail to see that “rational” does not equal “reasonable” or “right.”

To make his point, he recounted an actual incident of a married black couple coming out from a movie theatre at 11 p.m. in New York’s Times Square. It was raining, so the husband went to get their car, leaving his wife to stand under shelter. During the five minutes he was gone, she was arrested for loitering with the intent to prostitute, and later stripped-searched and booked.

“Let’s assume, perhaps counter-factually, but let’s assume at the time this particular officer made that arrest there was a disproportionate amount of prostitution in this location; a disproportionate amount of prostitutes were black women, and a disproportionate amount of prostitution occurs between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

“The officer would say, ‘I was acting perfectly rationally: She was black, alone, in Times Square during a high rate of prostitution time.’

“The reason most of us find this so outrageous,” Armour said, “is not because the officer had no rational foundation or basis for his belief at all — even though some of us immediately want to frame our reactions in those terms. The reason we find this so unacceptable is because the cost of error is so grievous. The consequences of being mistaken under those circumstances are so enormous that we say to that officer, ‘You should have been more sure before you acted on those beliefs. You should have done more before you acted.’ In other words, your reactions were unreasonable, even though your beliefs had some rational basis to them.”

Armour said that American society should be unwilling to support a police enforcement system that relies on a structure similar to the civil law standard of preponderance of evidence, that is, merely more likely than not.

“You have to look at total consequences before you decide how to act appropriately. Rationality alone isn’t enough. Given the social consequences of a mistake, we should not be willing to tolerate a 49 percent chance of error,” he said.

Slaying the second dragon — unconscious discrimination — will require a radical re-thinking of the relationship between the mind and the world, Armour maintained.

“Our common sense understanding is that the mind is a passive mirror of the world, passively reflecting the world around us. You hear it in common expressions like ‘seeing is believing,’ and ‘I call them like I see them.’

“The problem is that that flies in the face of all the work of modern psychology about the relationship between the mind and the world. What we find is that the mind is not passive, but actively constructs the world out there.”

Research has shown, for example, that movie-goers will react differently to behavior they see following a movie, depending on whether the movie was violent or comedic.

Studies also have shown that black test-takers will score poorer if they’re told the test is an intelligence test than if they’re not told that; that women score poorer on math tests if they’re told they’re competing with men; that white males score poorer on math tests when they’re told they’re competing with Asians.

“It’s a ubiquitous phenomenon,” Armour said. “It’s not just the information out there. There’s something about the [internal mental] processes that drives all our perceptions. We know, for example, that reasonable people can have different perceptions and judgments.”

Armour referred to research studies testing subjects’ reactions to viewing ambiguous bumping. “When someone black initiated the bump, over 70 percent [of the viewers, both black and white] referred to it as hostile or violent. If it was a white person initiating the bump, over 70 percent interpreted it as innocuous.

“In other words, the same incident controlled for every factor except race was viewed through the filter of stereotypes that you’re not even aware are there,” he said. “There is a systematic tendency to define black actions as violent, and white actions as innocuous. They were calling it like they saw it. Stereotypes don’t have to be conscious, endorsed biases. They might just be unconscious, but well learned.”

How unconscious discrimination rears its dragon’s head in the criminal justice system is evidenced by some staggering statistics, Armour said. In Baltimore, 56 percent of black males age 16 to 29 are involved at some level in the criminal justice system. That’s true for about one-third of that group in California, he said.

“In criminal law, right down the line, every excuse is used in defense of the accused,” he said. “’It wasn’t really me who did that.’ ‘Something provoked me.’ ‘External circumstances drove a wedge between my true self and my contingent self that engaged in this conduct.’ There is always the comparison of circumstances versus character.”

A jury typically will pass judgment on reasons that invite attributions to situation and character. “If, as the research shows, the hearts of blacks are considered more depraved and indifferent than the hearts of whites, there’s going to be this systematic imbalance.”

He pointed to the shooting incident at Columbine as an example. “In popular media, over and over it was asked: ‘What could it have been that caused this? Was it violent videos, the jock culture, people being picked on in school?’ — in other words, the external situational explanations.

“On the other hand, if you have drive-by shootings in the inner city, the reaction is: ‘They’re monsters.’ ‘They’re animals.’ ‘It’s the savage in them.’

So, a strengthened black middle class and individual African American success stories “are no talisman, if you will, to help ward off racial stereotypes. We live in a ‘you can run but you can’t hide’ reality.” Borrowing a phrase from a Stevie Wonder song, Armour said, “You might make big cash, but you can’t cash in your face.”

—Peter Hart

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