Updated: Sep 22
National Data and Experiences speak volumes about systemic racism
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on September 17, 2020)
Author: Dr. RL Booker
Editor: Sara Bishop
From the moment Black life is conceived in the womb, it is forced to face many forms of discrimination, marginalization, and dehumanization. Before Black mothers give birth, they will encounter a healthcare system that does not give Black mothers the same standard of care as it does for White mothers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019), Black infants are 2.3 times more likely to die before birth….while Black mothers are 2.5 times more likely to die during pregnancy than White mothers. (Hoyert, Uddin, & Minino, 2020).
Current denials of the reality of systemic racism in our nation and in our communities reflect more than just repudiations of data covering everything from bank loans to school suspensions; they reflect the sheer refusal to listen to the experience of others and the presumption that people of color who are expressing their pain are somehow either lying about it, not strong enough to overcome it, or should just be happy that it used to be worse.
In 2017, Roland Fryer, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, analyzed the previous 10-15 years of national data based on 426,000 observations of police-public contact, 5 million individual police stops involving New York City’s Stop and Frisk Program, 16,000 arrests from the Houston Police Department, and 1,316 shootings involving 12 large city police departments.
His peer-reviewed study determined that Black and Hispanics were 53% more likely to experience non-lethal uses of excessive force by police such as putting their hands on a civilian, pointing a weapon at them, pushing them into a wall or to the ground, and striking them with a baton. He also found that “even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made, Blacks are 21.2% more likely to endure some form of force in an interaction” (p.39). Additionally, he found that while Blacks were 1.0 percentage points (statistically significant) less likely to have a weapon, there was still discrimination against minorities on the lowest levels of non-lethal force.
Perhaps revealing to some, the data merely provided the statistical support to the longstanding claims and frustrations that many people in the Black community have expressed for centuries regarding interactions with police. In fact, there is reason to believe that these numbers are conservative estimates of the disparities Black and Hispanics face. In a recent interview, Dr. Lamont Hill argued that the data in this study, “is from police departments [who say that we are willing to show you this information], so we could intuitively believe that the most racist police departments aren’t submitting the data” (PragerU, 2020, 14:40).
In today’s current climate, everyone has a mobile device that is primed for googling information that will confirm their already closely-held opinions and reject observations and judgments contrary to those views. I have seen people vehemently deny the fact that Black Americans face discrimination, racism, or any type of subjugation. The counter-argument often made is that Black on Black crime and Black culture is the cause of all Black suffering. Many people also argue that there are more White people killed by police officers every year which fails to take into account the disproportionate rates based on population size. These counter-narratives delegitimize not only the lived experiences of Black folks but also their lived reality. According to Stephen Harper, former Canadian Prime Minister, “I don’t think in a democratic society, you can actually say to large numbers of people your concerns are not legitimate…a fundamental concept of a democratic society is that the people’s views are legitimate" (The Daily Wire, 2018, 36:11). Some people point out the exceptional successes of Black celebrities as evidence that racial profiling and discrimination don’t exist. Let’s take a closer look.
Stephen A. Smith, ESPN sports analyst, was pulled over by two police officers with his 8-year-old daughter in the back seat. Stephen A. was very cooperative with the officer and only asked why he was pulled over. The officer immediately became very belligerent and began speaking to him with profanity. His partner looked into the car, recognized Stephen A., and pulled his partner to the back of the car to talk with him. The officer then comes back to the window and tells Stephen A to "have a nice day" and lets him go. Stephen A states, "what if the other officer [who recognized him] was not there...clearly he didn't care that my daughter was in the background" (ESPN, 2020, 3:41). Imagine how this situation could have ended if Stephen A was not a well-known TV personality.
Masai Ujuri, General Manager for the NBA Toronto Raptors, was headed to the court to celebrate with his team after winning the 2019 NBA championship. As he approached the floor, he began to pull out his credentials. Within seconds, a White sheriff's deputy and security guard pushed him in the chest and told him to get the F*** back. Masai had a look of shock on his face, pulled out his badge, and walked forward and said "I am the general manager for the Toronto Raptors." The deputy then pushes him in the chest again. Eventually, Masai gets on the floor. Nonetheless, the deputy files a lawsuit stating that Masai punched him in the jaw twice and that he suffered mental and physical distress and cannot work. Masai never punched the officer. The sheriff's body camera and the footage from the stadium cleared Masai of any wrongdoing. Irrespective of the video footage, the Alameda County Sheriff stated that he stands by the deputy sheriff, maintaining Ujiri was the aggressor. The video clearly shows that the officer was the aggressor.
These are just two examples of well known, financially secure Black men who still face systemic racism. Roland Fryer’s study only confirms what I have seen and understood my entire life as a Black man, which is that there is a certain way in which I need to act when pulled over by a police officer. I understand that I must get my driver’s license and insurance out before the officer approaches my car. I must keep my hands on the top of the steering wheel at all times. I must remain calm and not look overly nervous. I must make the officer feel at ease by code-switching, which is when a person customizes their style of speech based on the audience or group being addressed. I must survive the encounter. As Lebron James recently stated during a playoff press conference, “I know people get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified…you have no idea how that cop that day left the house. You don’t know if he woke up on the good side of the bed. You don’t know if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. You don’t know if he had an argument at home with his significant other. You don’t know if one of his kids said something crazy to him and he left the house steaming. Or maybe he just left the house saying that today is going to be the end for one of these Black people. That’s what it feels like” (CBS News, 2020).
How we got to this place of negating data and denying the lived experiences of significant numbers of the U.S. population is an entire lesson in U.S. history. However, what is a debate for some is a matter of life and death for others. If we are to move forward, and we must, we need to listen to what our Black friends, neighbors, and colleagues are trying to tell us. That will be the day when Black lives truly matter.
Bui, Q., & Cox, A. (2016). Surprising new evidence shows bias in police use of force but not in shootings. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/upshot/surprising-new-evidence-shows-bias-in-police-use-of-force-but-not-in-shootings.html
CBS News. (2020, August 25). Lebron james speaks out on police shooting of jacob blake. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/25uZmCnj2WI
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Racial and ethnic disparities continue in pregnancy-related deaths. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/p0905-racial-ethnic-disparities-pregnancy-deaths.html
ESPN. (2020, August 25). First take on lebron james' response to the police shooting of jacob blake in Wisconsin. [Video]. Youtube. https://youtu.be/qShB1nTsmeA?t=221
Fryer, R. (2018). An empirical analysis of racial differences in police use of force. The national bureau of economic research. https://www.nber.org/papers/w22399.pdf
Good Morning America. (2020, August 20). Body camera footage shows officer shove NBA team president l GMA. [Video]. Youtube. https://youtu.be/Nx-wlg0fmgY?t=26
Hoyert, D., Uddin, S.F., & Minino, A.M. (2020). Evaluation of the pregnancy status checkbox on the identification of maternal deaths. National Center for Health Statistics, 69(1), 1-25. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr69/nvsr69_01-508.pdf
PragerU. (2020, June 28). The candace owens show: Marc lamont hill. [Video] Youtube. https://youtu.be/HjDUUU-Z-aI?t=880
The Daily Wire. (2018, November, 18). Stephen harper | The ben shapiro show sunday special Ep. 28. [Video]. Youtube. https://youtu.be/nVNw03gyLmk?t=2171
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. (2017). Infant Mortality and African Americans. https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=23