Last week sociologist Philip Cohen, who blogs at Family Inequality, attended the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. He noted that the crowd was primarily Black; you can see participants in his photoset here. Are White people unenthusiastic about Civil Rights? Perhaps. There is evidence, in any case, that they are less likely than Black Americans to think that ongoing activism is necessary. Cohen offers the results of a series of polls.
Pew Research Data published in the Los Angeles Times reveals that Black people are less likely than White people to think we’ve made a lot of progress in the last 50 years. They are also substantially more likely to believe that Blacks are treated less fairly than Whites in a wide range of circumstances:
A Gallup poll confirms that Black Americans are less likely than Whites to feel that race-related rights are “greatly improved.” It also reveals that they are more than twice as likely to endorse new civil rights laws and government intervention to assure non-discrimination.
Finally, the General Social Survey asks whether the fact that Blacks are worse off than Whites is due to mainly to discrimination or because of some other cause. More than half of Blacks and a third of Whites say “yes, it’s discrimination.”
These data reveal that plenty of White Americans are concerned with racial equality, believe we have a long way to go, and support working to improve the treatment of Black Americans. There are also plenty of Black Americans that think things aren’t so bad. Nonetheless, there is a significant and persistent racial gap between the two groups.
In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I proctored law school exams to earn extra money. At the end of one exam, while I was collecting the final papers, I overheard two students discussing their answers on an essay question about sentencing. One said to the other: “I gave the rich guy a lesser sentence because I figured, since he had such a cushy life, it would take less punishment to get through to him.” There’s your next crop of lawyers, I thought, doling out the prison sentences to the poor and letting the rich off with a slap on the wrist.
Well, it turns out that there is a well-documented psychological phenomenon behind what I’d overheard. Morten B. sent along an essay by Jason Silverstein in which he reviews the literature on the racial empathy gap. All things being equal, if you show a person an imagine of a dark- and a light-skinned person being harmed, they will most likely react more strongly to the latter. Studies have found evidence of this using both self-report and measures of brain activity. Notably, both Black and White people respond similarly.
Here are the results of six studies using self-report; in the first four, the relationship between race and how much pain subjects attributed to the target was statistically significant:
What’s going on?
Silverstein explains that this isn’t necessarily about racial animosity or even identification with one’s own group (remember that both Black and White people show this response). Instead, it appears to be related to the perception that Black people have already had to cope with a great deal of pain — from racism, poverty, poor health, etc — and, as a result, have a greater pain threshold. In other words, they are less sensitive to pain because they’ve been hardened.
Efforts to parse out whether this effect is due to race specifically or perceptions of whether a person has lived a hard life suggest that it might be primarily the latter. But, as Silverstein points out, we tend to homogenize the Black population and assume that all Black people face adversity. So, whether the phenomenon is caused by race or status gets pretty muddy pretty fast.
In any case, this is perfectly in line with the soon-to-be-lawyer I overheard at Wisconsin. He gave the “hardened criminal” a harsher sentence than the person convicted of a white-collar crime because he believed that a greater degree of suffering was required to make an impact. That was just a hypothetical case, but Silverstein reviews research that shows that the racial empathy gap has real world consequences: undertreatment of pain (even in children) and, yes, harsher sentences for African Americans convicted of crimes.
In the late 1990s, I turned down my publisher’s offer to do a third edition of my criminology textbook. It wasn’t just that editions one and two had failed to make me a man of wealth and fame. But it was clear that crime had changed greatly. Rates of murder and robbery had fallen by nearly 50%; property crimes like car theft and burglary were also much lower. Anybody writing an honest and relevant book about crime would have a lot of explaining to do. And that would be a lot of work.
I politely declined the publisher’s offer. They didn’t seem too upset.
If I had undertaken the project, I probably would have relied heavily on the research articles in The Crime Drop in America, edited by Al Blumstein and Joel Wallman. They rounded up the usual suspects – the solid economy, new police strategies, the incarceration boom, the stabilization of drug markets, anti-gun policies. But we all missed something important – lead. Children exposed to high levels of lead in early childhood are more likely to have lower IQs, higher levels of aggression, and lower impulse-control. All those factors point to crime when children reach their teens if not earlier.
Lead had long been suspected as a toxin, and even before World War I many countries acted to ban or reduce lead in paint and gasoline. But the U.S., thanks to the anti-regulatory efforts of the industries and support from anti-regulation, pro-business politicians, did not undertake serious lead reduction until the 1970s.
Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has been writing about lead and crime. Because race differences on both variables are so great, it’s useful to look at Blacks and Whites separately. In the late 1970s, 15% of Black children under age three had dangerously high rates of lead in their blood (30 mcg/dl or higher). Among Whites, that rate was only 2.5%. By 1990, even with a lower criterion level of 25 mcg/dl, those rates had fallen to 1.4% and 0.4%, respectively.
The huge reduction in lead was matched – years later when those children were old enough to commit crimes – with a reduction in crime. (note that the graphs show rates of arrest, which may somewhat exaggerate Black rates of offending):
Much of the research pointing to lead as an important cause of crime looks at geographical areas rather than individuals. A study might compare cities, measuring changes in lead emissions and changes in violent crime 20 years later. But studies that follow individuals have found the same thing. Kids with higher blood levels of lead have higher rates of crime. The lead-crime hypothesis is fairly recent, and the evidence is not conclusive. But my best guess is that further research will confirm the idea that getting the lead out was, and will remain, an important crime-reduction policy.
[A]rrest rates for violent crime have fallen much faster among black juveniles than among white juveniles… black juvenile crime rates fell further than white juvenile crime rates because they had been artificially elevated by lead exposure at a much higher rate.
But that depends on how you intepret the data. As the graphs of arrests show, the percentage reductions are roughly similar across races. Among Black youths, the arrest rates for all violent crime fell from 1600 per 100,000 to less than 700 – a 57% reduction. For Whites the reduction was from 307 to 140 or 54%. But in absolute numbers, because Black rates of criminality were so much higher, the reduction seems all the more impressive. In that sense, those rates “fell further.”
Arrest rates for Blacks are still double those of Whites for property crimes, five times higher for homicide, and nine times higher for robbery. Lead may be a factor in those differences. Remember the lag time between childhood lead exposure and later crime. Twenty years ago, high blood levels of lead among children 1-5 years were three times as high for Blacks as for Whites.
All In with Chris Hays does a great job mocking the “What’s wrong with Black culture?” question. He and his “guest,” Gawker’s Cord Jefferson, straight-face skewer news programs that take every instance of African American law breaking as an opportunity to castigate the group writ large. It’s great satire:
This 4:15 minute video features women recounting instances of sexual harassment and battery by strangers. It’s a wake up call for the kinds of treatment that women routinely receive just by virtue of daring to be in public spaces.
A single event can take on great symbolic importance and change people’s perceptions of reality, especially when the media devote nearly constant attention to that event. The big media story of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman probably does not change the objective economic, social, and political circumstances of Blacks and Whites in the U.S. But it changed people’s perceptions of race relations.
A recent NBC/WSJ poll shows that between November of 2011 and July 2013, both Whites and Blacks became more pessimistic about race relations.
Since 1994, Americans had become increasingly sanguine about race relations. The Obama victory in 2008 gave an added boost to that trend. In the month of Obama’s first inauguration, nearly two-thirds of Blacks and four-fifths of Whites saw race relations as Good or Very Good (here’s the original data). But now, at least for the moment, the percentages in the most recent poll are very close to what they were nearly 20 years ago.
The change was predictable, given the obsessive media coverage of the case and the dominant reactions to it. On one side, the story was that White people were shooting innocent Black people and getting away with it. The opposing story was that even harmless looking Blacks might unleash potentially fatal assaults on Whites who are merely trying to protect their communities. In both versions, members of one race are out to kill members of the other — not a happy picture of relations between the races.
My guess is that Zimmerman/Martin effect will have a short life, perhaps more so for Whites than Blacks. In a few months, some will ascend from the depths of pessimism. Consider that after the verdict in Florida there were no major riots, no burning of neighborhoods to leave permanent scars — just rallies that were for the most part peaceful outcries of anger and anguish. I also, however, doubt that we will see the optimism of 2009 for a long while, especially if the employment remains at its current dismal levels.
Trayvon Martin was a black teenage boy. He was walking home from the convenience store when he caught the attention and ire of George Zimmerman. Perceived as a “punk” and a threat, Martin was accosted by the older man, and a physical altercation ensued. Trayvon Martin died when he was shot through the heart at close range. Though Florida’s expansive “Stand Your Ground” laws were invoked in media conversations, that defense never even entered into the trial. Zimmerman was acquitted when a jury decided he’d killed Martin in self-defense. Zimmerman has since said Martin’s death was “God’s plan.”
Some Americans believe that race was not central to this killing or to the case that followed—they have believed it from February 2012 right up until today. But ask yourself: How many times you have been stopped and harassed because you looked threatening or suspicious wearing a hooded sweatshirt? For me, an Asian American female, that number is zero.
Yes, my gender alone distinguishes me from Trayvon Martin, but my partner Mike is a white male, and he, too, can only say “Zero.” We have never been stopped nor questioned, no matter how many times we’ve pulled on our hooded sweatshirts for warmth (and, in my case, to hide sea-tangled hair) after early morning surfing.
Stopping for breakfast or to run errands, Mike and I may not look polished in our hoodies, but we’ve also never had to worry that our appearance would cause suspicion. That’s privilege. It’s such a privilege, this presumed innocence of ours, that the morning after Zimmerman was acquitted, we went ignored even while acting suspiciously. Hoodies up, we casually stopped to look at a condo for rent in an affluent beach community in southern California. We knew from the online ad that the condo was vacant, so we parked outside, walked up the stairs to the unit, and peered into its windows. We sauntered around the grounds and walked into the unlocked community laundry room and garage. Several neighbors saw us, and they smiled.
I couldn’t help but think that the scenario would have been very different if Mike and I were black. Mike and I don’t have to wear our class in order to obviate being treated like threats or criminals; we can wear hoodies and board shorts without worrying that others will be suspicious, fearful, or make assumptions about our class status. Just being “not black” affords us this benefit of the doubt. It is a privilege because it is not something we have earned, but it is gifted to us every day regardless. I have always known about my privilege intellectually, but I felt it keenly last Saturday.
That some are afforded this privilege while others are systematically denied should make us all more empathetic. People perceive and experience the same event differently, depending on visible status markers such as race, gender, age, and class. Such status markers are more than just categories, they form a “system of social practices” that organize social relations. Status markers presume difference, and so people will react to and engage with Mike or with me differently than they would with someone like Trayvon Martin, even when we’re dressed the same.
We would like to believe that we don’t make assumptions based on race or gender, but evidence proves otherwise, as this social experiment of three individuals (a white male, a black male, and white female) trying to steal a bike clearly reveals:
As the sociologist Robert K. Merton insightfully observed nearly three-quarters of a century ago, “The very same behavior undergoes a complete change in evaluation in its transition from the in-group to the out-group.” As the video above indicates, the behavior of a black male (an out-group member) is regarded entirely differently than the same behavior of a white male and white female (in-group members).
The in-group/out-group divide goes further, with grave consequences in our criminal justice system. For example, Jennifer Eberhardt’s research has shown that race affects the severity of sentences that juvenile offenders receive, even for the same crime. Just the idea of a black juvenile offender leads people to imagine juveniles more like adults. Even liberal white Americans who claim low levels of prejudice project more blame onto black boys and sentence them more harshly. As Eberhardt has shown, “race has the power to dampen our desire to be merciful.”
I don’t have children, but if I did, I don’t know how I would explain Trayvon Martin’s death or the acquittal of his killer. But even just imagining being a parent to a black son makes me feel immense empathy for the parents of young black men. Can just that simple exercise make others more aware of race and class privilege, more aware of the power they have to recognize and even challenge that privilege and its consequences? As Henry David Thoreau asked, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
Jennifer Eberhardt and Aneeta Rattan, “The Race Factor,” New York Times, June 12, 2012.
Robert K. Merton. 1968 . “Self-fulfilling Prophecy,” in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, 2nd edition. New York: Free Press.
Cecilia L. Ridgeway. 2011. Framed by Gender. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jennifer Lee is a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. Her book, The Diversity Paradox, examines patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans.