A Lesson in ‘Human Nature’

Thanks to  a post at Sociological Images,  I just got a chance to watch an interesting ABC news segment that was a little social experiment in racism.  A trio of white and then a trio of black teens were set loose on a parked car in a heavily trafficked public setting.  The scene of the crime was set up in the parking lot of  a predominantly white suburban park in New Jersey on a busy weekend day.  Then the camera operators sat back and filmed the many witnesses perceptions and responses to these two groups of teenage boys acts of vandalism.   (Segment 1: White boys as vandals, and Segment 2: Black boys as vandals

The segment illustrates how dozens and dozens of non-black people in the same park, witnessing the exact same crime, respond very differently to white teen age boys vs. black teenage boys.  Watching the incidents it is easy to conclude that the black boys would have been arrested within minutes of beginning their activity, while the white boys would likely never have been arrested for the crime.   But that isn’t even the most interesting finding in the segment.  What is really suprising is that a second black ‘crime’ gets reported to the police by one concerned citizen.

The real stand out moment of the experiment is when, while the three white teens are tagging a car, beating on it with tools, and attempting to break the lock; a concerned citizen calls the police twice – twice – about another car in an adjacent parking lot in which three black boys are sleeping. 

This part of the experiment took place off camera and wasn’t planned.   It seems that these black boys were simply waiting in that car with the some of the actors for their turn at the vandalism skit.  But there, as they waited and slept they were called in to the police by a concerned citizen who said they appeared to be planning a robbery.  The citizen called in again when police didn’t respond to say he was still waiting and keeping an eye on the situation.

There you have it.

The reporter explains that the experiment was to illustrate “A lesson in human nature.”  

And I guess it proved its point if you believe that human’s are ‘naturally’ racist.  You know, the old argument that our brains naturally sort the world by like and unlike and then discriminate against difference.   

But what if instead we are social beings who can learn to take up whatever social  codes are around us and follow those to become members of a culture – well then maybe we aren’t naturally ignoring white vandals who of course looks very different from white pro-social behavior, maybe we’ve been socially schooled to not be afraid of them. 

Not long ago I put up a link to a New York Times article that illustrates how Zero Tolerance Policies* are unequally and racially enforced in our public schools.  Black kids and black boys in particular are swept into the system of zero tolerance punishment three times as often as their non-black peers.  And this is after taking into account issues related to poverty.   Neither the article nor I claim that the black boys are not engaging in the behaviors they are getting punished for – nope – just wanting to point out an important issue of racial enforcement of behavior codes. 

Black boys are quite simply the ones who get the concerned citizen police calls, the disrespectful behavior teacher referrals, the concerned parents coming in to file a report etc.  while their non-black counterparts more often get the annoyed glare or nod, the eye roll, the appeal to behave, the little when I was a kid moral lesson, even the wink of don’t get caught.  Watch segment one again to see how people reacted to those three white boys.

Eddie Murphy’s White Like Me? still makes me laugh – but turn it on this situation and there is really little left to smile about.

In my decades in schools I have witnessed countless kids of color build up of paper trails of petty school infractions, combinations of minor and major ‘crimes’ that result in expulsions while the administrator explains to parents that the problem is this kid’s track record as a troublemaker.  The permanent file has left her with no choice but to expel.  Obviously the school is not the right environment for a child like him with this kind of discipline record

And conversely I have witnessed an administrator explaining to a victim that she can’t expel the white boy who has just crossed the line by terrifying some teacher, parent, or student.  He can be written up, but not expelled because he has a clean record.  I mean this is his first offense and we have to take into account what a good student he’s been.  This often reminds me of those television interviews with the co-workers and the neighbors that take place after the white guy goes on a violent spree.  You know the, “He seemed like such a perfectly normal guy.  There was no sign that he was capable of this sort of mayhem,” interviews. (Here’s and quick example of the typical no past record – such a normal guy violent white crime news stories.)

In any case, I recently spent a long time chatting with some educator friends about just this problem: the invisibility of white antisocial behavior and the hyper-visibility of black antisocial behavior in schools.  We sat together looking at stark racial disparity in discipline referrals across an entire school district, across a state, and then across the nation.  We wondered how you get teachers to reconsider their discipline ‘perceptions’ before they even get to their discipline practices.

How can you get them to recognize the pattern of visibility and of invisibility, to break the cycle that starts for children in preschools and kindergartens? 

So when I saw the news segments at sociological images I thought – there is an entry point to a conversation.  There is a space to think and talk about not the natural but the social assumptions we carry into our interpretations of behavior. 

Because what happens to kids of color in schools is a microcosm of what happens next which is this:

U.S. Incarceration by Race

Table from: Prison Policy Initiative

Our prisons are filled with black men who have violated other members of society.  While their non-black counterparts, especially whites appear to be upstanding citizens who seldom commit crimes.  And that is how this bar graph is often  interpreted even as statistics on any given violent crime show that it is perpetuated across all races.  For example U.S. justice Department statistics indicate that over 50% of rapists are white, while only 6% of rapists ever spend a night in jail for this crime.  Given those odds I could probably predict the race of the 6% who are charged as criminals.

Which brings me to this Justice Department Chart:

Committing a Crime vs. Getting Arrested

Here the serious violent crimes included are rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and homicide.  And while in 2007 there were close to 2 million violent crimes there were only about a half a million arrests.  Hmmmm.  I guess I could go back up to the prison table to accurately predict the race of the people who got arrested.

So yes, schools are just a microcosm of the social practices on a much larger scale.  But they are a critical microcosm – taking in four and five-year old children and institutionalizing behavior standards that will integrate these little people into our society.  A racial behavior standard that gives a pass to white antisocial behavior while quickly codifying and criminalizing black antisocial behavior in children in the midst of social development has to be addressed.  Demystifying these stark statistics must be the ongoing project of educators if we hope to ever reach for a democratic schooling of our children.

*Zero Tolerance is a school discipline policy that arose out of  a community policing policy inspired by Rudy Guiliani’s campaign to clean up New York.  Zero tolerance came out of a political era and public policy well documented in Malcolm Gladwell’s first book The Tipping Point.  And if you read that book, I hope you followed it up with Blink where Gladwell looks at how racial assumptions cloud our interpretations of all of our social interactions.  Because the two things go hand in hand.  We clean up that which we perceive to be the problem and we look right past that which we presume to be a natural part of the landscape.

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