"There's a hunger to deny that race matters": The new segregation and white America/black America divide

Ferguson shows whites don't want to see race. Blacks don't have a choice. Here's a new way of bridging the gap

Published September 6, 2014 2:30PM (EDT)

Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor in "Saturday Night Live"    (NBC)
Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor in "Saturday Night Live" (NBC)

On August 20, Chris Hayes presented two starkly illuminating segments on Ferguson, Missouri [transcript]. “There are at least two Fergusons,” he told viewers in the first segment [video]—one was the Ferguson they had seen on TV for nearly two weeks, but there was also “another Ferguson" with “stately homes and wrap-around porches and large lawns,” many of whose residents were “getting organized today to turn the city's image around,” Hayes explained. “I went to a local coffee shop, where the newly created Friends of the City of Ferguson set up shop with yard signs and T-shirts, and I spoke with Mayor James Knowles."

During that conversation, Knowles reiterated his view that there was no racial divide in Ferguson. “There are definitely things that make us different,” he admitted, but the people of Ferguson shared common values, and embraced diversity—as opposed to those who had left. “We have been able to successfully—especially  over the past couple decades, really live, work and play together and grow together and so—whereas people have left here,” Knowles said.

When Hayes pointed out that  “a lot of people here” didn’t feel like the status quo was working for them, Knowles responded in two ways—first by warning that “You have to be careful who you talk to out there,” people who don’t necessarily live in Ferguson, and then by acknowledging that there was a problem with some in Ferguson—but it was a disconnect with people in subsidized housing, people who “do not stay very long.” The problem? “They never really set down roots.” It wasn’t racial at all.

In the second segment [video] Hayes spoke with John Wright, a local black educator, currently on the advisory board of Webster University. Hayes told Wright of the initial gathering of the predominantly white Friends of the City of Ferguson, who had no idea of the anger and frustration that people felt with the police. “What do you make of that?” he asked, to which Wright replied by pointing to an appalling lack of historical awareness:

I think you have most of the people do not know the history of the community. And, you have to remember this once was a sundown town. And, you have many individuals who moved in the community, remember that. And, so you have wounds that have never been allowed to heal because you have a police department who keeps arresting, harassing those there, and it keeps those wounds alive. So, if they never heal, those things are shared from generation to generation.

With Knowles referring to the people who chose to stay in Ferguson on the one hand, and John Wright referring to Ferguson’s heritage as a sundown town on the other, I was vividly reminded of the term “racialized pools of knowledge,” which UC Berkeley law professor Russell Robinson used to describe an important aspect of what he called “perceptual segregation,” in a 2008 law review article of the same name.

“This Article argues that outsiders and insiders tend to perceive allegations of discrimination through fundamentally different psychological frameworks,” the article’s abstract explained. It continued:

These previously unrecognized differences have profound legal consequences. A workplace may be spatially integrated and yet employees who work side by side may perceive an allegation of discrimination through very different lenses because of their disparate racial and gender identities…. Studies show that blacks and whites are likely to differ substantially in how they conceive of and define discrimination. White people tend to believe that widespread expressions of a commitment to racial equality and the reduction in overt expressions of racist attitudes reflect reductions in racism, whereas black people tend to believe that racist attitudes and behaviors have simply become more difficult to detect. While many whites expect evidence of discrimination to be explicit, and assume that people are colorblind when such evidence is lacking, many blacks perceive bias to be prevalent and primarily implicit.

It’s important to note that Robinson’s account describes everyone involved as generally meeting the legal standard of acting like a reasonable person, given their personal histories and experience:  “[B]oth the outsider [blacks and women] and insider [whites and men] may be reasonable and yet differ substantially as to the likelihood that discrimination occurred; neither can be wholly blamed for the disparity because of irrational perceptions.”

Robinson’s article focused specifically on workplace discrimination, drawing on several large-scale studies, including a Rutgers University workplace study of about 3,000 employees. It’s clear that racial discrimination persists as a much common problem than most whites realize. Regarding the Rutgers study, Robinson noted, “Half of the African-American respondents said that ‘African-Americans are treated unfairly in the workplace,’ while just 10% of white respondents agreed with that statement.”

What’s more, reporting discrimination is no guarantee that it will be redressed, Robinson also reported, “the employee making the charge of discrimination was more likely to be transferred or fired as a result of the complaint (5% of the time) than the alleged perpetrator (2%).” Hence, blacks “reasonably” choose to under-report the discrimination they experience, and whites “reasonably” conclude that discrimination is much rarer than it actually is. This is but one manifestation of a broader process:

In general, black and white people obtain information through different informational networks, which results in racialized pools of knowledge. These racialized pools are evident at many levels, including the family, media sources, and the workplace. Stories of perceived discrimination are often told in all-black settings, sometimes as a means of group therapy, sometimes as a means of entertainment, and sometimes as a little bit of both. Discussing experiences with perceived discrimination in a “safe space” may serve as a means of recovery, healing and interpersonal bonding. All-black settings may allow black people a much-needed opportunity to vent the pent-up anger and frustration regarding race that they feel they must stifle in white-dominated settings.

While Robinson’s paper was focused on the workplace, the back-to-back segments Chris Hayes did made it obvious that perceptual segregation and racialized pools of knowledge played a significant role in what was happening in Ferguson—including the way that Ferguson’s establishment was taken by surprise, and seemed incapable of grasping that there really was a racial problem in their community. The same could obviously be said of polling data [Pew, Huffington Post, Gallup] showing a substantial racial divide in attitudes and perceptions in the wake of Ferguson.

To probe more deeply, Salon spoke with Robinson. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Your article has a workplace focus, but it seems quite clear that the processes you write about apply to a broader framework in the community. The specific legal framework is not the same but the conceptual cognitive and cultural frameworks are, and the general legal framework in terms of basic principles would be the same also. So I thought I should begin by confirming that with you.

That's definitely right. I think I mentioned, maybe in the introduction [of the article], that perceptual segregation applies to the criminal justice system in general.  For example, we saw it in reactions to the O.J. Simpson trial. And so it is, I think, a broader phenomenon. I focus in the article on employment, but certainly when thinking about race discrimination and violence it's deeply relevant. Almost anything at all in the criminal justice system will implicate race, and perceptual segregation is a serious risk.

As a consequence of Trayvon Martin’s murder, and everything that followed, I think that many people became aware of implicit bias, but the concept of perceptual segregation represents a further step beyond that. Can you explain what the difference is?  And what further possibilities does it hold for racial progress, pointing the way forward for us?

I think typically when people talk about implicit bias, they're focusing on the privileged group’s attitude and stereotypes about out-groups—oftentimes African-Americans—and biases that go beyond those that are held consciously and reflect unconscious attitudes and stereotypes. Implicit bias research tells us that there can be ways in which people hold attitudes that they don’t even recognize, they don't even own up to, and yet that can influence behavior.

Police officers, for example. Where a black man might take a wallet out, a police officer might think he sees a gun, because of what's called shooter bias, right? So the fact that it's a black man makes the officer more likely to see a gun, instead of the wallet. But a white man with a wallet would not trigger an association between race and violence that would make the officer likely to shoot.

So, implicit bias focuses mainly on white people and their biases, typically unconscious biases toward people of color. Perceptual segregation is different because you're supplementing implicit bias, you're saying let's juxtapose perceptions of blacks against those of whites, and this understands the sociological factors that produce that difference in perception. So we can understand when there is a moment like Ferguson, or O.J. Simpson, why people are disagreeing.

I think you asked how does perceptual segregation help us solve racial problems? How does it point the way forward? I think it is certainly not a grand theory that’s going to solve all the problems in the world. But the hope is that it at least provides an opportunity for understanding across racial categories, so that a black person who hears a white person say something that they find offensive may understand where that comes from, can understand that that white person might have less information about racial oppression and fewer incentives to learn about the history that informs a moment like Ferguson. And the white person could hear a comment by a black person, and think, "Okay, maybe I need to learn more about this person's life experience, the history that’s informing this person's comments, instead of dismissing it as crazy or paranoid."

So I think it's trying to create some kind of a bridge where people who come from different racial identities can stay in conversation with each other, instead of dismissing the other person entirely as unreasonable, racist, etc.

While in one sense there’s a symmetry--both insiders and outsiders are acting reasonable in terms of their historical knowledge--there’s an asymmetry as well. For example, you cite the example in Plessy v. Ferguson [establishing "separate but equal"] where the white Justices say, in effect, "there’s no discrimination in discriminating; it’s all in your heads." There doesn't seem to be anything truly comparable on the black side. Blacks can point very clearly to specific things in their own experience; they can see the dead bodies. The consequences of race as a reality were inescapable to them in a way that they never are to the average white person, who simply doesn't have to be conscious of race in their everyday life if they don’t want to be.

Yes, I think the article is, in part, calling for greater consciousness of racial history, and differing racial experiences. And so for that white person who doesn't know anything about the historical factors that led up to a moment like the shooting of Michael Brown, perceptual segregation calls for that person to educate him- or herself, to understand what produces this divide, and not simply to deny racism. For many white people, it is threatening to accept that something racist happened, or if they can accept that something racist happened, then they have to distinguish that white racist from them and their family and friends and persuade themselves how that has absolutely nothing to do with them personally.

Those are common impulses, I think, among many white people, and I think that perceptual segregation is sort of pushing back and saying, "Wait a minute; maybe if you look at it from a another perspective, maybe if you look at history, there's reason to see the injury here as significant, there's a reason to see this as racist."

It's easy to live in the world where you can tell yourself that it's all black people’s fault, that they made up the perception, that they're crazy, that they’re paranoid. I'm sure that is sort of comforting, but it's not truthful and it certainly isn't helpful in building bridges and trying to figure out how we live in a world with people who have different experiences and perspectives, and relations to discrimination.

Looking at the examples in the segments Chris Hayes did on his show, what would you highlight in terms of how they illustrate perceptual segregation?

I think one reaction I have is after hearing the mayor--he kept talking about people moving frequently and he seemed to think that that was the sole reason for the problems of Ferguson--that seems like a very good example of a white person who may want to deflect the issue, not look at the underlying disparities. I'm sure that if we did the research, we can find disparities in terms of education, wealth and life expectancy in Ferguson correlated by race. But instead of looking at that information, it's easy to for him to say, "Oh, this is just a problem of people moving too much; and if we solve that we solve the problem and the racial issue goes away."

That’s just far too easy, but you can sort of understand it, actually, from a psychological place that wants to cabin the racial discussion, because it is really uncomfortable for the mayor to talk and think about racial oppression. Because you're looking for some escape hatch, right? And for him, the escape is thinking that there's something relatively easy to fix. It’s not about race, it’s about people moving too frequently. So that struck me as a good example of somebody who is being driven by a common instinct to turn away from race, to turn away from racism, and to look to some nonracial factor to explain this adverse outcome. It's not quite the same as saying that black people did this to themselves and they’re completely to blame. But it is sort of refusing to scrutinize the racial divide that is real in Ferguson, and thinking that it's due to something that’s not racial, and that’s fairly superficial and easy to fix.

The other thing that came to mind was that the Ferguson mostly-white residents who were distributing the "I Love Ferguson" T-shirts probably don't realize at a conscious level, but some black Ferguson residents might view that as a hostile act, given the context where Ferguson is known primarily because an unarmed black man was shot by police, and Ferguson is now known as this symbol of racial violence. To have a white person say, in this context, "Ferguson's great!" I think is going to strike a lot of black people as at least insensitive, if not hostile.

The white person might sincerely think, "I don't want Ferguson to be known exclusively as a place where this horrible thing happened," so it could come from a genuine interest in trying to resuscitate the reputation of Ferguson. But the way it's received on the other side of the racial divide is likely that this is an insult. To rally around Ferguson, to hold it up as good, may be perceived as rallying around the officer, and the government, and the infrastructure that produced this violence.

In your paper you note that black people see racism as pervasive--not just a matter of this or that particular outrageous act—but in terms of an ongoing dynamic, which they have to be more sensitive to, simply because they are much more likely to be hurt by it. Not being "paranoid," as it were, can come with a high price. And this is true for gender as well. The Supreme Court ended up penalizing Lilly Ledbetter, taking away her right to sue [in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.], basically because she wasn’t paranoid enough and didn’t find out she was being discriminated against until years after the discrimination began [Congress changed the law in response in 2009].  The message is simple: If you're not paranoid you're very likely to be bushwhacked. So, how does this play out in terms of the issues raised by Ferguson?

I was just talking last night to my brother about my 5-year-old nephew who’s starting kindergarten this fall and I said, "Have you told him about Ferguson?" We both struggled with not wanting to create fear and not to overwhelm him with information, because he's just 5. There's also the reality that, before too long, he may very well be profiled. There will be people that see him as dangerous, as aggressive, as threatening, just because he's a black boy. We want to protect him, and so sharing that information is vital to keeping my nephew alive.

Maybe 5 is too soon, but sometime in the next five years we’re going to have these conversations and we’re going to make sure that we do what we can to protect him from a dangerous world. I suspect that in most white families the parents are not talking to their 5-year-old boys about race, and about racism; and that's part of white privilege, at least insofar as one lives in a neighborhood that's mostly white and minimally interacts with people of color. Then you can live in a bubble, and race mainly comes up in the rare moment something like Ferguson happens, and the news covers it.

And even in that moment, you hear white people saying, "We’re focusing too much on race. Can you please turn this off? Can you switch to a different topic?" Which, again, speaks to that fear of thinking about race, and the discomfort that it triggers in white people, in their desire to turn away from race. But for me and my family, we can't afford to turn away from it, because we want to make sure that everybody in our family is safe.

So I think that's a daily reality for most African-American families. They have to think about race, in the workplace, on the street. In the store, when they ask me, "Do you want a receipt or not?" I almost always say "yes," because I don't want to be stopped when I'm leaving the store and have them think I stole something. I want to be sure I have that receipt, even though I'm a professor at UC Berkeley, and I have tenure. You might think I'm very far removed from Michael Brown. But in my own mind,  I think that's a real fear, and I have been trained since I was a young boy to always protect myself, always be careful, and especially with police, do everything you can to avoid a violent confrontation.

In the employment studies you wrote about, there was much more discrimination present than most white employees realized. I’d like you to talk about that phenomenon, and how it might relate to what we saw in Ferguson, and how it’s perceived.

It's like what we just talked about. So the first level is that most white people don't want to think about race, and have incentives to turn away from race. So that means that they're going to be less likely to be curious about race and racial discrimination in the workplace, less likely to see it as discrimination, even if the facts come to their attention. If the employer fires a black employee, white coworkers are more likely than blacks to look at nonracial factors that might explain why that black person left the office. With a conflict between a white supervisor and a black employee, whites are more likely to see it as a personality conflict, instead of as something racially charged. At the same time, that black employee is more likely to go to black colleagues, and, if there's a black supervisor in the office, to go to them for support, expecting that the blacks will be more supportive, more open, will have their own experiences with racism, and therefore will be more likely to support the employee. That, of course, does not always turn out to be true.

But, simultaneously—this is the second level—that black employee knows that most white employees are not going to see things from his perspective, and [are] not going to want to talk about race. So there's a way in which, more broadly, black people are sensitive to conversations about race when there's a white person in the room. I've seen this myself when I talk to a black friend about something and will talk frankly about Ferguson. Then I'll talk to a white friend, and I'm probably not going to bring Ferguson up, unless my white friend shows some interest in talking about race, and a comfort with that.

We have different conversations depending on the identity of the people in our networks, and this is kind of a broader general phenomenon. I look at my workplace when it comes to conversations about parenting. Now I don't have any kids, so my colleagues who are parents don’t usually talk about their kids around me. They save that for conversations with other parents, where they can swap stories.

So it's a broader phenomenon, but then the thing that’s special about this is the racial discomfort, in the sense that if you are a black person and you bring up race to a white person, that's probably going to be an uncomfortable conversation and you'd rather avoid that. Also, many times in a situation like an employment context or a policing context, the white person has power over the black person, and so there's a special threat. If you’re a black young man telling a white officer "you're a racist," well that's very dangerous, in terms of that black man’s livelihood. So there is a shared aversion to race in the white community, and oftentimes blacks avoid race as well, when they’re with whites, because they know that it's likely to meet a hostile reaction.

One of the things that struck me in the data you cited was just how many times the person raising the complaint of discrimination was punished compared to the person who had done something wrong. And I thought that was illustrative of a dynamic that would translate into other realms as well, though we might not have as much data to nail it down as precisely as the data you cited did. This certainly applies to what you were talking about in terms of confronting a police officer acting in a racist manner, even if you don't confront them directly, but take it to the department.

We have a major problem of retaliation against people who complain of discrimination. You see it in social psychology studies, and you see it in the law, which now recognizes it—you can bring a claim for retaliation. If I accuse my employer of discriminating on the basis of race, and then after that they take adverse action against me because I complained, even if I can’t prove that it was race, I might be able to win on retaliation, because basically they took action against me because I complained. As I documented in the article, a lot of outsiders fail to complain because they know this, because they know the reaction is likely to be hostile, and they don't have a lot of confidence that the HR system in their office—or the court system—is likely to be a recourse, and provide justice.

So I think that most perceptions of discrimination do not produce a legal claim, or even a human resources complaint, because we know, as outsiders, that the system is dominated by people who don't want to hear about discrimination—even when they say they’re an equal opportunity employer, and say all the right things. But in reality, the system is still constructed to deny claims in most cases. It has to be fairly overt. You have to be completely upstanding, as you can sort of see in the Michael Brown situation, that the tape that they released seemed to show him stealing cigarillos and intimidating the clerk.

A lot of white viewers of that video will think, "Oh, I knew he was a thug and, you know, he's to blame, he had it coming." So the problem is, whenever a black person is victimized, there's a search to find some proof that the person conforms to the stereotype. And so you have to have this spotless record in order to avoid blame. Another thing that you can think of that's analogous to this is victim blaming in the context of sexual assault. You know that when women are sexually assaulted, people want to talk about, "Well, did she sleep with other people?" "Did she wear a short skirt?" "Did she go to his room after midnight?" There's this impulse to look for some reason to blame her, instead of looking at the person that was the perpetrator. And so I think we see some commonality between race and gender when it comes to these two issues.

As soon as I heard the officer had a spotless record, I asked myself, "What does that say about Ferguson? With the makeup of the police department and the city council, with that kind of environment, how likely is someone to come forward and complain, seeing how the system is stacked?" What about that?

Again, you’re likely to see a racial disparity in that most white people who hear those facts [that Wilson had a "clean record"] may think—and this will be implicit—"I trust that if the officer committed brutality against black people it was reported, it was adjudicated fairly. And the fact that there's no record, where his record is spotless, means he didn't do anything wrong." Whereas, I think most black people would be skeptical that that infrastructure works smoothly, and would think, "Oh, well, maybe if he did something that was glaringly bad, that he couldn't deny, then there’d be some record of that. But there could be a lot of other things that are not documented, because the system is structured in a way to make it really hard to complain—or if you complain, it’s not taken seriously, and it's not documented."

Do you have any suggestions about structural changes—as you talked about in your article—that might have an application to what's happening in Ferguson, and elsewhere with similar problems?

I think that when you have these different bodies investigating, from the grand jury to the Department of Justice, one structural implication here is making sure those bodies are racially integrated, making sure that you have people of color on those bodies, that they don't feel like they are tokens, and that they are empowered to speak.

In my article, I cite some of Sam Sommers’ work about juries, which shows that adding a black person to a jury changes how jurors talk to each other. It wasn't simply that the black person was bringing up race more often. But it altered the dynamics in the decision-making process, and it enhanced the jury’s ability to be rigorous and make sound decisions. So when you have these investigations at multiple levels, the important thing is to make sure that they are racially integrated.

Unfortunately, however, our legal system is structured more toward colorblindness, that we’re supposed to ignore race instead of attending to race. And so, there’s a risk that you may have some decision-making bodies that aren’t as diverse as they could be, because most decision-makers don't see themselves as being able to consciously say, "I want this to be half black and half white." In fact, that would be seen as a quota, and likely a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to our Constitution. The reigning constitutional law basically says that, in general, governmental decision-makers should ignore race, including racial justice. So the law does not support a race-conscious perspective, it endorses a colorblind perspective, which of course is informed by the perspective of the white people who are making the decisions on the Supreme Court. That's one obstacle that could prevent bodies that are racially integrated and are going to try and talk across these divides in a very frank and important kind way.

That speaks to some of the immediate questions that are raised in Ferguson. Do you have anything more to say in terms of long-term constructive steps?

I think that might be beyond the scope of the article. I wanted to start at the individual level in terms of really encouraging each person, no matter what his or her race is, to try to be aware of one’s own racial position, and so when you're having conversations with other people about racially charged issues, to be aware of those differences, and to try and develop empathy and to try and listen and try and educate yourself about the factors that might inform somebody’s opinion and perspective.

Just knowing that the divide exists provides a springboard, I think, for a deeper, more sustained conversation with a person of a different race, instead of walking away and dismissing them entirely. Of course, this doesn't mean it isn't hard work, and I tend to agree with our attorney general, who said that we’re a nation of cowards when it comes to racial dialogue. Maybe that's putting it too strongly, but we are afraid of doing this work, and there's a lot of discomfort around it. It requires being brave and frank and talking about things that are incredibly emotional and incredibly difficult for most of us.

One last question. Doesn’t that also tie back into your discussion about racialized pools of knowledge, because white people tend to have a very impoverished knowledge of racial history, whereas blacks, as that segment with John Wright by Chris Hayes showed, know a whole side of Ferguson’s history which probably most of the whites to this day have no knowledge of?

Yes. I’m sure there are many white people who saw that segment who thought, "What does that have to do with Michael Brown?" Because there’s a tendency to turn away from race, a kind of hunger to deny that race matters. Just stating a fact isn't enough. You have to really do the hard work of connecting that history to this moment, and to the ongoing divide, because there are so many ways in which many white people don’t want to attend to race and can dismiss facts that might seem compelling to somebody else who is inclined to think about race and engage it directly.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg