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A Lesson Before Living.

A coworker asked what I thought of the societal disparities in the application of the death penalty in the United States. Too difficult to summarize in a fifteen minute coffee break, I answered, "It's one piece of a mountain of evidence that the United States has yet to `get it.'" Add to that the recent report on U.S. compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, in which U.S. officials admit that, while government is doing a fair job in creating laws to eliminate racism, its citizens are doing a lousy job of getting there socially. On its own, law will never inspire justice, so what do we do now?

Making more rules won't help, as despite the extremes of our legal entanglements and prohibitions we remain one of the most violent and lawless societies in the world. What we need is an awakening: a recognition of our own limitations and a desire to overcome them. It is this latter desire we lack and require most of all--a rather horrifying notion given our other inabilities. Perhaps what we really need is to collectively take one great psychology class.

I think most people treat specific individuals differently due to a personal bias or agenda, however subconscious --whether it's because those individuals are children (who some think have little intelligence) or family (who some take for granted) or employers (who some think must be stroked or lauded). Racism and other "isms" don't work much differently. For example, if you were to go to a business party expecting to see a lot of people in suits and among them was a person in evening attire, that person would likely stand out to you. You probably would notice more what he or she did, ate, and so forth. Similarly, if you were to drive through a particular neighborhood expecting to see mostly white people and instead saw a black person, you probably would notice that person more.

Add to that certain racial stereotypes of lawlessness, violence, and the like, and it's no wonder that incidences of racial profiling occur. It's unfortunate but not surprising, for example, that an African American Harvard University professor was ticketed for driving "too slow"; an African American suburban Chicago, Illinois, resident was stopped for pulling into his own driveway and questioned as a burglary suspect; an Asian-American Rohnert Park, California, resident was shot to death for being drunk and disorderly while holding a stick (the police said he stood in a "Ninja pose"); and African New Yorker Amadou Diallo was shot at forty-one times for reaching into his coat pocket for his wallet. If you expect certain behavior, it is easy to mistakenly see it in someone. Therefore, safe driving becomes casing, going home becomes attempted burglary, drunken anger becomes a lethal weapon, and a wallet becomes a gun.

However, what we must remember is, just as easily, a gun becomes a wallet, casing becomes driving safely, attempted burglary becomes going home, and a lethal weapon becomes simple anger. These examples are the exception in that the "perpetrators" were quite innocent, but how these mistakes happen is best illuminated by them.

I personally believe that most of the time a person of color convicted of a crime actually did it--as I believe most other people convicted are guilty. But certainly "isms"--occurring from citation to sentencing--are reflected in the disparate impact race finds in criminal conviction. In other words, more white people are getting away with committing crimes than are blacks or Latinos, and whites usually receive softer penalties. A Latino smoking marijuana, for example, is more likely judged to be beginning a lifetime of violent crime and is therefore more likely to receive a harsh sentence. While comparatively a white person smoking pot is more likely to be judged to be just "chilling out" from a hard day of work and therefore sentenced more leniently.

Racists are probably not very introspective about their biases, as prejudices are reflexive feelings that few try to rationalize. Consider, for example, how you might dismiss more quickly a child's comment that "girls are just as strong as boys" than if an adult told you the same thing. Now consider the differences perceived between gender--how your reaction would alter if a woman made the same comment versus a man. Many who read this comment will automatically presume the child speaking is a girl and project their corresponding biases onto her. Few would examine their presumptions and what emotions are evoked by those presumptions.

The same is true with race, sexual orientation, disability, and numerous other cases. It isn't by accident that the Asian prosecutor of Dr. Wen Ho Lee was appointed spokesperson to the press to specifically address racial profiling as it applied to prosecuting Lee for espionage. People are more likely to listen--even if they ultimately don't agree--to an Asian man disputing Asian bias than an Anglo making the same statements.

I certainly am not claiming to be immune to bias. Until a recent epiphany, I personally gave a lot of slack to gay men, no matter what indications or behaviors suggested to me I ought to keep my distance. I excused in some gay men friends their verbal abuse, endearingly called "campiness"--particularly use of the term fag hag, which refers to a straight woman who hangs out with gay men. Such a term, I now recognize, equates to nigger lover used often during the 1960s and 1970s. My bias was the result of identifying the gay male community as my own and, with that sense of familiarity, relaxing my usual hypervigilance for those types of behavior. Hence, I guess, the analogy, "love is blind."

Racism, sexism, and other prejudices and preferences likewise alter how people hear statements and comments. In law school, a Hopi woman in my Feminist Critical Race Studies class spoke of how she was working to overcome the sexism in her Nation. However, in the next breath, she spoke of how "you never pick up a Navajo who is hitchhiking." While others in the class respected what they interpreted as tribal traditions, I questioned her racism --especially in light of her efforts to combat "traditional" sexism. Sexism and racism are traditional in Western culture, too, but this classroom of feminist critical race thinkers held native Americans to a different standard.

What you hear and don't hear are usually at the core of the issue. For example, if you expect your partner to be jealous if you have lunch with an ex, even though he or she denies feeling that way, you are more likely to presume that your partner is angry and seething with jealousy rather than unconcerned. Certainly, then, comments less on point are interpreted by you as underscoring a jealous reaction where none may exist. Even silence gets tagged. For many, if an Asian person is silent, it is interpreted as a cultural expression of deference or respect or self-doubt or some other "peaceful" emotion--not an attempt to swallow anger. On the other hand, if a black person is silent, it's often interpreted to be that she or he is angry, not pensive.

The Supreme Court case Korematsu --still considered by many as "good law"--is (along with slavery) a prime example of the United States' legacy of racism. From counting a slave as three-fifths of a person to upholding the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, our history has supported the notion that superficial characteristics dictate personal qualities and justify disparate treatment. The latest bit with the Federal Drug Administration upholding the ban on gays donating blood is similarly insulting. Most gays are not HIV positive--just as most Japanese Americans wouldn't spy for Japan during war or "exigent circumstances" are used to justify this "ism."

And so it used to be that African Americans could not donate blood to whites. So what have we learned? There is so much we need to be doing differently and addressing seriously--and biases and "isms" are just a few reasons why. Life is unjust for many. Why on earth are we standing for it?

Kathleen Antonia is a freelance writer, attorney, and entertainer. Her work has appeared in Callboard magazine, and she starred in the film Heart of the Possible.
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Title Annotation:America remains a violent society in which stereotypes are too often applied
Author:Antonia, Kathleen
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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