One of the most troubling aspects regarding the current national dialog about racism in America is the almost unanimous presumption that only people of color have anything valid to say about racism. Those who’s skin is not black are expected to listen and agree with what blacks have to say on the topic of racism and this expectation has only been exasperated by events at Ferguson, MO. It is frequently insinuated that white people cannot truly participate in this dialog because racism runs so deep within them that they don’t even know when they are acting out on their racism. CNN reporter John Blake argues this point strongly in a recent article. He begins making his case by citing the following “classic study” on racism, here is what he says:
In a classic study on race, psychologists staged an experiment with two photographs that produced a surprising result. They showed people a photograph of two white men fighting, one unarmed and another holding a knife. Then they showed another photograph, this one of a white man with a knife fighting an unarmed African-American man. When they asked people to identify the man who was armed in the first picture, most people picked the right one. Yet when they were asked the same question about the second photo, most people — black and white — incorrectly said the black man had the knife.
However, while frequently cited, this “classic study on race” simply does not exist. The actual study was a study on ‘rumor chains’ conducted by G.W. Allport and L. Postman in 1947. Ironically the frequently inaccurate and changing portrayal of this study in the psychological literature demonstrates, as the real study shows, how stories can evolve as as they pass through the ‘rumor chain’ but it does not support the claim of racial bias so frequently claimed when this study is cited. In 1989 Molly Treadway and Michael McCloskey from Johns Hopkins University Department of Psychology published a paper titled “Effects of Racial Stereotypes on Eyewitness Performance: Implications of the Real and the Rumoured Allport and Postman Studies” in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol. 3, pgs. 53-63 dealing with the facts and rumors regarding this study. Here is an excerpt from their paper.
This account [as described in the CNN article] of the Allport and Postman study has appeared widely in the eyewitness psychology literature (e.g. Clifford and Bull, 1978; Ellison and Buckhout, 1981; Marshall, 1980; Luce, 1977; Sannito and mcGovern, 1985; Woocher, 1977), and in expert psychological testimony on eyewitness performance (e.g. Shomer, 1984). As we pointed out in an earlier article (Treadway and McCloskey, 1987), however, the account is seriously inaccurate. The Allport and Postman experiments involved a ‘rumour chain’ procedure in which a subject described a picture, while looking at it, to a second subject who could not see it. The second subject then recounted the description as fully as possible to a third subject who had neither seen the picture nor heard the initial description. This procedure was continued until six or seven subjects had listened to a previous subject’s description and then attempted to repeat what they had heard … the only people who actually saw the picture described the scene while looking at it.
In their paper, they document several attempts to produce a study that mirrors the one that was rumored to have taken place; however, none of their attempts produced the results claimed by those who have wrongly cited the Allport and Postman study in support of the conclusion on racism. It turns out that the study that is most frequently cited to support the conclusion that people are unknowingly racist is nothing more than a rumor itself.
What about the many anecdotal stories that black people tell us about being stopped by cops without cause? Surely these stories demonstrate that blacks are being unfairly targeted by police, right? Let’s take a look at a couple examples of the kinds of stories we are told that are intended to demonstrate that cops are racist against blacks.
“I was just sitting in my car, minding my own business, when three cops approached me with their guns drawn and asked me to get out of the car with my hands up. They said that there had been a robbery in the area and that they believed that I might be the robbery suspect. They humiliated me by frisking me in front of a dozen of my friends.”
“I had just purchased my first vehicle and was driving down the freeway when a cop began to tailgate me. I wasn’t speeding and yet this cop continued to tailgate me for about 15 miles, occasionally pulling along one side of my car or the other side and then back right behind me. I was quite nervous because this continued for what seemed like an eternity. Despite making sure that I didn’t exceed the speed limit the entire time, the cop eventually turned his lights on and pulled me over without cause. He then proceeded to ask for license and registration and then began inspecting my vehicle, looking at my tires, having me demonstrate that all of my lights were working, etc…, the cop eventually cited me for not having transferred the title of my vehicle to my name. I showed the cop the bill of sale dated that same day and the note on the pink slip (a legal document issued by the state of California) stating that I had 14 days to transfer ownership. He told me that the instructions on the pink slip were not the law and issued the citation anyway. When I did get my day in court, the courts disagreed with him but I still had to spend about half a day to get this ticket dismissed.”
One question that no one ever asks when stories like these are told is “How do you know that the motivation was racism?” The assumption when stories like these are told is that the only explanation is that the cops were racist. However, neither of the stories above indicate that racism was a factor! How do I know? I know because these are my stories and neither the cops involved nor I were black. In the first incident, the cops were simply doing their job and I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (this happens to people of all races all of the time). While it was frightening at the time, it is now a story I laugh about today and had I been the cop, I probably would have acted in the same way. In the second case, I was stopped by a power hungry cop that should have chosen a different profession. While this cop was clearly out of line, the motivation behind his inappropriate behavior wasn’t racism! Unquestionably, there are some racist cops (both black and white) but not every cop who pulls over a black person is motivated by racism nor is every cop who pulls over an innocent black person wrong for doing so. Some may be racist, some may be power hungry, but most are probably just doing their job to the best of their ability. They, just like you and I, are not “all knowing” and they frequently need to investigate before recognizing that they have apprehended the wrong person.
Here are some questions we should be asking:
- How frequently are false accusations of “racism” the result of misperceptions fueled by the distrust that results when one is continually told that they will be stopped by “racist” cops without cause?
- How frequently do situations with the police escalate as a result of unnecessary tensions created because black people are continually told that they will be stopped by racist cops ONLY because they are black?
- When all sides are given a fair hearing, how frequently does the evidence support the claims of racism made in the anecdotal stories we so frequently hear?
Proverbs 18:17 reminds us that “the first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” It is time we stop acting after hearing only one side of the story and allow those who hold a different perspective to present their case. And just as we all recognize that racism is wrong, we must also recognize that it is just as wrong to falsely accuse someone of racism. Yes, it is time for a national dialog about race but a true dialog requires that both sides be allowed to freely speak, both sides be willing to listen, and both sides be willing to recognize that their perception may not be entirely accurate.