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Sep 22 2011

Racism: it ain’t yesterday’s problem

Yesterday I mentioned that I don’t have a specific goal for these writings. Mostly they are a signpost for me to be able to look back and see how my thought process is evolving over time, much like writing one’s self a letter to be read in the future. That being said, people are reading this stuff (and thank you for that, by the way). This means that my ideas must stand up to third-party scrutiny in a way they wouldn’t have to if they were just my random, private thoughts. One of the more contentious ideas I have is my operational definition of racism. I fully recognize that the way I use the word – to describe the attribution of ethnic group characteristics to individuals – is subtly different from what most people think when they use the word. My position remains that my definition is superior because it adequately encompasses the ‘classic’ definition, whilst also describing the reality of contemporary ‘polite’ racism.

However, there are occasions where I can go beyond simple rhetorical demonstration and actually bring evidence to bear on why we must shift our understanding of what racism is:

A Texas inmate sentenced to death—in a racially charged case that now-Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said was inappropriately decided—has petitioned Gov. Rick Perry and his state parole board for clemency, giving the GOP presidential candidate two days to decide whether to commute the sentence or grant a temporary stay of execution. Last week, one of the Harris County prosecutors who helped secure Buck’s conviction wrote a letter to Perry urging him to grant a retrial.

Some quick housecleaning here:

  • I am not calling Rick Perry racist. I don’t know anything about the man’s personal beliefs when it comes to issues of race, or his track record of treatment of visible minorities. Even if Perry were an open and notorious member of the KKK, it would be completely irrelevant to my argument.
  • I am also not interested in debating capital punishment at this time. I am personally against it, and have found all arguments in favour of executing convicts to be lacking in validity. That being said, my personal stance on the ethics or pragmatics of capital punishment are entirely tangential to the issue at hand.
  • I am also not trying to make the argument that Duane Buck, the inmate in question, is innocent and should be freed. By all accounts, he’s guilty and his conviction is a good one. Again, this has nothing to do with the point I wish to make here.

The point I wish to make lives in these lines:

The issue at hand isn’t Buck’s innocence, but the means by which his death sentence was obtained. Prosecutors firmly established Buck’s guilt, but to secure a capital punishment conviction in Texas they needed to prove “future dangerousness”—that is, provide compelling evidence that Buck posed a serious threat to society if he were ever to walk free. They did so in part with the testimony of a psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck’s race (he’s African American) made him more likely to commit crimes in the future.

This is about as stark an example of racism as one could ask for. If Duane Buck had been white, he would have received a sentence of life in prison rather than execution. The psychologist testifying against him made it a matter of science (or at least clinical opinion) that black people are inherently more dangerous, and more likely to reoffend. This declaration pushed the jury to decide against him when deciding sentencing. One can certainly fault Dr. Quijano for abdicating his ethical responsibilities both as a medical practitioner and as a human being by offering racist claptrap as sworn testimony – there’s your classical racism. However, and this is significant – the jury believed him.

Imagine sitting in a juror’s box and having to decide on a land dispute between two neighbours. A shaman is called to testify, and offers his expert testimony that when he consulted the entrails of sacred chickens, they clearly indicated that the border between the two properties should be redrawn so that Mr. Ortiz can expand his garage as planned. When considering the evidence, would you include the shaman’s remarks, or rightly dismiss them as complete nonsense? Because you’re a reasonable person who knows that one cannot derive municipal zoning law from the gastrointestinal tract of domesticated animals, you’d probably ignore the insane ‘evidence’ offered in the courtroom.

That’s not the case in Texas. In Texas, the idea that black people are simply more dangerous – that black skin and heritage is meaningful when trying to predict someone’s behaviour – is something that carries enough traction to carry the force of law. The fact that the jurors weren’t able to immediately dismiss Dr. Quijano’s arguments as meritless means that somewhere in their minds, the predictive power of race on behaviour is a real possibility. This doesn’t mean that they were necessary maliciously racist people, or that they were even consciously aware of the effect that their own nascent racism had on their decision-making processes. What it does mean, however, is that without a fuller understanding of what racism is and how it operates, legal decisions such as the one Mr. Buck is facing are a reality, and will continue to be in the future.

Luckily, for Mr. Buck anyway, the controversy surrounding the sentencing has led to a temporary stay of execution:

The U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution Thursday of a black man convicted of a double murder in Texas 16 years ago after his lawyers contended his sentence was unfair because of a question asked about race during his trial. Duane Buck, 48, was spared from lethal injection when the justices, without extensive comment, said they would review an appeal in his case. Two appeals, both related to a psychologist’s testimony that black people were more likely to commit violence, were before the court. One was granted; the other was denied.

But this brings to light a whole new series of questions. Suppose that, under Texas law, Duane Buck should be executed. Suppose that, without Dr. Quijano’s testimony, the decision would have gone the same way. It is entirely possible that a guilty person is being excused because of complication surrounding the way the justice system handled his race. It’s happened before. Justice has not been served, and it is because of our preoccupation with race, coupled with our seeming inability to chart the way forward when it comes to resolving what is evidently still an open and relevant question.

Racism is not a problem that our parents or grandparents had to contend with, and that we can consign to the annals of history. Racism is very much alive, and failing to understand it will continue to be a millstone around our collective necks for as long as it takes us to get serious in our discussion of it.

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2 comments

  1. 1
    Kiwi Sauce

    Your operational definition of racism seems similar to the fundamental attribution error.

    I'm not sure how we fix this problem, for example education on the error doesn't seem to remove it completely.

    And on the issue of the psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, how is this guy still practicing? How can he be considered a non-biased, let alone expert, witness?

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    They are very similar. In fact, that’s the basis for quite a bit of our cognitive biases (possibly why they call it ‘fundamental’?). Simple awareness may not be enough, true. However, knowledge of cognitive biases makes you less likely to commit them, and more likely to listen if someone calls you on it. Just like we aren’t all perfect skeptics at all times, there are levels of success we can achieve so long as we self-examine honestly, and have our conclusions scrutinized by others.

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