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How upset do we need to be about racism?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010
posted by Rita Handrich

During his campaign for the Presidency, Barack Obama spoke about a new age of race relations in America.  Clearly, racism hasn’t gone away, but our understanding of it is expanding faster than ever.  Race and racism is in the news and in research findings. As often happens, two recent (and unrelated) sources combined in our minds in a fashion that gave us an idea for this blog post. Then, the NY Times came out with their story on racism in jury selection in several Southern states and it seemed like it was simply meant to be!

So how upset do you need to be? It seems to depend. Researchers at San Francisco State University found that how much distress is caused by your personal experiences with racism depends on what coping methods you use.  Denying or ignoring racism is the worst strategy. That tactic ends up making you feel bad and damaging self esteem.

The researchers found that for men (in a sample of Filipino men and women) dealing with racist incidents directly (confronting, reporting to authorities) was most beneficial. If instead, the men confided in friends—this made them feel worse and lowered self-esteem. For women, ignoring racism made them feel worse but active confrontation or confiding in friends did not seem to be either particularly effective or detrimental.

About the same time, Wray Herbert wrote a blog post about stereotypes of the “dangerous young black man”. He tells the story of NY Times editorial writer and psychologist Brent Staples who happens to be African American. Dr. Staples (attending graduate school in the 1970’s in Chicago) found that white couples seemed fearful when passing him on the street. After playing around with several strategies, he found he was least threatening if he whistled Vivaldi while walking. “Somehow, whistling the sweet refrains of the Venetian composer’s Four Seasons was enough to trump the stereotype and put the neighbors at ease”.

Yet, the very act of constantly being on the alert to appear non-threatening and overcome stereotypes of others meant the experience of racism was always on his mind. Distracting him. Keeping him from thinking about other things. While it put his neighbors at ease, it left him uncomfortable. Herbert goes on to discuss research on stereotype threat and ways to combat it most effectively.

Now, the NY Times has released the report of the Equal Justice Initiative and, even more recently, an editorial calling for the abolishment of the peremptory strike. This issue last raised its head in a big way a little over a year ago and Doug wrote about it then. Peremptory strikes are a favorite target to address the perceived ills of the legal system.

Yet, we do have an issue. We know racism exists despite an African American being President of the United States. We know (thanks to research) that how harmful the personal experience of racism is depends on coping methods, and that even effective coping methods can result in a level of harm, distraction and distress. And we know that African American potential jurors are systematically being removed from Southern jury panels (and likely others outside that geographic area) for ostensibly “race-neutral” reasons. We would hazard a guess that these jurors know exactly ‘why’ they are being removed and there is nothing “race-neutral” about it.

So. You tell us. How upset do we need to be?

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