We Must Talk Openly About Real Reasons for Racial Disparities

Judge Steven TeskeLet’s talk about race.

The mention of race stirs emotions that are usually not expressed for fear of the response. For many years, this chilling effect created the mirage that race relations were not so bad.

We mask the problems that have been festering for years in order to keep interactions between people of different races peaceful.

Many white people suppress comments about race for fear of the response, especially in racially mixed settings. That began after the passage of the civil rights laws of the ’50s and ’60s, leading to a congenial demeanor toward our fellow citizens of color.

This creates the impression — for white people, at least — that race relations are improving. Black people, however, have not been fooled.

Unwittingly, white people have assumed that laws of racial equity, once passed, would improve the condition of those who were bound and chained in slavery, then segregated. These people of the lie (i.e. hypocrites) believed the problem was solved because the new laws afforded people of color the same rights as them. However, they ignored the fact that these laws didn’t do anything to ameliorate the residual effects of more than 300 years of traumatizing the black race.

Trauma comes from the race-based decisions by whites. Slavery is trauma, segregation is trauma, Jim Crow is trauma.

It is naïve to think that legal advances bring immediate educational and economic progress that make people of color equal to the oppressor. Passing laws to end slavery and segregation, and civil rights laws to guarantee equality don’t simultaneously end poverty and all other harmful byproducts associated with these insidious institutions still oppressing people of color today. It only adds insult to injury to pretend this implicit bias doesn’t exist.

We freed the oppressed, but they remained in a hole of economic and educational deprivation, unprepared to compete in a competitive world, and so the vast majority remained stuck in an impoverished prison with insurmountable obstacles to escape.

The laws did not remedy the disproportionate number of people of color stuck in impoverished, drug- and crime-ridden neighborhoods, also saddled with inadequate education and low employment, all of which were created by the many years of race-based decisions leading to trauma of an entire race.

I can’t think of anything more frustrating than to dangle freedom in someone’s face who can’t do anything with it because they are in a hole of socioeconomic deprivation.

It is these residual products of institutional racism, combined with personal racism masked by the culture of congeniality, that is at the core of the racial strife and disparities today.

And if it impacts people of color, it impacts all of us. If you don’t agree, then ask the blue lives who take to the street every day hoping they are not a target of black lives.

The killing of black and blue lives is a culmination of what has been wrong for years. It’s the personal racism, or implicit bias, that keeps white people in general from understanding that black people are disproportionately represented in poverty and in jails not because of their color, but because they remain trapped in circumstances created by our (white) doing many years ago.

The remedy to break this cycle of suffering is a different approach. To do so requires that we first acknowledge that people of color harbor unresolved anger caused by this suffering.

We must also acknowledge that disparities still exist because too many in the majority harbor biases toward people of color, in large part because we blame the person of color and not the pre-existing circumstances for their plight.

People don’t commit crimes because of the color of their skin. They commit crimes due to their underlying circumstances. It is no wonder that people of color who are disproportionately trapped in this prison of poverty are disproportionately represented in our criminal justice systems, including our kids of color.

No matter how much we try to temper our implicit biases to avoid conflict, they have a way of surfacing, and at times when critical, sound and objective decision-making is needed.

Like a leopard who can’t change its spots, a person who harbors bias will show those spots regardless how much it’s cosmetically disguised by words and overt acts of politeness toward people of color.

In the past, I have referred to this manifestation of implicit bias as “subtle discrimination,” but it’s not subtle in its effect, only in its form.

Take, for example, the original reasons in support of zero tolerance policies in school discipline matters. Zero tolerance as a policy to deter disruptive conduct in public schools “mandates the application of predetermined consequences, most often severe and punitive in nature, that are intended to be applied regardless of the gravity of behavior, mitigating circumstances, or situational context.”

The “regardless of” phrase was, and still is for many educators, used to argue that zero tolerance practices removes racial disparity.

At first glance, it make sense that a disciplinary practice that gives no consideration for the “gravity of the behavior, mitigating circumstances, or situational context” would result in nondisparate outcomes because every student is punished no matter the who, what, where, when, why, and how.

Despite looking nonbiased, the outcomes are the opposite.

The studies show that the “who” with color often get a different “what” (punishment) that more often than not sends them to a “where” that is harmful (court, probation, jail) during the most vulnerable “when” in their life (adolescence) simply because we assumed that the “how” (zero tolerance) equalizes the “why” (removing racial disparity).

These various studies reveal that kids of color are four to six times more likely to be suspended, expelled and arrested than their white counterparts for the same offense.

Zero tolerance policies look color-blind, but the racially biased outcomes reveals its subtle irony: that a practice meant to remove racial disparity is effective only to the extent its operators don’t harbor bias, explicit or implicit.

This discrimination is subtle in its practice, but insidious in its outcomes.

Many like myself who sit on the bench do not make biased decisions consciously, but we are still subject to subconscious thinking derived from implicit bias inherent in living a culture of white privilege.

This privilege is complex and difficult for white folks to understand because we don’t walk every day in the shoes of black folks. How would white people know what black kids feel when they are suspended and arrested on school campus when it doesn’t happen to white kids. White parents don’t suffer from their kids dropping out of school or being forced into the pipeline to prison.

On the flip side, a recent study shows that kids of color are 20 percent more likely to be incarcerated by a judge of color. It also reveals that kids of color are 14 percent more likely to receive longer sentences from judges of color.

The reasons for this black-on-black racial disparity are not yet known, but researchers have offered some explanations, such as the propensity of harsher punishment among in-group members for violating a group norm, as shown in lab experiments.

In other words, people of the same race or culture have a lower tolerance for rule-breaking by others like themselves and may feel ashamed or embarrassed by the behavior.

I will go out on a limb and posit that the majority of the white officers who erred and killed a person of color didn’t believe themselves to be racially biased. However, as the governor of Minnesota said, had the victim been white the results would likely be different, and this is because of implicit bias.

On the other hand, judges of color who feel justified to be tougher on kids of their own color do so believing their color gives them a license to jail them despite the research that overincarceration is harmful and exacerbates their criminal behavior.

Bias takes different forms and comes from both sides of the racial aisle. If it hurts the kid, it is wrong!

It will not change until both sides of the aisle come together at the grassroots to engage in honest dialogue about the underlying reasons we do what we do so we can identify solutions. Solutions that will lead to what our laws intended, but could not accomplish on their own.

Like diseases, racial disparities do not occur by chance and are not randomly distributed. There are reasons why they occur and we must bring them out in the open.

Otherwise, kids of color will continue to be pushed into the abyss with no hope of rescue. If we can’t figure this out, all of us will be pulled into the abyss along with them.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, and vice chairman of the Governor’s Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, Department of Juvenile Justice Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence and the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.


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