Race, violence, and prejudice

Clayton Cramer fielded a question from a journalist regarding the perceived increase in police shootings of armed black men.

I’ll send over a few questions if that okay with you… I really want to capture the increased incident of police and armed black men. Activist seem to believe there is racism at the core of these incidents.1. What was your response to the shooting of Jemel Roberson two days ago?

I confess that I missed this. The police officer clearly reacted too quickly and wrongly.

2. Do you believe racism is something that is a factor in these shootings?

I think it is important to distinguish between racism and prejudice. A racist would assume that a different race is intrinsically different or inferior, and often that is expressed as hatred. Many people have prejudices based on race, sex, or other identities that may not be associated with hate. There are times that those prejudices may have a rational basis when applied to unknown members of that group. Let me give you an example.

This is a pretty important point. In another discussion elsewhere with someone else, I felt the need to distinguish between “racial” distinctions and “racist” distinctions. Allocating more funds to treat sickle cell trait in largely black areas than elsewhere is a racial distinction, but not a racist one.

Many years ago, I was walking home from college on a pedestrian path that was pretty isolated. There was a 10 foot high concrete wall on one side, and a chain link fence with a stream and forest on the other. Ahead of me about 50 yards was a young woman also walking away from campus. There was no one else around. Because I was a bit taller than her, I was slowly gaining on her as I walked this path. After a couple minutes, I realized that she had increased her pace; soon, she was almost running.

My first reaction was, “Why is she afraid of me? I am a nice person; I will not hurt her. Is it just because I’m a man?” The answer, I am sure, was Yes. Nasty prejudice. But a rational prejudice. She did not know me. Effectively all rapists are men. That means that men are 2x as likely to be rapists as people in general: unknown men are a disproportionate risk. Few men are rapists; there were 124,000 rapes in America in 2015 (https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/tables/table-1) in a nation of 160 million men, and because rapists are usually serial offenders, there are probably far less than 124,000 men who are rapists.

What if she assumes the worst about a man, and he is harmless (like me)? She gets a bit of a cardio workout from trying to get away. What if she assumes a man is harmless and he is a rapist? The consequences may be quite severe. So her reaction qualifies as a rational reaction to her prejudice.