As a social psychologist, I study stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination using scientific methodology—a process that is designed to minimize bias regularly found in personal anecdotes that seem to fuel this movement. As a white male, I am protected from the most common forms of racial and sexual discrimination. So while my views may indeed be objective as an observer to and researcher of racial inequality, I cannot provide first-hand personal experience of such inequality, which to many people in the movement is what matters most (i.e., people who experience discrimination on a daily basis don't need scientific studies to confirm discrimination exists). Having said that, it is important that facts are recognized, causality is not confused with correlation, and claims are backed by evidence and not unjustly generalized into a national crisis from a personal experience. I do feel that many supporters of the movement, as well as many people who speak out against it (usually by saying #AllLivesMatter), are simply gravitating to an extreme position rather than critically evaluating the movement. So let's start by breaking it down.
First it is important to understand that while #BlackLivesMatter is an organized movement with published demands, it also is a generic representation of racial inequality and injustice. This means that will be many people advocating for the cause who do not necessarily agree with the information posted at blacklivesmatter.com. It is like Christianity in this respect. Although all Christians may claim to "follow Jesus," this can mean anything from chasing happiness and riches with Joel Osteen, to participating in hate-filled protests with the Westboro Baptist Church. The point is, we cannot know a person's complex views on racial inequality from a simple hashtag—we need more information. My evaluation will not apply to everyone who has used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, but it's directed at the organized movement based on their disclosed information at blacklivesmatter.com.
Ironically, many of those who promote #AllLivesMatter have no problem with "God Bless America" rather than "God Bless Humanity," and many of the supporters of #BlackLivesMatter have a real problem understanding that the outrage regarding #CecilTheLion does not mean that people don't care about their fellow humans. People focus on specific causes and/or groups to bring attention to the specific problems, not to negate the importance of any other causes. The activists who promote "Save the Whales" are not anti-dolphin; they are simply pro whale. There is no claim being made that whales matter more than dolphins, or monkeys, or humans for that matter. So why is #BlackLivesMatter an issue? If the dolphins could talk to us, they might say "Hey, what about us and our problems? Those damn tuna fishermen keep killing us in their nets!" Since people of other races can talk, they are saying "Hey, what about us and our problems?" Women, the LGBT community, and other marginalized groups want global attention, as well. Just like we care more about a blister on our own finger than some random child dying of starvation on the other side of the world, we tend to care about the causes that affect us most. This is understandable. #AllLivesMatter does not serve a social justice purpose by identifying a specific cause, however. Therefore, it appears to many to be merely an attempt to diminish the concerns of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Some have said that #AllLivesMatter is a response to what they believe is an implied "Black lives matter more than other lives." Once again, rather than jumping to conclusions and making assumptions of what a person stands for based on a single hashtag, why not ask them what they mean when they promote #BlackLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter?
Something to think about: How do you feel about the phrase "God Bless America?" Theistic assumptions aside, does this assume we mean "God Bless America and no place else"? If someone were to say in response "God Bless Humanity," is this something that should offend Americans? Hopefully, this thought experiment will allow you to understand the intricacies in promoting a focused cause versus a generic one that would be more universally appealing, but arguably less effective in uniting a specific group to a common cause.
You won't find a shortage of personal testimonies and anecdotes of Blacks who feel they have been discriminated against, but we can't conclude from this that discrimination against Blacks in America is ubiquitous, nor can we determine the extent of the problem. To put another way, while often powerful and convincing, personals testimonies and anecdotes are unreliable in determining the existence and scope of a phenomenon, especially for a subjective experience that can be interpreted differently by different people. We would expect that a more systematic inquiry into racism, such as one using the scientific method, can tell us about how prevalent racism is today in America, but the science is limited in this area for a few reasons:
People lie about their racism. Self-reports attempting to measure racism are generally seen as having a validity problem because it is socially undesirable to be racist (this is known as the social-desirability bias). Even when people might be proud of their racism, they tend to deny being racist in favor of being "pro-White" or even "pro-American". Implicit racism tests are designed to bypass this problem of misreporting one's own racism by measuring racism based on the timeliness of responses when associating Black and White faces with positive and negative concepts. While these tests have shown a strong general bias for Whites, it is not well known how such an unconscious bias translates to acts of discrimination or any kind of institutional racism.
It is difficult to identify any particular instance of racism. Racism, by definition, is not an act that can be quantified, but an attitude that leads to acts of discrimination. For example, if a White cop shoots a Black suspect, this may or may not be a result of racism. The cop may be a racist, may not be a racist but hold an implicit bias against Blacks that contributed to the shooting, or have no racist tendencies whatsoever. Only a psychological evaluation combined with a historical inquiry into the cop's previous encounters, or an outright confession, could provide evidence of racism. Even then, the confirmation bias can easily direct the investigation by focusing on evidence that confirms what the investigators want to believe.
Racial disparities may or may not suggest racism. It is often impossible to isolate race from other issues such as socio-economic status (class, education, wealth, etc.), attitudes, motivation, and other factors that contribute to one's personal situation. For example, the blacklivesmatter.com website says that "The median wealth for single White women is $42,600. For Black women, it’s $5.001." Assuming that fact is accurate, it cannot be concluded that the reason for the financial disparity is race or racism. Correlation does not equal causation. When facts such as these are presented showing large disparities between two groups, research is needed to see if causality has been properly established.
The last point is an important one. Clearly racial disparities exist. But are disparities remnants of the highly racist America of our forefathers, or a result of the current political/financial/educational environment? Or perhaps the disparities are remnants of the past and a result of a vicious cycle that cannot be broken without help above and beyond what other races are offered? Given the difficulties of examining this from a scientific perspective, we may have to rely on firsthand accounts and anecdotes to determine the extent of the problem, but if we do, we need to do it right.
In cognitive science, there is a phenomenon known as the availability heuristic. This is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind when evaluating something or making a decision. The media strongly influences our evaluations about racism in America today by providing us with salient examples. I want to know when a Black kid unjustly gets gunned down by a White cop. But I also want to know when any kid gets gunned down unjustly by any cop. If the media, or people on social media, choose to report and share only the instances that suggest a racially motivated crime, then we are all being manipulated. If we believe the problem is one of racism when it is actually one of excessive force by cops, we are stuck trying to solve the wrong problem. This is a problem for both the liberal and conservative media who pick and choose their stories (and their commentary on the stories) based on their target audience. If we want facts and hard data, perhaps we shouldn't rely on the media and our Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Personally and professionally, I am convinced that racism exists and has real effects on the Black community. I strongly support increased awareness to this problem and even conscious efforts made to compensate for our implicit racism that we are statistically likely to have (fully understanding the dangers and drawbacks of what might be considered "reverse discrimination"). I am critical, however, of the #BlackLivesMatter demands that are outlined at http://blacklivesmatter.com/state-of-the-black-union. Many of the demands are on par with demanding "world peace." For example, "We demand an end to all forms of discrimination..." Discrimination has been documented in some form or another since the start of recorded history, and although the targets of discrimination are likely to change with time, discrimination itself is not likely to ever go away. Some of the demands appear to be something that should be earned rather than given, for example, "we demand full, living wage employment for our people." Perhaps what they are asking for is a just system in which all people have access to full, living wage employment regardless of skin color—but it is not written that way. Some of the demands are written in absolute terms that do not seem to allow for exceptions. For example, "We demand the release of all U.S. political prisoners." Even those who have committed crimes such as murder and rape? This demand is also eerily similar to the demand of the terrorists on the episode of "24" that I recently watched. Overall, the demands outlined at blacklivesmatter.com can use some clarification, measurable indicators that the demands have been met, and some finesse.
I applaud and support the Black community for speaking out for a problem that unquestionably exists. At the same time, I recognize the same problems exist for dozens of other minorities, and I recognize the myriad of other worthy causes in the world that address problems that affect us all. While we can objectively and rationally evaluate causes such as #BlackLivesMatter, it is our emotional side that leads us to support a cause with passion and dedication. Don't feel guilty about not being involved in the cause du jour and don't feel guilty about ignoring other causes because of your involvement in a cause about which you are passionate. And finally, if someone Tweets "#SaveTheWhales," try to resist Tweeting back "#SaveAllAnimals, biotch."
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