A thoughtful article explores in some detail where the divide between black and white opinion on this come from
by Chauncey DeVega September 17, 2014
As reported by the St. Louis Post Dispatch, new public opinion research by the Remington Research Group has revealed that 62 percent of white St. Louis residents believe that the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot multiple times while surrendering with his hands in the air, by a white police officer named Darren Wilson, was justified.
The support by white St. Louis residents for the killing of Michael Brown is not just a simple matter of a difference in public opinion regarding how individuals locate matters of public concern within their own cognitive schema.
Instead, their attitudes are formed in relation to a given social and historical context. Consequently, the political attitudes of Darren Wilson’s white supporters reflect a society that is organized around a racial hierarchy which privileges Whiteness.
Remington’s poll is part of a larger constellation of data on white racial attitudes in response to the Ferguson incident, specifically, and the realities of white on black racism in the post civil rights era, more generally.
In August, a poll by Pew Research found that:
…the public overall is divided over whether Brown’s shooting raises important issues about race or whether the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves: 44% think the case does raise important issues about race that require discussion, while 40% say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
By about four-to-one (80% to 18%), African Americans say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit discussion. By contrast, whites, by 47% to 37%, say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
These results echo earlier polls that reveal how whites and people of color are starkly divided in their opinions about the permanence and power of racism in determining life chances.
As a point of comparison, at the height of the civil rights movement, a moment when Jim and Jane Crow segregation and racial terrorism were still a de facto state of affairs in much of the United States, white folks reported to Gallup and other pollsters that black people had equal opportunities in America.
White America’s willful denial and delusions about the twin realities of white supremacy and white privilege are a recurring feature of American cultural and political life.
Race is operative, both on a personal and institutional level, in Darren Wilson’s decision to shoot and kill Michael Brown.
The preponderance of the social scientific evidence on American social and political life demonstrates that the standing decision rule should be that racism is almost always a variable influencing interactions across the color line, as opposed to needing some extraordinary standard of evidence to demonstrate such a basic fact.
Ultimately, because America is a racist society, the attitudes and values of its citizens, to varying degrees, will reflect that trait.
Racial attitudes are an outlier.
Both white and non-white Americans hold consistent beliefs about race and public policy, racial attitudes help to structure other political attitudes and values (including partisan identification), racial attitudes are relatively stable across one’s life span (with general replacement, elite cues by the media and other actors, and social movement activity helping to account for the rise of “multicultural” America), andthe decades-long divides between Democrats and Republicans about questions of race, social justice, and public policy have remained relatively stable.
Moreover, the chasm in public opinion between whites and blacks regarding Ferguson, and police abuse more generally, also reflects how “old fashioned” racism, authoritarianism, and symbolic racism have combined together in modern American conservatism.
It is more likely than not, that the majority of the white respondents in the Remington survey possess some degree of either conscious or subconscious racial bias, animus, or resentment towards black and brown people.
[The power of white supremacy as a cultural force is also revealed by how 35 percent of black respondents also supported Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown.
White supremacy is one of the most powerful ideologies and inventions in the modern era: people of color are not immune to it; some people of color, most notably black American conservatives, even seek out its approval.]
Drilling down, I am very curious as to the type of racists that comprise the 62 percent of white respondents in the Remington survey who support Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown.
While not an exhaustive list, I would argue that the 62 percent of white respondents to the Remington group survey consist of the following types.
These categories overlap and are not mutually exclusive from one another.
Racial Contrarians. Any observations or opinions offered by a black person, individually or as a group, about racism, as it relates to the latter’s own personal life experiences, are immediately suspect. For this type of white racist, black people are viewed as inherently irrational, hyper-emotional, stupid, too sensitive, and possess a distorted view of American society because of their “obsession” with racism. The white racial contrarian views all black people’s truth claims, regardless of the empirical data in support of them, as suspicious and unfounded until proven otherwise (preferably by a white person).
Old fashioned racists and those with feelings of homicidal ideation. Darren Wilson has raised more than 500,000 dollars for his defense fund. As exemplified by the comments on the websites through which those funds were donated, the people who offered monetary support to Darren Wilson consist of a good number of traditional “old fashioned” racists.
Their donations to Wilson are a type of new age lynching photography wherein they are enjoying the thrill of killing Michael Brown by proxy; this is a disturbing and frightening type of white on black homicidal ideation.
Aversive and symbolic racists. The behavior of aversive and symbolic racists constitutes what has come to be known as “modern racism”.
The aversive racist publicly subscribes to norms of racial egalitarianism, but in private, as well as subconsciously, possesses negative sentiments towards blacks (and other people of color, to varying degrees).
Psychologists Adam Pearson, John Dovidio, and Samuel Gaertner describe the aversive racist in the following way:
Aversive racists, in contrast, sympathize with victims of past injustice, support principles of racial equality, and genuinely regard themselves as non-prejudiced, but at the same time possess conflicting, often non-conscious, negative feelings and beliefs about Blacks that are rooted in basic psychological processes that promote racial bias…
The negative feelings that aversive racists have towards Blacks typically do not reflect open antipathy, but rather consist of more avoidant reactions of discomfort, anxiety, or fear.
Symbolic racists believe that black people violate American civic norms such as hard work, individualism, patriotism, and impulse control. Symbolic racists also possess high levels of white racial resentment towards people of color–African-Americans in particular–and are highly motivated in their political decision-making and racial attitudes by stereotypes which link black people to criminality, rape, violence, and other types of social disorder.
Symbolic racism is one of the core tenets of contemporary, post civil rights era American conservatism. It is embodied by the Southern Strategy, “birtherism”, racial dog whistle politics, and the white supremacist paranoia and overt racial hostility towards President Barack Obama by the White Right and the Tea Party GOP.
As demonstrated by the Remington Group’s poll, aversive and symbolic racists support Darren Wilson because of their subconscious racial biases, identification with an ostensibly race neutral belief in the merits of “law and order”, and a belief that black people are inherently criminal, dangerous, and a threat to white society.
The 62 percent of white respondents in St. Louis who support Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown mirror other larger national surveys and experiments which show that white Americans support racist, and punitive punishments for black offenders–even when they have been made aware that the punishment is racially discriminatory and unfair.
For at least 300 years, America’s police departments have served as the armed wing of the Racial State. In that role, they help to maintain and monitor the color line in the service of white America at the expense of blacks, Latinos, First Nations peoples, and other non-whites.
By analogy, America’s wars abroad are fought by an increasingly small percentage of the population; drones are making killing a “clean” and “bloodless” affair for the American people and its leaders.
Supporting a system of white privilege and white supremacy, America’s police departments function in much the same way in how they treat black and brown communities. White America can look away and feign ignorance until events such as Ferguson momentarily force the reality of racist policing to the national front stage. But ultimately, racist police practices are perpetuated and overlooked because white society deems them a net gain and a social good because they protect “us” from “them”.
The divides in public opinion regarding the events in Ferguson, the killing of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and many others by white police or white identified street vigilantes, as well as the resulting racially incendiary language online and across the Right-wing hate media, indicate that white supremacy remains a serious social problem in the United States.
Racism is not a mental illness. However, the metrics and tools that have been developed to measure it are extremely helpful in trying to understand and locate white racism within a proper social, historical, and political context.
In response to the Holocaust, Gordon Allport developed a scale for measuring racism and prejudice.
As described by noted psychologist Alvin Poussaint:
Extreme racists’ violence should be considered in the context of behavior described by Allport in The Nature of Prejudice. Allport’s 5-point scale categorizes increasingly dangerous acts. It begins with verbal expression of antagonism, progresses to avoidance of members of disliked groups, then to active discrimination against them, to physical attack, and finally to extermination (lynchings, massacres, genocide). That fifth point on the scale, the acting out of extermination fantasies, is readily classifiable as delusional behavior.
The public speech acts and other behaviors by the defenders of Darren Wilson and his ilk, both online and across the public sphere, more generally, exemplify the range of behaviors identified by Allport. The White Right’s response to the election of Barack Obama, twice, is also a mass display of the guidelines developed by Allport for measuring white racism as a continuum of violent acts that culminate with racially delusional behavior.
The divergences in white and black public opinion about the killing of Michael Brown reveals one of the central paradoxes of American life during post civil rights era America.
Black people as a product, consumer good, image, and embodiment of the “cool pose” are loved, emulated, and imitated. Yet, 91 percent of white Americans do not have one black person in their social network.
While the black culture industry can sell blackness to White America through rap music, sports, fashion, style, and other venues, the American media still circulates distorted, inaccurate, and deranged depictions of black humanity to a global public. The news media is especially guilty in this regard: television news programs misrepresent and exaggerate the amount of crime committed by black people while simultaneously under-reporting the amount of crime committed by whites.
It is likely that the vast majority of the 62 percent of St. Louis respondents who support Darren Wilson, the cowardly cop who shot and killed an unarmed and surrendering black youth named Michael Brown multiple times in broad daylight, do not have personal animus towards Michael Brown the person.
However, the white respondents in that survey, as well as in others, hold bigoted, hateful, and racist ideas towards the idea of Michael Brown as a black person–and the idea of him as a black male.
America is a racially segregated society. The white collective imagination fills in the gaps in its understanding of black people as real, complex, dynamic, human beings with the fictions, fantasies, and lies they have learned from the mass media, the educational system, friends and family, churches, as well as social institutions.
The result of these processes is a white collective memory which reinforces white privilege and depicts non-whites as somehow less than and inferior relative to white people.
In this twisted worldview, it is wholly rational and reasonable for a person to believe that Darren Wilson was “within his rights” to kill Michael Brown.
White privilege distorts and ruins the ethical, moral, and cognitive processes of those who subscribe to and are invested in Whiteness. The 62 percent of white St. Louis residents who support Darren Wilson are proof of that fact.