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Story highlights

CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll on racism in America points to intractable forms of racial inequality

Marc Hill: Such evidence points to the gap between our collective racial fantasies and our lived realities

Editor’s Note: Marc Lamont Hill is a CNN political commentator and distinguished professor of African-American studies at Morehouse College. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

Over the past 15 months, Americans have paid considerably greater attention to issues of race and criminal justice. This attention will only intensify with the release of the CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll on racism in America. The poll’s findings not only spotlighted the racial perceptions of everyday Americans but also pointed to deeper and more intractable forms of racial inequality than we often like to acknowledge.

The poll found that 2 out of 10 blacks and Hispanics felt unfairly treated by the police over the past 30 days. This is virtually the same finding from the early 2000s where black Americans felt equally vulnerable to police misconduct (there is no data on what Hispanics would have said in 2000s). The poll also showed that 8 in 10 blacks and 2 in 3 Hispanics agree that the criminal justice system favors whites.

Marc Lamont Hill
Courtesy of Marc Lamont Hill
Marc Lamont Hill

Given the racial inequality across the criminal justice system – from arrests to charging to sentencing to death penalty application – this is hardly surprising.

Even 5 in 10 white Americans acknowledged the racial imbalance of our system.

Still, the realities of this observation may be tougher to redress than we are willing to admit. Despite the post-racial aspirations of many Americans in the Obama era, such evidence points to the growing gap between our collective racial fantasies and our lived realities.

This perception of mistreatment held by blacks and Hispanics is supported by empirical evidence.

For example, a UCLA study showed that black boys are viewed by law enforcement as “older and less innocent” than their white counterparts. This leads to circumstances where officers may excuse the behavior of a white teenager as a youthful indiscretion while treating a black or brown youth as an adult (and perhaps violent) criminal.

The challenge of such situations is that police are not necessarily operating from a place of intentional racism or differential treatment. To the contrary, they may sincerely intend to treat all adult criminals the same. Unfortunately, the psychology of racism is so deeply embedded within all of our minds – black officers often make the same errors of judgment – that people of color are disproportionately read as criminals.

This is why nearly every police shooting of an unarmed person is met with outrage from the public, and an equally passionate defense of the officers by friends, family, and colleagues who insist that they aren’t racist. The difficult truth, however, is that both may be true.

The officer may not have had racist intentions but, given the psychological evidence offered above, nonetheless engaged in actions borne out of racism.

Similar issues emerge in courts when white police officers are charged with shooting black citizens. In these cases, defense attorneys compel jurors (and the broader public) to put themselves in the shoes of the officer. Jurors are then legally tasked with invoking the “reasonable person” standard of common law: “What would a reasonable person do under the same conditions?” While such questions are typically helpful, they falter under the pressure of white supremacy, which has normalized the fear of black bodies for nearly 400 years.

As a result, jurors can relate to Darren Wilson’s fear of unarmed Michael Brown or even George Zimmerman’s fear of unarmed Trayvon Martin and decide that a shooting was justified because they, too, would have done the same thing. They too, saw the unarmed teens as violent threats.

Unfortunately, these determinations aren’t necessarily generated out of “objective” assessments of a threat, only a general consensus that certain people (or kinds of people) are threatening. Given our country’s commitment to reinforcing notions of black pathology through film, literature, music, religion, and the sciences, it is no surprise that people, even black people, have a heightened fear of blacks.

It also no surprise, then, that jurors are more prone to exonerate someone for shooting a Black person. In essence, the law can be used to codify irrational, white supremacist fears about Black and Brown people.

In order to truly address racial injustice, we must acknowledge what Princeton professor Imani Perry refers to as “post-intentional” racism. The concept, in part, suggests that we don’t need the presence of angry, foaming-at-the-mouth racists or blatant discrimination to legitimize or experience racism.

The challenge of this realization is that we can’t simply locate and eliminate racist “bad apples” – a blatantly racist police officer or a white supremacist juror– from our society. Rather, we must take up the deeper challenge of addressing the structural and psychological dimensions of racial injustice that exist everywhere, even the most “polite,” “progressive” or well-intentioned spaces.

We must accept that our collective problems cannot be resolved at the level of simple policy changes, even if we had the political or moral will to do so. We must question whether the current systems of law, economy or politics have the capacity to yield justice.

We must examine the ways that white supremacy is embedded deeply within our collective psyches and our social institutions. We must move beyond finger-pointing and ultimately arrive at new, creative and courageous responses to the dilemmas of racism in America.

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