Gray Matter

We in the Ivy League like to think of ourselves as progressive: our schools offer the best financial aid packages, record some of the highest minority enrollment, and frequently produce research at the vanguard of a variety of social issues.

Lately, Yale has placed particular focus on overcoming racial barriers. In 2007, President Richard Levin asked the incoming freshman class to read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. Tatum, who also serves as president of the historically black Spellman College, gave the opening address after which students discussed her comments with their new peers and freshman counselors. Later that year, after incidents of racist graffiti near Pierson College and snowball swastikas on Old Campus, Yale held town hall forums and other events to promote dialogue on race in hopes of preventing similar events from happening in the future. Last spring, Yale played host to the Connecticut chapter of the  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s centennial celebration. Long all-male, all-white, all-rich strongholds, the members of the Ivy League have slowly started to address their issues with race.

An event in Cambridge, Massachusetts this summer brought these ongoing struggles into the public eye. By now the story is familiar. Bleary-eyed Harvard scholar Henry Lewis Gates Jr. returns home from China to find that his door is jammed. Assisted by his driver, he forces the door open, prompting a neighbor to call the Cambridge police to report a possible break-in. The police arrive; six minutes later, Gates is led out of his own home in handcuffs and brought to jail on charges of disorderly conduct.

The facts are black and white, but their interpretation is far less clear. Gates, whose only offense was belligerent speech, insists his arrest was a blatant example of racial profiling.  “If I had been a white professor answering the door, there is no question in my mind that I would not have been arrested. I will go to my grave absolutely convinced of that.” On the other hand, Sergeant Crowley, who spent five years teaching Lowell police cadets about how to avoid racial profiling, insists that professor Gates’ race played no part in his arrest. It is unclear whether the Gates incident was a display of racial profiling, or simply a tale of two egos. Regardless, what the episode clarified is that Ivy League campuses, however tolerant they may purport to be, are not immune to racial tensions.

Several years ago in the dead of winter, Yale professor Gerald Jaynes walked into the psychology building for a meeting with a senior psychology professor. The furnace had been broken for several days; the building was frigid and Jaynes, who has taught in Yale’s Economics and African American Studies departments since 1977, tied his “expensive-looking” overcoat even tighter around his suit to stay warm. As he was making his way down the hallway, two white professors exited the elevator and looked Jaynes up and down.

“Are you here to fix the furnace?” one inquired.

Jaynes paused. He stared silently at the men before retorting, “Well, at least you gave me a skill.”

Recalling the incident, Jaynes remarks, “It was pretty pitiful.” But Jaynes is generous. Recognizeing the complexity of racial profiling, he refuses to blame the junior professors for their misplaced perceptions. “It is unlikely that those junior professors were actually racist. But that just goes to show you how powerful stereotypes are. Usually black males in the psychology building were there to do some type of handiwork so they just assumed that’s why I was there. Instead of taking into consideration how I was dressed, all they could see was ‘black male’.”

Similar episodes of racial profiling are not rare.

Many black Yale students cite instances of how, at night, women will clutch their purses when passing them, people will cross the street to get away from them, and other students will sometimes slam residential college gates in their faces if their IDs aren’t readily accessible.

It may at first seem surprising that an institution that prides itself on attempts to counter racism could play host to such bias. But, as many scholars have pointed out, cross-racial interactions can often cause presumably smart people to act in ways that are not logical.

Furthermore, although racism is often seen as a scourge of the ignorant, Dr. John Dovidio, a professor in the Yale psychology department whose research focus is aversive racism, explains that prejudice has little to do with intelligence. “The way to think about implicit bias is as a habit of mind. When you grow up in a society with racist traditions, that’s basically as segregated now as it was thirty years ago, with big differences in socioeconomic status among different races, bias becomes a subliminal habit.”

Like most habits, racial profiling is not easy to prevent and will be even harder to eliminate. As Professor Jaynes’ story demonstrates, racial stereotyping is not always grounded in overt racism. Instead, racial profiling usually stems from implicit biases that subconsciously influence our behavior.

Implicit Association Tests such as “Project Implicit,” a web experiment sponsored by Harvard, show that 75-80 percent of self-identified whites and Asians show an implicit preference for white people relative to black people. Even more surprisingly, at least half of all black people surveyed demonstrated a preference for white people over black people.

In another study, participants are quickly exposed to photos of either a black or white man holding an ambiguous object and asked to identify the object as either a weapon or benign article. The researchers found that participants were much quicker to identify the unclear objects as weapons when the photos were of black men.  Respondents are often completely unaware of these biases, and usually identify themselves as unprejudiced on the pre-experiment surveys.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Mahzarin R. Banaji, the Harvard psychology professor who heads “Project Implicit,” said, “I think our data, obtained from millions and millions of people, show a real disparity between who we are, who we say we are…and what actually goes in our heads.”

Although what goes on in our minds may be implicit, the social ramifications are anything but. Wes Phillips, TD ‘10, recalls his anger at being asked for his ID when entering the Yale shuttle behind a long line of other students, all of whom were white or Asian and had not been asked for identification.

In another example, Jarrett Burks, CC ’10, was in the basement of Berkeley College, which he had reserved for the Yale Black Men’s Union to host an outreach event for black Wilbur Cross high-schoolers. The kids were bouncing basketballs and eating pizza when three Yale police officers suddenly appeared on the scene. They claimed to be responding to a call that a black male had broken into Berkeley and “was running around in a Yale football jacket.”

“Now, I understand that the police were just doing their jobs. But from the caller’s standpoint, does that make any sense?” Burks asks incredulously.

Dovidio’s research on aversive racism explores these questions. His findings are staggering.

“Unconscious biases get played out in ways that prevent people from recognizing that they’re biased but still have the same impact as old-fashioned racism.”

He brings up an example of a panel deciding whether or not to hire various job applicants.

“If the applicant has impeccably strong qualifications or incredibly weak qualifications—implicit biases aren’t expressed. You hire the strong candidate, not the weak candidate. But when you give people a mixture where an applicant has some traits that are good and some that aren’t, whites get hired more than blacks. When the applicant is white, the panel weighs the qualification that the white is stronger in more heavily. When the applicant is black, they weigh the qualification that the black person is weakest in.”

This type of bias is especially dangerous, as it is often expressed in ways that can be justified.

“Aversive racists rationalize their decisions in ways that have nothing to do with race. When people hire a white applicant with a high GPA but low SAT scores over a black applicant with a low GPA but high SAT scores, they can believe that their decision was based on the black applicant not having a high enough GPA.” Though this type of discrimination may not be intentional, the outcome is still the same: white people have a better chance of being hired than blacks.

People’s reluctance to talk about race is another fact that further hinders attempts to reduce racial profiling.

“Initiating cross-racial discussion would alleviate a lot of tension. But race is a tricky topic that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable,” comments Phillips. “Most people try to avoid talking about it at all costs.”

Among those tiptoeing around racial issues in New Haven is the Yale Police Department. According to Gila Reinstein, Yale’s Associate Director of Public Affairs, Yale has rules and regulations in place that explicitly prohibit the Yale Police from collecting racial statistics of crimes committed on campus. Reinstein maintains that the policy is meant to “avoid racial profiling.” The messages from Chief Perrotti that are sent out to alert the Yale community of criminal incidents on or near Yale’s campus lack racial descriptions of the perpetrators, even when the suspect is still at large.

Reinstein declined to comment on how Yale could justify ignoring skin color in their crime reports when such a policy makes it indisputably harder for the Yale community to recognize alleged offenders. She emphasized instead the requirement for, Yale Police officers to complete a course on “Cultural Awareness and Diversity” when they carry out their basic training at the Connecticut Police Academy in Meriden. Stan Konesky Jr., who was a lieutenant for 29 years in Branford, and now teaches this class, explains its mission as “heightening the officers’ consciousness of the differences between different peoples’ cultures, religions and backgrounds.”

When asked what concrete methods are used to help officers avoid racial profiling, Konesky waxed poetic about an activity involving a box of Crayola crayons.

“The officers are told to pick whatever crayon they want and express themselves on a large sheet of paper at the front of the room. So then you’ll have 40 or 50 officers who have all chosen different crayons of different colors and types – some may be broken, some may be sharp – and expressed themselves. Thus, the drawing becomes like a metaphor for the community – with lots of individual drawings of different colors and types all coming together as a whole.”

While this venture may be well-intentioned, it is not likely to put an end to racial profiling. Especially not when statistics seem to affirm the notion that black people are more likely to commit crimes than people of other races. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, offending homicide rates for blacks were more than seven times higher than the rates for whites. Another statistic claims that, based on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 32% of black males will enter State or Federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 17% of Hispanic males and 5.9% of white males.

But Dovidio insists this data should not be taken at face value. “Statistics get really complicated because if you look at the people who are incarcerated, blacks are in jail in a much higher proportion than whites are. In a way, it’s a logical base rate to think: ‘I’m looking for a criminal – I’ll look for a black person. But when you profile any group it can actually inflate the statistics. It’s self-perpetuating. You’re creating the reality.”

Yale Professor of Sociology Elijah Anderson agrees: “One of the main reasons we have such a high black incarceration rate is the persistence of concentrated, racialized urban poverty.  In this context, black men are often profiled and scrutinized; if white men were in the same position, we might have more white men in prison.” Anderson, therefore, thinks our only hope for eradicating racial profiling is for white people to put themselves in that position.

“The problem may not be dealt with until enough privileged people “get it,” so to speak.  And they can only “get it” through education about the root cause of this problem: the persistence of concentrated, racialized urban poverty.  Racial profiling on a broad scale is one of the ways in which the wider society, seeking to protect itself, reacts to a “dangerous” black urban underclass.

Anderson also believes that, due to their position as targets of racial profiling, black people often bring an extra measure of understanding to their cross-racial social interactions. In his book Streetwise, which explores urban life, the professor labels this extra layer of comprehension “street wisdom.” He claims that through repeated exposure to street life, as well as the stereotypes and fears that accompany it, individuals both black and white gain comfort “sharing the street with young black males.”

Similarly, Dovidio insists that our best chance at eliminating aversive racism is to increase interracial interactions. He believes this tactic would prove especially effective if people were exposed to more racial diversity from a young age.

“In the US we classify people based on three dimensions:  race, sex and age. People have argued that both age and sex have good evolutionary basis but the argument about race is socially constructed. If you can give people a lot of interracial exposure early on in life then race doesn’t become an important marker in how they see the world.”

Dovidio also stresses the importance of holding people accountable for their biases.

“Instead of walking around and saying ‘I’m not biased, I’m not biased’ we should be willing to stop and ask ‘Am I biased?’ When people become aware that they’re behaving in an unfair way, they’re the first to want to adjust it.”

Dovidio believes the Yale police should undertake this same exercise.

“How to eliminate racism? You make people pause, think and become

accountable. Police officers might not even be aware that they’re biased, but as long as they don’t record the race of a person – they’re never even acknowledging that they might be.”

Dovidio adds that to the minority community on Yale’s campus, the police seem to be ignoring an issue that is very salient to them.

“It’s very hard to establish trust that way. The safest neighborhoods are those with the faith, trust and cooperation of the community.”

But it is not just the police who are to blame. In the Burks incident, officers were responding to a concerned caller; similarly, the police had nothing to do with the initial misidentification of Jaynes. It is not just law enforcement that needs to build trust with their communities. It’s that we need to do a better job of policing ourselves.