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Friday, February 3, 2023

Make Black lives matter more in America

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The acquittal of another officer in Freddie Gray’s death reinforces our need to make Black lives matter more. For too long unjustified police violence and the failure to hold perpetrators accountable has been a recurring nightmare in our society. The Black Lives Matter movement has been the voice needed to wake us up from this night terror yet to correct this reality we have to see it for what it is beyond these horrific killings.

Across American society, there is a gross disparity in how Black people are treated and valued relative to whites and others. In education, in housing, in employment, in politics, in healthcare, and elsewhere, Black lives do not count as much as others in America. The school to prison pipeline; housing segregation and mortgage discrimination; discrimination in hiring, firing, and promotion in workplaces; common racial hostility to Black candidates; and less attentive treatment by physicians all make clear that Black lives matter less in the U.S.

But let’s be honest. This is not a new reality for Black folks. As I have mentioned before in this column, social dominance theory maintains that America like other societies has a group-based social hierarchy. Under it, whites have much more than their fair share of positive things valued in the society like wealth, good housing and healthcare, political power, and formal education. African-Americans, in contrast, have a disproportionate share of the negative things in the society like low quality housing, unemployment, worse medical outcomes, and disproportionate punishment.

Particular social beliefs are the main ingredients for maintaining these inequalities. I will call them hierarchy sustaining ideas. They make the group based inequalities seem fair, normal, and natural. The widespread belief in white genetic superiority and Black genetic inferiority are two classic examples. Today, they have largely been replaced by the belief in white cultural superiority and Black cultural inferiority. While other social beliefs like racial equality that challenge hierarchy sustaining ideas exist beliefs in the equality of subordinate groups are never fully accepted. Consider how implicit views of Black inferiority linger under the surface waiting to be expressed, like claims of Black hyper-criminality raised in the wake of the deaths of innocent Blacks at the hands of police.

Beyond the ideas that support group inequality, institutions and organizations keep inequality in place. Hierarchy sustaining institutions give whites many more opportunities and benefits than other group members in the society. Think about how banks, corporations, and political parties for example all reinforce America’s racial inequality through their routine practices. Likewise, the criminal justice system plays a special role in maintaining group dominance since African-Americans and other subordinate group members are vastly over represented in stops, arrests, convictions, and imprisonment.

Through these institutions group based discrimination spreads across society without Jim Crow signs or cross burnings. Individuals also play a role under social dominance since they reinforce beliefs in Black cultural inferiority and criminality within and outside of institutions. The media, likewise, reinforces these beliefs though their stereotypical portrayals and representations of racial identity.

Under the system, institutions like these recreate social inequality on a daily basis with little effort. On the other hand, challenging dominance takes great effort and risk. This unbalanced relationship and the acquiescence and apathy of African-Americans and others in the society keeps dominance firmly in place. Of course, African-Americans, whites, and other allies risk personal reprisals for confronting or challenging police mistreatment police and other inequities. Before the Black Lives Matter Movement, most African-Americans accommodated themselves to police abuses and accepted them as the sad reality of American life. Others faulted fellow African-Americans for not being sufficiently respectful to authorities or ignorantly dismissed victims as hoodlums or thugs.

So what should African-Americans and others who believe in equality and justice do about police violence? Protest, organize, and mobilize of course, but we must recognize that police brutality is the tragic symptom of a larger problem. Until we solve it by dismantling institutional inequality and discrediting hierarchy sustaining ideas, Black lives will continue to matter less to the police just like they do across the rest of society.

Carlton Waterhouse is a professor of law and Dean’s Fellow at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

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