The Impact of Unintentional Discrimination

In my Crime & Punishment online course, we’re listening to some episodes of this NPR show called Justice Talking this week. The first episode is called Race and the Justice System, and it’s really good. If you have the time, you should listen to it.

The thing that bothered me about the show (and I said this on the class forum) was the way that everyone who insisted racism isn’t that bad in the criminal justice system was talking about racism as though it has to be intentional to have an impact.

James Fox and Sandra Russell in particular seemed to really construe racism in the criminal justice system solely as an intentional action consciously chosen by individual actors. That is, they didn’t seem to think that a non-racist person could be, in the performance of their job requirements, forced to enact racist policies encoded within the system. They didn’t seem to think that unconscious bias about racial characteristics could influence prosecutors, arresting officers, judges, etc. Fox and Russell seemed to be laboring under the (fairly common) assumption that the only “valid” actions of racism are the premeditated and intentional ones.

People can have perfectly good intentions and still perpetuate racist, sexist, and discriminatory behavior. It’s scary and it’s upsetting, because it means that someone who is not a racist or a sexist can say or do something that’s incredibly racist or sexist without meaning to. I can. You can.  That’s the scary part. It takes the term “bigot” away from some obviously ignorant neo-nazi with a noose in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other, and hands it back to allies and well-intentioned people.

Normally when the question of the intent/ result comes up, we as a culture are taught to give a little leeway. To be forgiving, have a sense of humor, let it slide. It’s not that big a deal. And maybe on a micro scale of individual experience, it actually is not that big a deal for some people. Ignoring a thoughtless microaggression and sidestepping a potentially emotionally draining interaction is something people do every day to keep the peace with family, friends, classmates, and coworkers.

But when microaggressions and “soft” discrimination continues to slide, it turns into these subconscious attitudes that permeate our interactions and assumptions about people. And you can think someone is a human being worthy of respect, like the hypothetical police officer Russell described who will drive 90 mph to save the life of a black youth who’s been shot, but still hold these unconscious stereotypes about their personalities, preferences, and background.

The way that Russell and Fox dismiss systemic racism because they do not believe any discriminatory outcomes to be intentional is really disturbing to me, because it seems to completely sidestep the reality that many choices are shaped by social location and the unconscious biases that permeate our society.

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One thought on “The Impact of Unintentional Discrimination

  1. I agree with you here Laura. From my own experiences of being abused… the statements you mention: “To be forgiving, have a sense of humor, let it slide.” Are exactly the mentality of bullies and abusers. If someone isn’t a bully or an abuser, they’re intimidated by such characters. After a while people become desensitized by such a mentality which creates the “let it slide” attitude allowing such discrimination to happen. I have a very high acuity of this mentality. I can smell it coming. When someone pulls that attitude on me I call them on the carpet. I don’t let them get away with it. It’s unacceptable.

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