May 16, 2021

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What is ‘Structural’ Bias? – The Mountain-Ear

Dear editor,

It seems like one of the riskiest things a Caucasian can do today is expressing an opinion about racial justice. However, I believe in the cultural virtue of open dialogue on important issues and so I will move forward. In view of the current norms, however, I will anticipate my remarks by recognizing my deficit in lived experience. In today’s lexicon, my background is an economic and racist privilege.

I do not remember ever doing or saying things that are supposed to belittle others because of their race, but this observation is incomplete as it only addresses my intentions. Research into the neuroscience of unconscious bias suggests that we are often unaware of the latent abbreviations and subtle taxonomies that our brains standardly use when assessing other people. This gap between “associative” perception and conscious thinking suggests that the way our words and actions are received is a better measure of racial tone than intended.

For the past decade, Critical Race Theory (CRT) has supplanted traditional liberalism and bourgeois thinking about racial justice, at least for the progressive left. CRT was conceived as a framework for legal reform in the 1970s and turned into a political agenda in the 1990s. CRT is based on two core beliefs. First, this white privilege is a tenacious feature of American society that is spread through legal and judicial mechanisms. White privilege, of course, is the notion that members of the dominant race will accrue a variety of benefits and advantages. Second, the CRT claims that it is possible to change the relationship between law and racial power and through this process to achieve widespread equality.

The schism between the CRT and traditional civil rights philosophy is profound. CRT questions concepts such as legal equality and constitutional neutrality, which are fundamental to liberal democracy. For example, CRT claims that reason and empathy are not enough to give privileged people an adequate understanding of the lived experiences of marginalized people. CRT also argues that bias often undermines supposedly racially neutral processes in our legal system and excuses violations of the constitutional rights of non-whites. It is also alleged that hate speech does not deserve protection under the First Amendment since it is, in fact, a form of violence. CRT rejects traditional liberalism’s emphasis on color blindness and meritocracy and advocates an inherently racial approach to social transformation. Where liberalism advocates a commitment to equal opportunities, the CRT advocates “justice in results”.

While I was deeply concerned about the police brutality, until recently I was skeptical of the CRT’s argument that our legal institutions are structurally biased against people of color. Statistics compiled by Heather Mac Donald and other scientists show that the frequency of police shootings per arrest does not vary significantly by race. Over time, I’ve been persuaded by the abuse of martyrs like Trayvon Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Mac Donald and Broken Window Policing Tactics Defenders fail to properly explain the massive difference in police presence in minority communities. I believe that this difference in attention paid to crime is a structural distortion on the part of law enforcement agencies.

Ironically, the practice of over-surveillance of color communities has been facilitated by another structural form of bias. Redlining is the systematic denial of services by the government or the private sector based on race, ethnicity, religion, or gender. Prior to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, American communities were overtly segregated by racially forbidden zoning laws. The federal government also considered predominantly black parts of the city to be “risky” and prevented banks from writing mortgages for them. Even after the FHA was passed, mortgage lenders and landlords often used covert redlining (e.g. different interest rates based on the race of the borrower) to suppress minority home ownership.

Segregated communities and low home and land ownership rates have reduced the opportunities for wealth creation for minorities in the post-slavery era. At the end of the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman promised four million freed slaves of land they would own, a policy known as “40 acres and a mule”. Instead, after Lincoln’s assassination, his successor Andrew Johnson turned down the deal. Black Americans started their liberated lives empty-handed. By some estimates, land would have been worth up to $ 3.1 trillion today.

At the same time that ex-slaves were denied their promised land, the US government was incentivizing most white Americans to build wealth. In 1862 the government passed the Homestead Acts, a series of laws designed to help colonize the West. The federal government distributed 270 million acres of land, mostly stolen by Native Americans, to settlers. Today 48 million Americans are descendants of the Homesteaders who have benefited from that size.

This relates to the police brutality debate as affluent communities have lower crime rates and black households currently own only 3.8% ($ 4 trillion) of US household wealth ($ 116 trillion). Different crime rates and the racially motivated “war on drugs” have historically been the most widespread reason to justify demands for a stronger and more permanent police presence in minority communities. A history of structural distortions in economic opportunities indirectly led to overpolicing of minority neighborhoods.

Redlining has gradually declined in the face of a more active enforcement of fair housing conditions, but the structural prejudices of the federal government have not disappeared. One worrying example was exposed in a class action lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture in 1999. In Pigford v. Glickman, the USDA was accused of systematic racial discrimination in agricultural loan distribution and assistance between 1981 and 1996. The Pigford case is a fascinating example of how overlapping economic and political barriers can impede access to supposedly racially neutral government programs.

In the Jim Crow era, African Americans in southern states were systematically disenfranchised from political participation and driven from their farms through lynching and KKK terrorism. By the early 20th century, the southern states had effectively established a one-party apartheid system ruled by white democrats. Most African Americans excluded from political power also had no access to credit, which resulted in even more farmers losing their land. In Mississippi, where 2/3 of all farmers were black in the late 19th century, most African Americans were forced to jointly breed or run tenants. By 1992, the number of black-owned farms had declined by 98%.

When a global crash in commodity prices in the 1980s sparked a farm recession, several relief laws were passed to address the crisis. However, USDA programs have been administered primarily at the county level. Agricultural loan approval decisions were made by 3-5 committee members in each county. Even after African Americans were able to vote again in the late 1960s, these USDA committees remained largely white. The historical pattern of discrimination against minority farmers therefore remained undiminished.

Following the lawsuit against Pigford, the USDA officially admitted discriminating against black farmers. In 1999, a US district court ruled in favor of more than 13,000 plaintiffs and set up a settlement pool of over $ 1 billion, the largest civil rights settlement in US history. Another 70,000 farmers were late filing or exempting from class, so a 2008 bill included a procedure for additional claims. In 2010, Congress allocated $ 1.2 billion to deal with these additional plaintiffs. Most recently, the US rescue plan signed by President Biden provided $ 4 billion in debt relief and $ 1 billion in aid to socially disadvantaged farmers, benefiting many who were not compensated by the Pigford Settlements. Proponents identified this part of the Aid Act as the most important piece of legislation for African American farmers since the Civil Rights Act.

The critical theory of race is nuanced and controversial. I find some of its principles illogical, but it is rightly argued that structural racial prejudice persists in our institutions. In the spirit of our liberal-democratic traditions, I still think empathy and intention are important, and equating language with violence is counterproductive.

If I channeled MLK, I would argue that our compass should be aimed at going post-racial rather than persistently becoming racial. However, the CRT and recurring examples of police brutality strongly suggest that we will not achieve the “dream” of MLK until we fully acknowledge and address the spread of structural prejudice in our society.

Derek Ridgley
The Netherlands

(Originally published April 15, 2021, issue of The mountain ear.)