These are trying and emotional times, which is to be expected after we have all seen videos of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdering an unarmed black man, George Floyd, over the course of nine minutes right in front of our eyes. If this tragic event does not open all our eyes to the evils of racism, what will? If it does not enable the rest of us to understand black rage, what will? If it does not convince us of the need for significant change, what will?
Understanding the psychology of ethical decision making is at the center of what we do here at Ethics Unwrapped. Racism leads to the most unethical decision making imaginable, yet we have not spent enough time focusing on that all-important topic. In 2016, in a blog post about Colin Kaepernick’s Black Lives Matter protests, we explained that liberals and conservatives tend to have different values. Liberals focus on caring and fairness. These values are not unimportant to conservatives, but conservatives are also heavily influenced by what Jonathan Haidt calls “binding” values—loyalty to the in-group, obedience to authority, and sanctity or purity. This last value can cause people to abhor things they find disgusting and can cause people to invest objects with irrational value. Thus, when Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem at football games, most liberals focused on his “Black Lives Matter” cause, and the unfairness of racism and the damage it causes to people and society. But the values of authority and purity led many conservatives to condemn Kaepernick’s actions, ignoring the damage caused by racism, ignoring Kaepernick’s First Amendment right to speak out. Instead, they focused on his supposed disrespect to an object (the flag) that they invested with sacred values.
The powerful contrasting images of Kaepernick kneeling to protest violence against black people and a police officer kneeling on the neck of (and killing) a black man bring these issues to the forefront yet again. We can all hope that current protests lead to the change we need (though the accompanying violence and looting are unjustifiable and carry the added disadvantage of provoking opposition from people who value authority and purity, inviting their condemnation of protests that they might otherwise support).
The lessons from these videos are many, including the fact that although the vast majority of Americans consciously condemn racism and do not view themselves as racist, most of us are subject to implicit racism (and other forms of unconscious bias) whether we like it or not. And we see the impact in society every day.
People in Minnesota are nice. Garrison Keillor and the Prairie Home Companion radio show made that clear. Yet the numbers coming from that land of kind people are startling:
- Police use force against Black people at 7 times the rate of Whites.
- The “unconscious neck restraint” that murdered George Floyd has been use 44 times in the past five years in Minneapolis. Sixty-one percent of the time, it was used on black people who make up only 20% of the population.
- In Minneapolis, a white family earning $42,000 per year is more likely to be given a home loan by a bank than a black family earning $167,000 per year.
While it is likely that there are some consciously racist police officers and loan officers in Minneapolis, the vast majority likely do not see themselves this way. Yet the numbers are undeniable.
As research on the in-group/out-group phenomenon indicates, people tend to favor those in their in-group and to disfavor those in their out-group. They often do not realize their discrimination because they are unconsciously judging in-group and out-group members with different parts of their brains. Psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald write: “The brain, it turns out, engages two different clusters of neurons in thinking about other people, and which cluster gets activated depends on the degree to which one identifies with those others.”
In a recent column, Orfield and Stancil explain how police officer Derek Chauvin and victim George Floyd “might as well have lived on different planets,” given their backgrounds. Floyd grew up in one of Houston’s poorest and most segregated neighborhoods. Chauvin lived mostly in very white neighborhoods. It seems extremely unlikely that Chauvin would have treated someone who looked like him or grew up in a similar neighborhood as cruelly and callously as he treated George Floyd.
The good news, as the implicit bias video points out, is that we don’t have to live entirely subject to the whim of these unconscious biases. Most importantly, we need to summon up moral imagination, the realization that even our routine choices and relationships have an ethical dimension that can adversely affect others (Powers and Vogel). This requires some diligence on our part to think carefully about how our actions—and our inactions, our tacit acceptance of an unacceptable status quo—may contribute, even in indirect and seemingly small ways, to the systemic racism in our society. To delve into that topic is beyond the scope of this modest blog, but fortunately, others are beginning to give the topic sustained attention (Jeffers). If we truly wish to be ethical citizens, all of us as individuals must use our moral imagination and give it sustained attention as well.
While doing so, remember the words of Minnesota’s Governor Tim Walz: “I don’t think we get another chance to fix this.”
Mahzarin R. Banaji & Anthony G. Greenwald, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People (2013).
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (2012).
Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, Twin Cities in Crisis: Unequal Treatment of Communities of Color in Mortgage Lending (April 2014), at https://www.law.umn.edu/sites/law.umn.edu/files/metro-files/imo-twin-cities-lending-report-2014-final.pdf.
Gromer Jeffers, Jr., Curbing Police Violence Against Black Residents Must Include Stopping Systemic Oppression, Dallas Morning-News, June 1, 2020.
Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days (1984).
Richard A. Oppel & Lazaro Gamio, Minneapolis Police Use Force Against Black People at 7 Times the Rate of Whites, New York Times, June 3, 2020.
Myron Orfield & Will Stancil, George Floyd and Derek Chauvin Might as Well Have Lived on Different Planets, New York Times, June 3, 2020.
Charles Powers & David Vogel, Ethics in the Education of Business Managers (1980).
Tim Walz, CNN, (June 3, 2020), at https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2020/06/03/omar-jimenez-gov-tim-walz-george-floyd-memorial-intv-vpx.cnn.