Dr. Chris Liang talks about how conceptions of a larger conception of family might guide changes in law enforcement in order to reduce the number of shootings of Black boys and men by police.
Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, Tony Terrell Robinson and Walter Scott. As my social media account is flooded with posts of killing after killing of Black boys and men, I think about the pain the families must feel and I think about what we must do to prevent more violence. The Hawaiian concept of Ohana, or family, also comes to mind. Ohana extends family beyond the nuclear or even extended kin. It’s meaning is deeper than the structure of family. It suggests that all people are bound together by a common root. I am not Hawaiian, but Ohana reflects my belief that all people should be afforded the opportunity to succeed in life and also feel a bond or sense of affiliation with one another. Ohana suggests the need to care for one another – as family.
Unfortunately our history, as well as the recent events of violence, denigration, and continued attempts at marginalization against Black and Brown people, tells us that this is not yet the case in the United States. For many people of color, these events are familiar and deeply personal. Ohana is missing, has always been missing. Why is this sense of family, of brotherhood and sisterhood, so elusive? Strengthening this sense of connection and responsibility to one another entails an understanding of the barriers to an inclusive family and necessitates efforts to address the systems where racism lie. Some fairly well-understood psychological principles can help us understand our seeming inability to treat one another as family.
Scholarship on in-groups and out-groups can help to explain the responses of law enforcement to events of Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY. Whereas, in-groups are any group that an individual shares an affiliation, out-groups are those that an individual does not. Police Associations serve many good purposes. They are a family of families. Their sense of duty to one another, the families of fallen brothers and sisters, as well as their commitment to protecting their rights as workers is as strong as it should be. Their service to one another strengthens their in-group identity. The problem is not that individuals feel a deep sense of responsibility to one another but in how strong in-group identity often results in (1) an out-group being viewed as threatening and dangerous, (2) an inability to view the concerns of the out-group as valid, and (3) valorizing the behaviors of the in-group (e.g., comments about police sacrifice). Their reaction to events of police violence is not simply a matter of academic interest. Their behaviors have demonstrated the boundaries of their in-group and has had the effect of pitting them against anyone or group that might critique their work. Instead of working with the community to heal, their responses have resulted in even higher levels of distrust between themselves and the people who don’t fall in line with their thinking.
The behaviors of police officers also can be explained by work on social norms. Perceptions of social norms are theorized to dictate which actions are appropriate or even desired. For instance, although masculine norms of protecting others may influence some men (and women) to become police officers, hypermasculine gender role norms of toughness, power, and control as ways to deal with problems may act in concert with the militarization of police departments to produce the gross overuse of police force we witnessed in response to demonstrators in Ferguson, MO.
Scholarship on bias also can be used to understand the actions of law enforcement. It is not uncommon to hear police officers report that they “feared for their lives” as a defense in cases involving them doing harm to Black and Brown men. Tests of implicit assumptions indicate that bias. People, based on their experiences, limited contact with people from diverse backgrounds, and use of misinformation, build associations that result in the formation of stereotypes that often are detrimental to the well-being of women and men of color, White women, and queer women and men. The reliance on stereotypes is often not in our conscious awareness. In experimental studies, psychologists have found that implicit bias reduces the likelihood of preschool boys of color being seen as having child-like innocence. Instead, preschool boys, adolescent boys (e.g., Michael Brown; Tony Terrell Robinson) and adult men (e.g., Eric Garner) who are Black or Brown are seen as threatening. Implicit bias reduces the opportunity for young boys of color to experience childhood mistakes and play (e.g., Tamir Rice) and steals away their humanity.
Understanding how implicit bias operates is helpful in explaining how boys and young men of color are more likely to be referred for disciplinary action, more likely to receive harsher punishment (i.e., suspension, expulsion), less likely to be gifted programs, and more likely to be referred for special education in public schools than white counterparts. Black and Brown men also are more likely to be stopped by law enforcement, encounter more use of police force, and receive longer sentences than white counterparts. Though seemingly unrelated, biased practices in schools contribute to a pre-school to prison pipeline. Unchecked bias results in the disparities we see in our prison population as well as in the tragic and unnecessary the loss of Black and Brown life.
In spite of these current problems, Black and Brown men are obtaining postsecondary education at the highest rates ever. Recent events at Oklahoma University (Sigma Alpha Epsilon), while shocking to the country, were not a surprise to those of us who have spent any time on college campuses. The only difference is that these actions were caught on video for the world to see. “Ethnic-themed” parties by fraternities and sororities, more stringent security requirements for events hosted by Black students, racial slurs, racial microaggressions, and overt acts of racism are not uncommon on college campuses. These all contribute to hostile environments for all students of color. The success of Black and Brown men and women, in the context of racially hostile environments, police violence, and suspect policy (e.g., stop and frisk), should be celebrated. Their achievement reflects the powerful words of Maya Angelou, “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies. You may trod me in the very dirt. But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
In the context of the police violence, my own efforts to study how people of color cope with racism seem misplaced. More must be done than simply relying on people of color to rise like Phoenixes from heaps of ash. Systemic changes to the structures and institutions that enable racism must be made in order for us to move closer to a place of Ohana, where all people regardless of race are given real opportunities for success and connection. This includes:
(1) re-envisioning when and how law enforcement engages the community they serve. For instance, outgroup denigration and use of implicit bias may be reduced if police officers were to live in the same community she or he serves and if their responsibilities were to shift from policing to community engagement through youth enrichment activities.
(2) challenging systems that, however well-intended, contribute to educational disparities. For instance, cuts to federal safety net programs must be stopped and greater levels of support (e.g., school counselors) given to students so that no child is actually left behind;
(3) providing professional development opportunities to help educators and law enforcement so that they can recognize and short circuit unconscious bias that places people of color at risk for disparities in education and the criminal justice system;
(4) requiring collection of pertinent data on policing practices from law enforcement as well as disciplinary and special education practices of school districts to monitor and identify the need to remedy injustice;
(5) re-envisioning disciplinary practices in schools and communities to include the use restorative justice practices and training officers to use de-escalation strategies over force.
The problems are great, the solutions are not easy, but in addressing them we allow for another individual to have a chance at life, we bring out the humanity in each other and ourselves, we live for one another, we move toward Ohana.
Dr. Christopher Liang is an associate professor of counseling psychology at Lehigh University. He studies how perceived racism and masculinity ideologies are associated with the academic, psychological, and physiological health, and health-related behaviors of ethnic minority boys and men. Dr. Liang currently serves on the Editorial Boards of The Counseling Psychologist and the Psychology of Men and Masculinity and is co-editing, “Contextualizing the Costs of Racism for People of Color.” He is a past-president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity.