On inadvertent racism.

On inadvertent racism.

A few years ago, my little brother got one of those fancy new telephones.  This prompted me to spend hours extolling the virtues of my own phone – it flips open and shut so that I won’t call anybody by mistake, it has big buttons that depress satisfyingly when I dial a new number, the battery stays charged for days, the maximum volume is very loud.

My brother soon grew sick of my paean.  “How much do you think your phone is worth?” he asked me.

“Oh, I don’t know, I mean, I bought it for thirty dollars, but that was a few years ago… twenty, maybe?”

“There it is.”

We were walking through the grocery store at the time. He’d pointed and, sure enough, a display cabinet offered telephones identical to my own for $4.99.

Not that this makes me like my device any less.  It’s amazing that such a splendorous piece of technology can be bought for under five bucks.  But it did startle me enough for my brother to accomplish his intended goal: getting me to shut up about it already.

Anyway, I joined a friend, briefly, while he was playing Pokemon Go.  I flipped open the phone, aimed the camera at a promising spot, then typed an “8.”  It looked something like a decapitated snowman.

“Look!” I shouted.  “I found an Acephalous Frostychu!  That’s a good one, right?”

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Gotta catch ’em all?

My friend was unimpressed.  Apparently the game is more fun when played using other people’s telephones.

Unless you’re playing in a minority neighborhood, that is.

Not just because it can be unwise to stroll blithely unaware of your surroundings in some areas.  To play the game, there are apparently various resources you have to obtain.  In some places, especially wealthy neighborhoods, these resources (like the traps you’ll need to enslave new gladiators) are easy to find.  You can play the game for free.  In other places, including many black neighborhoods, those resource centers are sparsely distributed.  The game items you need won’t be found free.  To play the same way in these areas, you’d need to shell out a bunch of money.

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This does not mean that Niantic, the company that developed Pokemon Go, had any racist motivation.  There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for why game resources were distributed the way they were: they based the new game’s maps off user-generated data from a prior game that was played most in wealthy areas.

The motivation was not based on racial prejudice.  But the outcome was consistent with it.

I’d argue that outcomes, visible to all, matter more than professed motivations.  Not that I think Pokemon Go matters much, but the designers should fix this.  I imagine the correction wouldn’t be very difficult to implement, and inadvertent racism probably hurts almost as much as the maliciously-intentioned real thing.

Plus, if Niantic fixes their game, they’d send an important message to the U.S. Supreme Court: you have to consider the consequences of an action, not just its motivation.

For instance, policing.  Black- and brown-skinned people are far more likely to be incarcerated than white-skinned people who engage in identical behaviors.  In the United States, this disparity seems racially motivated every step of the way; black Americans are treated worse by the police, by prosecutors, by judges, by parole boards, and by future employers whose jobs will be needed to stay out.

But there are always arguments that some of the disparity isn’t racially motivated.  Consider, as an example, the first foray into that long slide: an encounter with the police.  Well, no matter what you might be doing, you’re more likely to run into a police officer in minority neighborhoods.  The rationale is that police officers are more heavily concentrated in areas with “higher crime.”

We’ve assessed which areas are “higher crime” incorrectly, though.  For many years, police officers were distributed based on the number of prior arrests in an area, not the number of crimes that had been committed there.  This issue is discussed in Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime:

51P9fNxVlRL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The discouraging figures did not necessarily reflect actual crime on the ground as much as they did the flawed criminal justice data-gathering that accompanied the intensification of federal law enforcement programs.  Arrests were counted as part of the crime rate regardless of whether they produced a conviction, meaning, for example, that if a group of black youth were arrested for robbing a liquor store, all of those youth would be recorded as burglars and counted as part of the crime rate, even if they were subsequently released for lack of evidence.  Since black men under the age of twenty-four had the highest arrest rate in the United States – a result of the targeted law enforcement encouraged by the federal government – they were seen as responsible for the majority of the nation’s crime and skewed reported rates accordingly, even though crime was increasing faster in suburban and rural areas in the mid-1970s.

Racist decisions in the past produced bad data.  If we blithely use that data now, it doesn’t matter whether our motivations are good or evil: the outcome will be unfair.

Of course, many of us, in our day to day lives, do not choose where police officers are deployed.  But I’d argue that most white people make choices that might inadvertently abet our country’s racial injustice.  For instance, while driving: because minority drivers are stopped so much more frequently for minor infractions (at times with nightmarishly awful consequence), it is unfair for white drivers to take advantage of their implicit privilege.  After all, driving fast is more fun than following the speed limit.  You get places faster.  And some people can speed with the knowledge that they’re very unlikely to be stopped by the police.

Which would be fine if you were blithely ignorant.  But as soon as you know that others would face serious consequences over the indulgences permitted to you – for speeding, for smoking a jay, for questioning a teacher’s or police officer’s authority – carrying on with your life unchanged is (inadvertently!) racist.  In the words of Reverend Jim Wallis,

Wallis and AOS book, 2“To go along with racist institutions and structures such as the racialized criminal justice system, to obliviously accept the economic order as it is, and to just quietly go about our personal business within institutional racism is to participate in white racism.”