The Racial Hierarchy That Continues to Infect Us

By Michael R. Wenger, Adjunct Faculty Member, Department of Sociology

Michael Brown, the young black man killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO, is yet another in the long list of unarmed black men, including three in the past month, who have suffered similar fates at the hands of police officers. Since mid-July, in addition to Brown, we’ve had the choke-hold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY and the shooting of Ezell Ford in Los Angeles. There is a long history of such events in this country, going back to slavery and the thousands of lynchings during the Jim Crow era.

Yet, amid the outrage over the Brown killing and all those who have gone before, we must not lose focus on the bigger picture. Since the founding of our nation, there has been a deeply-held belief in a racial hierarchy. This hierarchy assumes the superiority of white Americans and de-values the lives of non-white Americans. It has not been erased by the emancipation of enslaved people, by the civil rights movement, or by the election of a President with African ancestry. Until it is erased, we will continue to witness such killings.

This racial hierarchy manifests itself in both conscious and unconscious ways. Consciously, there have been, among other atrocities, the brutal system of slavery and the era of Jim Crow racism that followed emancipation; major Federal legislation—Social Security and the GI Bill, to name two—that consciously sought to exclude African Americans; and government policies, both written and unwritten, that have institutionalized residential segregation and resulted in the mass incarceration of young men of color.

The mitigation of some of these conscious manifestations has not ended the embedded, often subconscious belief in a racial hierarchy. For example, research clearly shows that school discipline is significantly harsher for students of color, that hiring practices still substantially favor white men, and that shooter bias severely endangers black people. Scholars such as john powell and Dr. Phillip Goff have written extensively in recent years about implicit racial bias and the significant role it plays in these outcomes. Further, the Implicit Association Test available online demonstrates that even anti-racist activists carry subconscious racial biases that affect their behaviors.

These biases are exacerbated by a range of institutional policies and practices—for example, the disproportionate picturing on television newscasts of black people arrested for crimes compared to white people arrested for similar crimes, the continued disregard in American history and American literature curricula for the contributions of non-whites to the building of this country, and racial profiling that leads to the disproportionate engagement of black people with the criminal justice system.

Clearly, we have made progress in the past 50 years, although the loved ones of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Farrell, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Sean Bell, and countless others might disagree. However, until we become fully aware of and deeply committed to undoing the embedded belief in a racial hierarchy that infects us all, there inevitably will be more Michael Browns.