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‘Here Is Your Brain on Race’: Democrats Engage in Hearing on Race and Justice

Adele M. Stan

Exploring overt racism, unconscious bias, and the ravages of inequality, Democratic lawmakers sought solutions in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict.

In a hearing room on Capitol Hill, an extraordinary thing happened on Tuesday: a real discussion about race, justice, and the nature of prejudice. I’m not talking about a sanitized display of empathy or a mere indignant recounting of justice denied. No, this was an honest talk about the underpinnings of racism, not just its resulting tragedies and travesties.

The occasion, titled “A Conversation About Race and Justice,” was a hearing called by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi under the aegis of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee at the request of the Congressional Black Caucus in the wake of the exoneration of George Zimmerman for the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, 17-year-old African American, in Sanford, Florida.

Appearing before the committee were three witnesses: Eugene Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist; Maya Wiley, president of the Center for Social Inclusion; and Morris Dees, founder and chief trial attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

At the meeting, committee co-chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) recited well-worn statistics about the over-representation of African Americans among the poor (including 40 percent of African-American children), an unemployment rate nearly double that of the national average, and the much higher rates of convictions for minor drug offenses endured by Black offenders when compared with those for whites. “African Americans make up 15 percent of the nation’s drug users,” she said. “They are 37 percent of those arrested, 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense. That is not right.”

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Co-Chair Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) stated that in its recent decision striking down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court had “vandalized” the landmark law.

“Over the past few months, the foundation on which this country was built has been shaken,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. As evidence, she noted, in addition to the high court’s June decision on the Voting Rights Act, “we’ve seen programs that work to close the gaps in educational, economic, and health inequities come under attack.”

Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), assistant minority leader, was acknowledged by Pelosi for his decades in the civil rights movement. He went on to remind those assembled that Martin Luther King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” was written in response to a letter King received from eight pastors in the civil rights movement who asked him to leave Birmingham because they thought him to be “a disruptive force” whose timing was off “even if his cause was right.” King’s response, Clyburn said, was an indictment not just of those who spewed hatred and vitriol, but for “the appalling silence of good people.”

“We are here today, hopefully, to break a silence that has permeated this country on this question of race and justice,” Clyburn said.

Once the witnesses began to speak, the political speechifying gave way to a more nuanced discourse that examined the unconscious biases of most Americans, and the obstructions to racial equality that are built into the very institutions of American society.

“A Secret Hiding in Public”

“Racial profiling is a secret hiding in public, and America’s becoming increasingly armed and dangerous,” said Morris Dees. “And those two things make a recipe for disaster.” He recounted the words of juror B-37 of the Zimmerman trial, who claimed that race had nothing to do with the trial or the verdict—that Zimmerman was simply profiling a potential criminal. But it was Martin’s race that defined him that way, Dees suggested.

He went on to recount the story of the Jena Six to illustrate the ways in which African-American boys are “overcharged” with crimes, and often given punishments greater than those of white boys for “status offenses”—essentially the breaking of rules—in schools, often leading to their suspension or introduction to the juvenile justice system. In Jena, Louisiana, six African-American high-school boys were charged with attempted murder for getting into a fight with white students after three nooses were found hanging from a tree at which they had asked permission to gather.

After their case became a national news story when civil rights leaders organized a massive protest, Dees’ Southern Poverty Law Center provided legal representation for the boys, preventing five of the six from serving time.

His own mission to fight racial injustice, said Dees, who is white, was shaped by what he saw of the plight of African Americans when he was growing up on a cotton farm in Alabama, “where race was the only issue—it was Jim Crow,” he said.

Dees suggested that Congress pass an act in the name of Trayvon Martin “to address the issues of racial profiling” by making federal funds for highways and other projects conditional on the state’s elimination of racial profiling by police.

Of Race and Racism

In her testimony, Maya Wiley sought to draw a distinction between overtly racist attitudes and the biases, both conscious and unconscious, that determine the shapes of institutions, and limitations to access experienced by people of color.

To illustrate an episode of overt racism that took place against a racially complex backdrop, Wiley, who is African-American, conveyed a story told to her by her cousin about a family friend, a college-age Black man who was shot dead during a street confrontation in Lexington, Kentucky, with two white men who were around the same age.

The white men were in a car stopped near the car occupied by the Black man, when one of the white men “hurled a racial epithet,” said Wiley. When the Black man left his car and approached the car occupied by the white men, one of them shot him. The shooter, she said, was never charged.

What was not reported by the news media, Wiley said, was the fact that the Black man was dating the white ex-girlfriend of one of the white men. Wiley had come by the back story, she said, via the white step-daughters of her cousin, who is African-American. The young women were school friends with the young man who was killed.

So, Wiley said, the story was at once an example of “the incredible strides we have made in this country, because my cousin has two beautiful step-daughters who are white with whom she is extremely close,” and that her understanding of the story came to her through the two young white women who were friends with the young Black man who was killed.

Wiley asked the lawmakers to consider not just what she called the “overt racism” that leads to episodes such as that, but also the implicit biases that we all carry with us as a result of conditioning.

“We have two decades of social science that actually show us that our laws and policies have not kept pace with what we know about the human brain,” Wiley said. “Here is your brain on race,” Wiley said; according to a study commissioned by the Associated Press, she continued, “56 percent [of Americans] have negative attitudes towards Black people that they do not know they have.” Negative attitudes toward African Americans were found to be held even by Blacks, the AP found.

These biases become embedded in the neurocircuitry of the brain, she said, via a constant barrage of images that reinforce stereotypes, whether of Black men being arrested, Latinos being handcuffed at the border, or stereotypical images of members of other groups.

Then there are disparities of access that can be simple matters of political calculus, implicit bias, or both. The 21 states that have opted out of the Medicaid expansion that is part of the Affordable Care Act (thanks to last year’s Supreme Court ruling), Wiley said, comprise 60 percent of uninsured Blacks nationwide who would have been eligible under the expansion. Medicaid is the public health insurance program for low-income people.

This is particularly troubling for women’s health, Wiley told Rewire after the hearing. (Low-income women make up over 60 percent of uninsured women in the United States, according to the National Women’s Law Center.) “Medicaid expansion is critical for women of all races, and people of color in particular, to be able to see a doctor when they’re sick and prevent themselves from getting sick,” Wiley said.

Wiley concluded her opening statement with a plea for comprehensive integration. “Diversity matters,” she said. “The more we live together, work together, the more we are able to bypass some of the neural circuitry [of bias], and create new neural pathways.”

The Lost Childhood of Black Boys

Eugene Robinson, an African-American commentator and columnist, took the occasion of his testimony to read from the column he wrote after the verdict was rendered in the trial of George Zimmerman.

He said, “this society considers young Black men to be dangerous, interchangeable, expendable, guilty until proven innocent. … Trayvon Martin, at the time of his death, was three weeks past his 17th birthday, but Black boys in this country are not allowed to be children; they are assumed to be men, even at a tender age, and to be full of menace.”

Robinson went on to note that Blacks and whites are “equally likely to smoke weed, but Blacks are four times more likely to be jailed on marijuana charges.”

Laws themselves can be race-neutral, but their implementation often is not. “In this regard,” Robinson continued, “I am particularly concerned with the Stand Your Ground laws,” referring to the laws supported by the National Rifle Association and modeled by the American Legislative Exchange Council that have been passed by 16 states, essentially legalizing the shooting by citizens of anyone they deem to be a threat under the terms of the law. Florida adopted the law in 2005.

The “stand your ground” law was initially seen as a means for women to protect themselves, he said, but it became an instrument of racial bias.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) suggested that if there was to be a legacy for Trayvon Martin, it should be the repeal of “stand your ground” laws, which she called “a clear and present danger to every Black man walking in the streets today. She suggested starting a movement to do so in Florida, and engaging Martin’s family to lead the charge.

Calls for dialogue did not move her. She said what she was hearing in the African-American community were calls “to do something”—not more talk.

The State of Race Relations

In the question-and-answer portion of the hearing, it became clear that several members of Congress were bereft at the state of race relations. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) expressed his disappointment at the small number of white people in attendance at the hearing.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said her grandsons asked her, “Granny, why do you work so hard” on racial issues, when nothing seems to change?

“When we talk about the civil rights movement, I think it’s just beginning,” Johnson said. “We made strides—we made strides to the point where somebody else noticed we were making them, so now [they say], ‘We’ve to stop them.’”

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) asked the panel how electoral politics affects the racial landscape. “I’ve always believed,” Robinson responded, “that the rise in a vicious kind of racism, or tone of racism, is … not unrelated to the economic uncertainty that so many Americans are experiencing—the hollowing out of the middle class, and what has happened to the American Dream as we understood it. And I think that situation creates anxieties that tend to get expressed sometimes in racial animus.”

“And let’s be honest,” he continued, “just the inauguration of the first African-American president has brought this whole thing to a head for a lot of people.”

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