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A few years ago, while covering a story on Republican New Hampshire legislator Werner Horn, I summoned the best and brightest scholars that America had to offer. Horn, who represents his 95.9 percent white hometown in his state’s House of Representatives, confounded people who actually know things by stating that “owning slaves doesn’t make you racist.” During an interview with The Root, Horn doubled down by insisting that the Founding Fathers were not racist.
In an attempt to disprove the premise of Horn’s statement, I called on Dr. Henry Louis Gates, perhaps the most well-known historian in America (and co-founder of The Root). Gates began with an explanation of America’s history of racism by citing David Hume’s racist footnote to his essay Of National Characters, in which he claimed that in all of Africa, there were no arts, no sciences. He noted that Immanuel Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime also expounded on the racial differences between white and Black people. He explained that Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, which was written the same year as the Constitution, was classical racism defined.
But Gates was just a world-famous historian and Werner Horn was a white man. So, to make sure that I had all the bases covered, I called professor, historian, and widely recognized super-genius, Dr. Greg Carr, who heads the Howard University Afro-American Studies Department, teaches at Howard University School of Law and instructs the largest Africana Studies classroom in the world. Before launching into a history of racism, Carr swatted down Horn’s thesis with one request:
“Show me the white slaves.”
Carr (who may or may not be an actual human-like android from the future loaded with all the knowledge that ever existed) was using the concept known as Occam’s Razor. In the fields of science, economics, or any reason-based pursuit of understanding, researchers adhere to this time-honored principle which states:
Of two competing theories, the simpler explanation of an entity is to be preferred.
Engineers know it as KISS, or “Keep it simple, stupid.” In research, the concept is called ontological parsimony. Medical researcher Theodore Woodward said: “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.” Scientists from Stephen Hawking to Albert Einstein to Sir Isaac Newton, accept the premise that whenever there are two different possibilities, the simpler one is usually the correct one.
Unless, of course, white people are talking about racism.
There are a lot of things we know.
We know police disproportionately kill Black people. Although some people attempt to explain that the discrepancy is a function of the disproportionate Black crime rate, research shows that does not hold true. Again, research shows that is a lie. Once more for the people in the back (I’m talking to you, Matt Walsh) every peer-reviewed study that finds police shoot and kill Black people at disproportionate rates and “the only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were Black,” according to Justin Nix, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Louisville, who noted that police shootings do not correlate with crime rate, the neighborhood violence, age or mental illness.
Maybe it’s racism.
In any other area of sociology, criminology or statistical analysis, this would be accepted as fact. But when it comes to racial data, the big brains in academia and scientific research will break their graphic calculators trying to explain away the outcomes of systemic inequality. They never can.
We know even the poorest majority-white school districts are better funded than the wealthiest non-white school districts. It is an indisputable fact that majority-Black schools offer fewer advanced-level courses. No serious person can argue against the fact that Black students are punished more harshly than white students. Yet, the idea that the education system is racist at its core is somehow seen as incendiary, even though it is the simplest explanation.
It’s easy for me to call the criminal justice system racist. Or, perhaps there’s another reason why Black male offenders receive sentences that are, on average, 19.1 percent longer than white male offenders who commit the same crimes and have the same criminal history, according to the United States Sentencing Commission. Explain why white people use illegal drugs, possess illegal narcotics and sell illegal substances at higher rates than Black people but Black people are six-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested and convicted for drugs. The Stanford Open Policing Project—the largest police stop project that ever existed—found that Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be stopped and 4 times more likely to be searched than white drivers even though white drivers were more likely to have contraband.
Police are twice as likely to use force on Black people versus white suspects, according to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Black defendants get charged with harsher crimes, receive higher bail and are offered fewer plea deals according to Harvard researchers...and researchers in Wisconsin...and Philadelphia...and Maryland.
A study by the National Registry of Exonerations found that “African Americans are only 13% of the American population but...They constitute 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016), and the great majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals and later cleared in ‘group exonerations.’”
Racists love to point out the FBI crime data as an explanation, even though the stats only refer to arrests. Even knowing that most crimes go unsolved, we’re supposed to believe that the cops who use force on, shoot, kill, stop, frisk, search, sentence, and wrongfully incarcerate Black people at disproportionate rates somehow have it right when it comes to arresting Black people.
Maybe it’s poverty.
We know that crime is related to poverty, socioeconomic conditions and access to education. But Black people are not three times as poor or less educated. In fact, a Black child born to wealthy Black parents is just as likely to end up poor or in jail as a poor white child born to wealthy Black parents. A home in a Black neighborhood is worth $48,000 less than the exact same home in a white neighborhood, even if the crime rate and neighborhood amenities are exactly the same. A white high school dropout is more likely to find a job as a Black college student. Of all the manufactured hypotheses that attempt to explain these racial disparities, none of them even comes close to the simplest explanation.
Perhaps racism is the reason that these valiant scholarly attempts at whitesplaining away America’s racial toxicity exist in the first place. In any other scientific discipline, the general consensus would adhere to the tried and true methodologies found in every other field of research. Maybe white people genuinely cannot fathom that white supremacy is responsible for these racial incongruities because, by proxy, it would also mean that they benefit from these inequities.
Maybe that’s why most white people “are satisfied with the way Blacks are treated in society. Perhaps that’s why two out of every three white people believe Black people have “as good a chance as whites to get any kind of job for which they are qualified.” The majority of white people do not believe Black people face discrimination in voting, medical treatment or when applying for a loan or mortgage, even though numerous studies have documented these systemic issues.
Of course, there is another possibility. Perhaps Black people are inherently dumber, lazier and more prone to violence. While this assumption is also racist, it is a more logical explanation that believing that—despite the history of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, voter suppression and employment discrimination —this country made an about-face from its past and spontaneously regenerated itself into a bastion of equality and impartiality.
So either America is racist or America is racist.
Or maybe it’s zebras.