By David Light Shields
In the March 2014 issue of Kappan, I wrote about “deconstructing the pyramid of prejudice”. To my anguish, following the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., my own community of St. Louis became the visible, tragic epicenter of the dynamics I had written about. Having grown up in Los Angeles in the days of the infamous Watts riots, the scene that was broadcast nightly had an eerie and disturbing feeling of familiarity.
But while the tragedy cannot be reduced to black and white, it is also not less than black and white. Race matters. And in contemporary America, despite progress in some areas, it matters a great deal. In my Kappan article, I discussed how blatant and extreme acts of prejudice are the ones that capture our attention. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. For every questionable police shooting, there are hundreds of less extreme, yet still collectively devastating, acts of mini-aggression.
One of the most disturbing facts about Ferguson is the differential response to it by racial groups. For example, according to the Pew Research Center, blacks, by 4 to 1, said the events in Ferguson raised important racial issues. Only 37% of white thought so. Why the disparity? I suspect a key reason is that much of racism occurs below the conscious radar of dominant-culture whites. Acts at the bottom of the pyramid of prejudice simply go unnoticed. They go unnoticed, that is, unless you are the victim.
No one will get called into court to account for disrespectful looks or prejudicial comments. But everyday racism, subtle and hidden though it may be, is the fertile soil that creates a climate that occasionally erupts into an avoidable death. The legal system will need to tackle the challenge of police misconduct; government officials will need to address policies that lock people in poverty and underemployment, but educators everywhere need to address the more subtle acts of mini-violence that occur every day.