A new study of police in Oakland, California, demonstrates what systemic racism looks like. It might be invisible if you examine it one interaction at a time, but Stanford University researchers used body-cam footage to demonstrate that police used more respectful language toward white people than black people during traffic stops.
An analysis of 981 traffic stops made by 245 Oakland officers in April 2014 found that officers were more apt to use terms of respect such as “sir,” “ma’am,” “please” and “thank you” when dealing with white motorists when compared to black ones. They apologized to white people more frequently for having to stop them, and expressed concern, telling them to “drive safe.”
After stopping black people, officers more often used terms deemed to be disrespectful, calling them by their first names, “bro” or “my man,” and instructing them to keep their hands on the wheel, the study found. [...]
The study found that white people were 57 percent more likely to hear an officer say something judged to be highly respectful, while black people were 61 percent more likely to hear an officer say something judged to be extremely disrespectful.
For many people of color, this study will confirm what they’ve experienced and known to be true. If you’re white and you’ve wondered why it is that some other people’s traffic stops escalate so quickly when you never have trouble staying friendly and polite, consider that the starting point of respect may be very different for you than it is for others.
What’s striking is that the study doesn’t highlight dramatic, attention-grabbing abuses. It’s about constant, seemingly minor differences in the way people are treated that add up. As Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“In a traffic stop, if an officer is kind, courteous and discreet, that traffic stop is less likely to result in a loss of life,” she said. “Oftentimes when we talk about race and racism, we talk about individualized actions between people. But what Dr. Eberhardt’s study is really pointing to is the ways people’s individualized actions point to a systemic set of practices that has impacts on people’s lives.”
And while interactions with police carry life-and-death implications in a way that most others don’t, heightening the stakes of each interaction, consider that this respect differential is almost certainly not unique to police. If we put body-cams on cashiers and waiters and doctors and teachers and the strangers we encounter on the street, we’d probably find similar patterns. There’s no way it doesn’t wear on a person, like water dripping on a stone.