September 02, 2008

Racism, Police, and Self-fulfilling Prophecies

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

In many quarters, if I say that I am happy that I was not born or raised in the U.S., Americans of many stripes would a) become angry; b) become defensive; and/or c) wonder why I don’t go back to where I came from! (As a tax-paying naturalized American, I am exercising my option to live in the U.S.) 

But there are times when this fact of birth affects my life more than others. One time, for example, I was attending a meeting in which we discussed the horrendous birth outcomes for black women in America. When I consider the fact that black immigrants to this country have infant mortality rates that are on par with white women, but that after just one generation of living in America, foreign-born black women have the same kind of outcomes as African American women, then (but not only then) I am grateful for my place of birth. Perhaps this kind of comparison gives you some idea of why I am glad that I was not born or reared in the U.S. 

clip_image002In my twenties, a natural point at which I began to think more seriously about what I wanted in terms of marriage and children, I always became terrified at the mere thought of having children in the U.S. – particularly by the thought of raising boys here. Recently, I was reminded of those fears at a gathering in which black women talked about the stresses they endure because of their fears for their black sons. One woman talked about having to respond to her teenage son who had been called a n***** not once, not twice, but three times during a short walk home in a Tampa suburb. This is exactly the kind of scenario that worried me when I thought about having children—particularly a son-- in the U.S. 

I used to wonder how I would help my children deal with racism. Although I did not grow up in a "race free" society, my racial and ethnic identifications were formed in a much different environment. I wondered whether that very different experience would make it impossible for me to help my children successfully navigate race in the U.S. context. 

clip_image004Fast-forward from my fears years ago to last month. As she was promoting her six hour show, Black in America on the radio, a comment by CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien struck me. O’Brien described being surprised by the fact that just about everyone she interviewed–regardless of their station in life—talked about having “the talk” with their children and teenagers. No, not the one about s-e-x! The talk about what to do when they are pulled over by the police, often called “DWB (Driving While Black)! That O’Brien heard about this important conversation across class lines struck me for many reasons. First, that she did hear it repeated so often. And second, I have never had that conversation with either of my step-children, nor did I think their father had. (I checked and although they are old enough to drive now, he has not.)

Which brings me back to the beginning of this piece—and to my fears of not being American born and of being afraid that I wouldn’t be able to prepare my potential children for the prejudice they would face here. Maybe not being as familiar as African Americans with racism is a good thing in that I don’t always expect it or see it. The flip side of that is that not recognizing racism may be to my detriment. But what if having “the talk” and other such experiences carry with them an element of a self-fulfilling prophecy?J0283031

What if the expectation that an interaction with the police encourages a negative interaction with law enforcement from African Americans? Note, that the self-fulfilling prophecy in this example could be in effect for both the citizen and the police: What if expecting a negative interaction with a black motorist encourages the police to have a negative interaction with him or her? In more than twenty years each in the U.S., neither my husband nor I have had negative interactions with the law. Of course our individual experiences do not mean that countless others have not, or that graphic examples such as the Rodney King beating do not give us pause. 

Although we are both aware of instances of police brutality that seem the result of racism, apparently neither of us expect it, or assume it to be the exception rather than the rule. Maybe we are foolish because it means we are ill prepared for what may happen to us, and as a result maybe we have in some way handicapped our kids. As a student of sociology you know that neither my experience, nor those commented on by Soledad O’Brien, is the empirical evidence needed to know whether there is a relationship between expectations of, and actual experiences, with police. What kind of data would you gather to answer to learn more about this?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Racism, Police, and Self-fulfilling Prophecies:


Wow, what timing. I just finished a book called Black Rednecks, White Liberals by Thomas Sowell (horrible title by the way) in which more than one chapter deals with culture as it relates to Blacks in America. Historically, according to Sowell, Blacks that have come to the United States from the West Indies have, on average, achieved greater success educationally and economically for a variety of reasons having to do with the behaviors passed on to them through their West Indies culture. I could go on and on about the book, but I'd recommend you read it for yourself.

You belong in America. All people have thoughts - some good, some bad. Go with the flow and be happy!


Joining HANK'S NATION is a must!


America is all we have! Let's take care of it ... ALWAYS!


We talked about the Self-fulfilling prophecy in my AP Psychology and my Sociology classes too, but not about crime. We talked about education. I think that when people are told they are going to be one thing, (dumb, smart, a criminal, or whatever), either verbally or subliminally, there's a higher chance of them becoming that thing.

Wow! My friends were right! This is a wonderful blog site. Just like KimClement. Please visit because there's a lot information about prophecy, prophet, and etc.


What if the expectation that an interaction with the police encourages a negative interaction with law enforcement from African Americans? I found that statement very intriguing since I am a firm believer that we get what we call for. That doesn't take away from the obvious racism found in our justice system however the other day I was driving when a police car pulled over another car. As I drove by, the guy from the car immediately took both his hands out the window and held them up. That was his first instinct. Do people expect a racist cop?

I, too, believe that self-fulfilling prophecy is a significant factor in whether we live up to our potential. Socioeconomic strata is another factor. A person living in a low-crime, affluent neighborhood, regardless of color, worries less about their interactions with police as opposed to those who live in high-crime areas.

Police who patrol low income urban neighborhoods beset by gangs and drug trafficking are more likely to fear for their lives and thus handle the people they encounter or arrest much more aggressively — thus providing an alternate explanation for police brutality.

I suspect the difference between the United States and other countries of color where poverty is widespread, is the role of drugs and gang violence. Although I don't have data on police brutality in the period between the Civil Rights Movement and the onset of the 1980s crack epidemic, my guess is that the drug epidemic of the 1980s set the stage for the perceived rise in police brutality. (Indeed, urban violence in the 1980s and '90s was a widespread concern in those years.)

Racism has always been a problem lurking under the surface of any multicultural, pluralistic society — a form of tribalism that is not apparent in less diverse countries of any economic status (i.e. Japan). My specific concern over the past five years is that Critical Race Theory has elevated race into an end-all, be-all explanation for tragedy, misfortune and injustice. Within hours of any crime involving parties of differing races, mainstream media elevates a racial explanation ("narrative"). By the time it is understood that the events in question were not racially motivated, the news cycle has moved onto another topic for which racism is again asserted. This amounts to being conditioned or primed to see racism in virtually everything. Is our mental health, let alone American identity, best served by this trend?

When we speak of self-fulfilling prophecy, how much goodwill can we, as Americans, continue to perceive in one another if we are told to assume that racism is the primary driver of all injustice? I fear that by putting race central in our day-to-day lives, it creates more — not less — potential for people to become conditioned into racism! (If by "racism" we mean attributing the complex thinking, actions and motivations of others to inherited, albeit superficial, characteristics.)

To be clear, if we focus on the "lived experiences" of a specific person we know — friends, family or coworkers — who report a racist experience, that is a legitimate way to confront an ugly reality. On the other hand, when CRT proponents use media, school curriculum and the powers of government to make the case that some non-specific racial bias without any specific/named victims is ravaging our schools, institutions and workplaces, the risk is that we "institutionalize" the very racism that CRT claims to stand against.

To avoid the pitfalls of self-fulfilling prophecy, we must separate in our minds generalizations about racism as a dominant force in the lives of Americans from the firsthand knowledge and experience of racism. Although it is no doubt valid to acknowledge that other people — figures in the news, strangers on social media and the like — have experienced racism, if we go about with this general sense that there is a racist cloud hanging over our heads, it may discourage and therefore hinder the destiny of many Americans of color who deserve better. (In this case, being naive is less of a handicap than marinating in the emotional sense that one's future success may be limited by the racist society in which one lives.)

As Americans, I think we are playing with fire to elevate racism into a national narrative. If we go about our lives believing that the color of our skin determines our destiny, it will create a world of very hurt people who are largely incapable of trusting anyone who does not look like them (this will be true not only of people of color but for whites, Asians and others). Does the American Experiment succeed when we become balkanized by mass media, educational institutions and politicians who play off our worst fears in effort to solidify their hold on power? No.

Reflections upon racism must be a personal and spiritual foremost, and a sociological question secondarily. CRT does not emphasize soul searching as much as it reinforces the sense that America is balkanized along race. By putting race at the center of all public debates, we are conditioning ourselves — and most tragically our children — to believe that if one is faced with misfortune and hardship, the color of one's own skin must be to blame in the eyes of others. While this can no doubt be true, it isn't always true — and yet over the past five years Americans are being "lobbied" by social/media to parse every experience through a racial lens — a toxic way to lead one's life. (Even in cases where racism is a legitimate explanation, are we better served as hostages of that "reality" — or healthier mentally and physically if we refuse to let race define us?)

To put it in a different light, imagine if one moves into a new neighborhood where the neighbors share your own socioeconomic status and race. Moving day has come and gone and you're still waiting for the neighbors to introduce themselves. This is a common occurrence, per my experience growing up in Southern California; however, I can imagine that if I relocated from the South and found that my California neighbors were not all that friendly, I might be inclined to blame myself. Am I too fat? Too tall? Too thin? Too young? Too old?

Whatever our expectations are, that is how we tend to move in the world. Conversely, whatever our insecurities are, that is also what we perceive in the world. This is precisely why self-fulfilling prophecy is so powerful — and why Civil Rights activists of an earlier generation advocated for a "color blind society"!

In recent years, we have talked about race on a national level primarily through the lens of policing. I am not convinced that is the best place to start a conversation. Why? Because police officers, of every race — no matter how diverse their department — are afraid for their safety in urban areas beset by drug and violent crime problems.

While one must acknowledge that many of the neighborhoods beset by police brutality disproportionately contain brown/black Americans, policing is an overly complex issue because street cops, under any circumstance, often face novel, high-risk, think-fast-on-the-feet situations where there is a disproportionate risk to the safety of the officer and citizen alike. Therefore, for purposes of evaluating the notion of "institutional racism", we would be better served to look at educational disadvantages in underserved, minority communities.

If we must document the way racism operates in an institutional context, examining how school administrators, school boards and teachers perform in communities of color may offer more insight than looking at the interactions between police and citizens. After all, police are dealing with the end result of whatever politicians have failed to resolve — be that mental health, homelessness or addiction. School administrators and teachers, on the other hand, are shaping a very young population that may achieve better outcomes (social mobility) under the right educational conditions.

While my personal view is that one can't legislate or teach "anti-racism" because racial views are disproportionately acquired in the home — for which the aftermath is more spiritual and psychological in nature than a "social justice" issue — if I were forced to ask how best to examine the phenomena of institutional or "systemic racism", an examination of public school administration in poor, minority communities is where I would start.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

The Real World

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More

The Family

Learn More


Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

« Satiric Thunder: Prejudice and Masculinity | Main | Anomie and the First Day of School »