Friday, February 12, 2016

Proximity Does Not Breed Understanding

I want to share something that happened recently in an ethics class that I teach.  I will not reveal the identities of any involved, other than myself.

A bit of background is needed here.  First, I teach at a university that has a racially diverse student body.  I do not have the exact numbers, but the following are close: 70% African American, 25% Caucasian American, and the other 5% are made up of other ethnic groups, both American and international.  (Interestingly, my class follows this breakdown pretty well.  Out of 38 students, 63.5% are African American, 31.5% are Caucasian American, and 5% are of other ethnic groups).  Now, I consider this diversity a blessing, and one that I believe is quite rare on college campuses across the country.  I also naively thought that this close proximity of different groups would somehow foster greater understanding between the groups, but this assumption was shattered the other day in my ethics class.

Here is what happened.  We were discussing social contract theory and what Thomas Hobbes called the "coercive power."  In his social contract theory, people give up some their rights in order to gain mutual protection in a society.  This society then creates laws to be followed.  In order to ensure that the citizens follow the laws, there is the need for a coercive power that will enforce the laws and punish those who break them.  At this point I always bring up the fact that in Hobbes' social contract (which, BTW, is the model for government in the United States), the role of the coercive power (i.e, the executive branch of government from the President on down to local law enforcement) is to protect the citizens.  Well, over the past couple of years, this statement, that the role of law enforcement is to protect the citizens, has had around two thirds of my class bristling.  Of course, this bristling came from the two thirds of my class that are African American.  And, it is no shock to me why they did.  Right now, in much of the African American community, many certainly don't feel like law enforcement is there to protect them. Can anyone blame them? I could give a litany of highly public incidents from recent years in which a Caucasian police officer has killed an unarmed African American citizen.  Some of these have been caught on shocking video.

Now, here is where my shock came: not at the fact that the African Americans took issue with my statement, but that the Caucasian students pushed back and did not understand how their fellow students felt.  One African American student bravely shared that when he gets pulled over by a police officer he has a deep sense of fear.  To which, a white student responded, "well, don't we all?"  It was this comment that shattered my naive understanding that proximity of these different groups yields understanding. Of course, we all get that twinge of fear when we see flashing lights in our rear view mirror.  Yet, that fear, for me, a Caucasian male, is the fear of getting a ticket and draining my bank account just a bit.  There is also that sense of fear and shame of getting called into the principal's office. Yet, my fear ends there.  It does not for my African American students. Their fear is deeper.  I asked the student what he was afraid of, and his only answer was "anything."  He is fearful for his personal safety.  I would have thought that at such a diverse school, there would be a greater sense of understanding between these different groups, that there would be a greater sense of sensitivity, but alas, it is not so.

It appears as if we need more than just proximity.  We need interaction. We need compassion.  We need to have conversations, even if they are difficult.  We need to listen.  But, unfortunately, the problem gets ignored, as if it is no problem at all.  The groups remain largely segregated, even if it is a self imposed segregation.   I wish I had constructive solutions to offer, but I don't.


  1. Keith I totally agree with the gist of your post. One small mitigating factor in your white students defense- yes they likely never fear for their lives when being stopped by police, but as a college age kid 15-20 years ago, I never felt the police were there to protect me as I was subject to random stops, and treated with a default level of suspicion and disrespect that I never encounter now. It's not the same level of danger at all that the black students face, but I can see why they don't feel 'protected' either.

  2. Good point, there is of course age discrimination, and we all experience that at some point. I too got pulled over more in my teens and 20s. But, there still seems to be a big gap in the feelings of apprehension felt by Caucasians and African Americans. I wish open and honest conversations between groups happened more often.