Michael Brown imageFifty years ago the images of Birmingham police officers using police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protesters electrified the country and helped turn the tide in the civil rights movement. I can only hope that the images of police in armored tanks and cameo pants, with high powered assault machine guns in Ferguson, Missouri, will have the same effect.

As much as I’d like that to be the case, I’m less hopeful. Because the difference is this: Birmingham was a civil rights march. What happened in Ferguson is an everyday reality for the majority of African Americans and other racialized minorities in this country.

Racism is like Hydra, the serpent of myth, who grows a head each time one is cut off. Whatever political steps have been taken to advance civil rights, to ban discrimination, to outlaw hate crimes, racism just grows another head. Discrimination might be outlawed, but other, insidious forms of racisms continue to flourish, more hidden from view.

But not really. It’s not hidden from view if you’re black. What is playing out on TV and Twitter is shocking and outrageous to some, but it’s the lived reality for most people of color in this country.

And what is that reality? It’s the criminalization of color. Michael Brown was shot because he was pulled over for jaywalking. If statistics influenced expectations, most black children in this country would grow up expecting to go to prison the way middle class white children expect to go to college. The statistics on the criminalization of color is both overwhelming and conclusive. As legal scholar and activist Michelle Alexander calls it, we’re in the “New Jim Crow,” a system of racial control much more successful than slavery ever was in creating a permanent underclass based on race.

In this TED talk, Alexander says that more African American adults are under correctional control right now then were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the civil war. And as of 2004, more black men are denied the right to vote – as felons – than in 1870 – the year the 15th amendment was ratified.

This is how she puts it:

What Jim Crow tried to do using poll taxes and literacy tests, the criminal justice system, War on Drugs, racial profiling and felon disenfranchisement laws have accomplished.

But it’s not just laws that create this reality. This criminalization starts in pre-school, where it’s not about law, but about perception. Students of color are suspended more often than white students. As Charles Blow writes in last week’s New York Times, citing a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, while the average suspension rate for middle school students in 18 of the nation’s largest school districts was 11.2 percent in 2006, the rate for black male students was 28.3 percent, by far the highest of any subgroup by race, ethnicity or gender.

What we think drives our behavior. (I’ve written a lot about it: here,  here, here and here). It’s a confirmation bias that creates an incredibly vicious cycle (though for some, a virtuous one). Students from whom teachers expect little, perform poorly. Numerous studies show that, on average, teacher’s beliefs about their students’ abilities influence how they interact with the students, which in turn, influence how well or poorly the students do.  

I write a lot about power, and one of the hardest powers to work with is this one, a Hydra –a multi-headed, disbursed, distributed, and complex system of laws, attitudes, institutions, practices, and behaviors. You cut off one head, and there’s another. How do you defeat the Hydra? Michelle Alexander says nothing short of a human rights movement, a widespread, people-powered revolution will help. And she may be right. Hercules eventually subdued the Hydra only with help from his friends. It takes us all to dismantle, challenge, and overturn racism.

But the myth of Hydra bears another clue to the problem. It is about the head. It’s about the mind. And this is something each of us, as individuals can do. We have to challenge our own beliefs and perceptions. Because inequities are kept in place only when we go along with them. And this is the problem. Bias is unconscious. My friend Shakil Choudhury at Anima Leadership teaches, consults and writes about this. And I thank him for showing me how crucial this is to addressing problems of inequity.

Humans have believed a lot of things to be true. We believed that black people had smaller brain size. We believed Jews had horns. We believed homosexuality was a mental illness. We believed that women were too irrational and emotional to be trusted with the right to vote. We believed a Catholic president would let the Pope run America.

Are we going to continue to let our beliefs, unchallenged, keep systems of inequity in place? Are we going to continue to believe that we have the highest rates of incarceration in the world because of crime, even as our crime rates are at an all-time low? Are we going to continue to believe that every black person pulled over by the police “must have done something wrong?” or that it was their fault because they looked like a “gang member?” Are we going to believe that every Muslim is a terrorist? That poor people are lazy? That women and minorities are underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership because there just aren’t enough of them qualified to be there?

There’s much we can’t do alone. But we can challenge ourselves to wake up to a power we do have: the power over how we think about things. But it’s not so easy because beliefs are comfortable. They are like a favorite pair of slippers; we slip into them with ease. And we don’t like having to change our minds or feelings about things. It’s uncomfortable. But there are a lot of other things that are uncomfortable too. Here’s one: imagine this was your reality, that every time your son or daughter left home you weren’t sure if you would see them again for the simple reason of the color of their skin.