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Commentary: Focusing on beer ignores institutional racism

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2009 - I was avoiding writing about the Gates-Crowley incident. Why? Because it is not novel. Anyone who has a close relationship with a person of color - or a college-age fraternity male for that matter - has likely heard a similar story. You (or your "friend") have a different account of what went down compared to the police report. It is often a case of he-said vs. he-said.

So, what prompted me to write this piece? I became frustrated with the media's myopic and individualistic focus. Gates is hot headed. Crowley is racist and arrogant. The woman who called is biased. What tipped me over the edge was the latest gaffe coming out of the Boston police department: the mass email sent by Officer Justin Barrett, who referred to Gates as a jungle monkey . Now we want to focus on his bigotry as he is put on leave until his termination hearing.

I am not trying to minimize any one person's actions. However, it is frustrating that the media get conveniently lost in details and fail to see the bigger picture. Yet, it makes sense. It is much more comfortable to sit in judgment of individuals than acknowledge a larger pattern. Don't get me wrong; individual racism is problematic. And, essentially, individuals make up institutions. However, institutions are powerful. They represent the systems that manage resources. Therefore, to ignore them is to miss a great deal.

Take for example racial profiling. We can argue all day long about what motivated Crowley to react to Gates in a particular way. Research on implicit bias would suggest that despite articulating egalitarian beliefs, Crowley might have behaved in racially biased ways. We all have some level of bias. My point is that unless Crowley himself (and each person) becomes aware of, admits to and consciously works to change these biases, we will not get far in fighting racial profiling on the individual level.

This battle also has to be waged at an institutional level. Levels of racism are interconnected. So, I am not saying that we should abandon attempts to increase individuals' awareness of their biases. However if we want to bring about change on a larger scale, we need to examine systematic dynamics. So rather than focusing on the Crowley-Gates interaction, we could look at the pattern of activity across a police department or state.

A quick look at the American Civil Liberties Union website  makes clear that racial profiling remains pervasive. Simply acknowledging this point pulls us out of a battle of who is right and who is wrong and pushes us to question what we can do to stop this pattern.

The question of institutional change is more complicated than blaming one person or banning one action. It takes intentional understanding of an organization's history and explicit and implicit rule-making process. This work is meant to make clear the disparities that exist and begin to address ways to stop the patterns, which have emerged.

No amount of beer diplomacy meant to mend individual relations will immediately impact disparities that exist across major systems of American life. While we should look for ways to create relationships across lines of difference, areas such as education, health care and wealth require a broad institutional examination beyond the lambasting of isolated individuals.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.