America's Race Problem: Policy or Perception?


Co-Authored by Michael Nelder, Poet and Multimedia Storyteller

For years people have debated the question, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Eggs come from chickens, and chickens come from eggs, so trying to answer the question often leads to circular arguments evoking theology, biology, and various creation theories. Ironically, debating the policy vs. perception theory in relation to race often leads to the same outcome: circular, highly convoluted arguments on both sides. However, in the context of race, it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game - both public policy and racial perception play an important role in achieving racial equality, or at the very least, racial harmony.

I'll break it down for you. Laws regulate behavior and set societal boundaries. Over time, our brains interpret things that are illegal as "bad" and actions that are permissible as "good." Some actions, like murder and theft, are thought to be universally, inherently immoral, regardless of whether they are defined by law as "illegal." In the law, we refer to these laws as "malum in se" - a Latin phrase meaning "wrong in itself." These laws are distinguished from "malum prohibitum" crimes - actions that are not inherently immoral, but are only wrong because we say they are, such as parking violations.

If tomorrow you woke up to a new law that made it legal to park in areas where parking was once restricted, you would have no trouble accepting the new law as morally acceptable. However, if tomorrow you woke up to a new law that made it legal for people to steal your personal belongings without repercussion, you would think to yourself, this isn't right! This is not fair! Theft is wrong. The legality of the action would not change your perception. This is a classic example of the difference in perception between malum in se and malum prohibitum crimes. Enter the complexity of America's race problem.

Black bodies were dehumanized in America for hundreds of years. Slavery began in 1619, and it was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that Black people were given "equal" rights in this country. How could a country founded on the principles of liberty and equality mistreat an entire race of people so terribly for such a long time? The answer is simple. We convinced ourselves that to be born Black was a malum in se crime - wrong in itself, and as a country, we have struggled to let go of this subconscious systematic fallacy.

Policy is important. It's very important. We still have countless laws and policies in this country with disproportionate discriminatory effects for minorities. However, a change in policy without a change in perception will not lead to lasting racial equality. So how do we change people's perceptions? This morning my mother sent me a quote that forced me to think about America's race problem in a new light:

"Write your own story, or someone else will write it for you. If the lions don't write their own stories, the hunters will."

One of the most powerful ways to change societal perception is through the sharing of stories.
For so long, Black people did not have the knowledge, the means, or the resources to share and disseminate our own stories. Our narratives were shaped through the perspectives of others in history books, in the news, and in the media. Now that we have platforms like social media, which bypass the traditional gatekeepers of news media, we have the power to share our own stories - the meaning behind our music, the history behind our fashion choices, the issues facing our communities, and the pain behind our discriminatory experiences.

For those of you who feel like Facebook statuses, peaceful marches, songs, poems, and Op-Ed pieces on racial equality don't matter, you're wrong. They do matter. I do not mean to suggest that policy is not an equally important factor, because it is, or that we don't still have work to do in that arena, because we do. However, laws are written by man, and man is influenced by perception. An internal motivation not to discriminate is just as important as the external legal ramifications of discrimination.

What if I told you that sharing your story could save your life? In one criminology class, l learned that a killer with a gun is less likely to shoot you if you start to tell him or her random facts about yourself. After all, it's much harder to dehumanize what you are forced to see as human. America, we don't just need a new brain. We need a heart transplant. Your stories have transformative power. I encourage all of you to keep sharing your experiences, even when it's uncomfortable.

We don't need to hear anything more about "our experiences" from the perspective of privileged political pundits. We need to hear from you. In addition to sharing your stories, please take time to listen to the stories of those around you of those who think differently, look differently, and vote differently than you do. And maybe, just maybe, a national change in perception will force policymakers to see all of us as equally "human."

Video by Tudor Williams