The South Carolina county sheriff whose white deputy's violent confrontation with a black high school girl was caught on video said race wasn't a factor because the deputy has been "dating an African-American woman for quite some time."
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said during a news conference Tuesday it's "difficult to say" race was a factor because of "personal knowledge" of Deputy Ben Fields. Fields, assigned to Spring Valley High School, is shown on student-shot videos grabbing the teen from her desk, slamming her to the floor and dragging her across the classroom.
"He's been dating an African-American female for quite some time now," Lott said of the deputy. "So does that have a bearing on his thought process? It may have. But I would think that would have it on a positive way, not on a negative way. So I don't know. There's been no indication of that. He's never expressed that in the past. We've never seen that. It really doesn't matter to me if that child is purple, it's what his actions are and that's what we're concerned about."
Racism may very well have nothing to do with the violent encounter, but the white deputy's black girlfriend proves nothing. That's because racism is defined more clearly by a person's ideas and actions than by the people they happen to know or date. Research has shown that even close relationships with people of other races doesn't automatically create immunity from racism.
Cornell University professor Noliwe Rooks detailed this surprising phenomenon in a 2012 story for Time magazine:
A "2011 study specifically looking at the impact of interracial friendship on white concern about local crime found that when white people have close relationships with black people, their concerns about crime actually increase," Rooks wrote.
"More broadly," Rooks explained, "when scholars have studied the racial beliefs, feelings and policy views of whites who have contact with blacks as friends, acquaintances or neighbors, they consistently find that the negative racial perceptions of those whites are substantially similar to the perceptions of whites who have no black friends. Friendship with black people -- and even being a black person -- does nothing to change racial bias. Indeed, almost one-third of black people hold similarly negative views."
Fields' actions have been widely condemned since videos from the classroom went viral Monday, spawning the hashtag #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh. School district officials said they were "deeply concerned" and characterized the deputy's actions as "extremely disturbing."
The American Civil Liberties Union called Fields' use of force "outrageous." The president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said he believes race was a factor and called for Fields to be charged with assault, Yahoo reported.
Fields, who has been sued twice before over alleged misconduct, has been placed on administrative duty and banned from school property. The FBI has launched a civil rights investigation.
Lott said he likely will announce on Wednesday whether Fields will fired.