How a subway step explains Ferguson

How a subway step explains Ferguson July 11, 2015

Girl and her dog At Religion Dispatches, Andrew Aghapour has a great piece about the cognitive psychology behind our failures in blame. My favorite metaphor he highlighted (because those are important) is a subway stairwell that has one stair taller than the others, which person after person trips on. He links to the following video and writes:

When the video was posted three years ago, it prompted this jewel of an observation by Metafilter user James Bording:

“On its own, when you see one person slip, you automatically assume that person slipped, was clumsy or not playing attention. But when you look at the aggregate, you realize that the failure isn’t on the individual at all, rather the structures that cause certain people to fail with almost no fault of their own. And yet, without this data, they will very quickly ascribe the mistake to themselves.”

In the case of this subway step, it would be inaccurate to solely blame each individual for tripping. Only by observing the aggregate can we see how a social structure—here, the design of a stairwell—is a more powerful cause of what seem like individual errors.

Scaling up, the same could be said of Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson made national news after police officer Darrell Wilson shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. The media immediately focused on individual blaming, pitting Wilson and Brown against each other with conflicting accounts of each person’s character. As a nation, we were too impatient to follow the crumbs—we wanted to punish the bad person. During the months after Brown’s shooting, attention turned to Ferguson’s social ills—high poverty, low employment, oppressive policing, and bad schools, all asymmetrically distributed across racially segregated neighborhoods. Yet even as media shifted its focus to social causes, they blamed collective individual choices rather than social systems. For example, many pointed to “white flight,” a sum of individual decisions by white families to move away from their African American neighbors.

Aghapour explained more about “white flight” and the history underpinning societal racism:

In St. Louis, for example, government policies included the segregated zoning of residential and commercial real estate, tax favoritism for private institutions that practiced segregation, urban renewal plans designed to shift black populations away from central cities, and the federal subsidization of suburban developments on the condition that they exclude African Americans.

In short, this wasn’t just racist individuals fleeing neighborhoods. This was an entire system designed to promote segregation and economic favoritism.

When I spoke with [Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute] on the phone, he underscored the long-term effects of this last policy. During the 1940s and 1950s, suburban subdivisions were built in St. Louis, and throughout the country, using federal loans stipulating that no homes be sold to African Americans. Priced at about $125,000 in today’s dollars, these were affordable—with a mortgage—to working class families, black or white. Yet black families were prohibited from purchasing them.

“Today those homes sell for $500,000 or $600,000,” Rothstein told me. “The result is that white working class families that moved to suburban communities with a federal subsidy 50 or 60 years ago have gained over the course of the last half-century $300,000 or $400,000 in equity.”

White families could use this nest egg to send their children to college and provide for their retirement. Black families of the same economic class had, meanwhile, been relegated to living in ghettos. As a result, Rothstein told me, “African American family incomes are about 60% of white family incomes, but African American wealth is about 5% of white family wealth. And that difference is heavily attributable to federal race-based housing policy.”

It’s historical context like this, as well as our tendency to focus primarily on individuals’ character while downplaying the situational factors—something cognitive scientists call the fundamental attribution error—that helps explain why so many people are reluctant to grasp racism for what it is. White people today are more likely to say white people face discrimination than black people, and that’s probably because they’re not looking at the big picture; they’re not looking at how housing policies from 30 years ago are leading to social problems we have now. Instead, they’re watching people trip on some subway stairs while assuming they’re clumsy instead of stopping to wonder if the platform we built for them might be broken in ways we don’t obviously see.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic feature, “The Case for Reparations,” is essential reading on the topic. For more information about how we blame weirdly, read my interview with Cornell University’s David Pizarro.

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