The Blind 'I' in Bias

Sometimes a news week gives you nothing, and then there are times when you dread what's foisted upon you. Like the O.J. Simpson-Jeff Ruby situation. I'm going to get around to it, but I'd like to a

May 16, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Sometimes a news week gives you nothing, and then there are times when you dread what's foisted upon you. Like the O.J. Simpson-Jeff Ruby situation.

I'm going to get around to it, but I'd like to ask you to bear with me for a bit here because I have a roundabout way of approaching this column.

Back when I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, nearing the end of my four years there, I had a good friend who was an NYC go-getter and campus activist of sorts, politically minded and polished enough to have a bright future ahead of him. You know, the crusading lawyer or corporate cog wearing his liberal leanings like a badge of honor.

What most likely colors my presentation of this guy is a conversation we had one afternoon during our senior year. It was one of those high-minded debates about the state of the world, full of naive passion and untested conviction. We were discussing the country's failed drug war policy and efforts that should be taken to correct the problem.

His proposal, even he was willing to admit, had a strong Draconian bent. Youth of a certain age should be drafted into a national service program, much like some European countries use, and a state/federal police force should be mobilized to sweep through cities and neighborhood to round up suspected drug dealers and traffickers for mandatory prison sentences.

He believed that, if the public saw that these efforts were instituted with a greater good in mind, people would accept the short-term consequences — i.e., the violation of civil rights and profiling.

When I began to protest, offering up the obvious fact that as a black man I'd certainly be a target of these extreme measures, he countered by asking why I wouldn't be willing to make such a sacrifice. What unnerved me about the conversation, beyond the personal impact such a system would have on me — a fellow Ivy League graduate and friend — was that my friend was Jewish and seemingly had no problem ignoring the historical legacy of persecution and abuse of power visited upon Jews across the globe.

In his mind, the concept was simply about using power to solve a problem and that, once solved, everything would be fine and the power would be relinquished. Right?

On the other hand, I felt betrayed. I had a sense of the history between progressive blacks and Jews that had informed the early stages of the Civil Rights movement and saw, in us, the key to re-igniting that progressive fire. Ultimately, he embraced political expediency and the need to do a little wrong for a greater right.

What I want to draw from that anecdote, though, is my friend's conscious intention or bias, if you will, because he fully recognized that the plan he was proposing would have an adverse effect on certain people based on race.

"Bias" is becoming a buzzword in our current cultural dialogue, on the verge of replacing its kissing cousins "prejudice" and "discrimination." Merriam Webster's online edition defines bias as "an inclination of temperament or outlook: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment."

Due to our curious historical instiutions and the personal expression of experiences, we're quick to make the leap from a bias or prejudice to namecalling (i.e., the "racist" label). But, when viewed objectively, most of us are willing to acknowledge that problems arise not necessarily over the bias or prejudice itself but when power or control is exercised as a result of said bias or prejudice.

Which leads me to the recent study by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University graduate student regarding their statistical findings that white NBA refs tend to call more fouls on black basketball players and that black refs seem to call more fouls on white players, although at a lower rate than the white refs on black players. The findings themselves don't offer a conclusive smoking gun that we shouldn't have already been aware of in the first place.

The bottom line is we're all unconsciously (or quite consciously) biased, and given the right set of circumstances and means of control that bias is likely to manifest itself. I believe that, in the case of the NBA, we can all agree it's only a game.

But what happens when it's more than a game, when the messages about bias become more blurred?

We accept and celebrate the execution of bias in entertainment — in shows like The Sopranos and The Shield where white protagonists are humanized for their ruthlessness while black characters in the same situations would be demonized. And with the early start of the presidential election process, the Republican Party has at the forefront a candidate in Rudy Guiliani who ran a city that implemented extreme bias in its administration of justice, to the point of abusing and killing people of color.

Which brings me back to O.J. Jeff Ruby most likely had a right to refuse to serve O.J. Simpson and his party the night before the Kentucky Derby. Ruby has pointed out that as quickly as he refused O.J. he made the effort to seat Michael Jordan and his party.

When the economic factors are equal, why not proudly trumpet the morality of substituting a good black for a bad one? Is that proof of treading the moral high road or a suitable exhibition of a lack of bias?

What Ruby and the patrons who applauded when O.J. was asked to leave should ask themselves, though, is this: Would they have handled the situation in the same way if O.J. had been white?

Don't be so quick to say you would toss a white O.J. from your restaurant. Therein lies a societal blindness that does little more than help us sleep a little better.

Abre los ojos: Open your eyes.

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: letters(at) His column appears here in the third issue of each month.