Two days ago, a Hartford Courant Communities reporter Kristin Stoller posted an article, which was essentially a police puff piece, touting the decrease in DUI arrests in the suburban town of West Hartford, despite an increase in patronage of West Hartford’s restaurants.
What seemingly was an unobtrusive, nothing sort of article in fact serves as a lesson to us all about our inherent biases and a shocking reminder of the level of racism that still permeates our society and a sad story of the state of journalism today. First, some background. West Hartford:
The racial makeup of the town was 79.6% White, 6.3% African American, 0.2% Native American, 7.4% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 3.8% from other races, and 2.7% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.8% of the population.
The median income for a household in the town was $80,061, and the median income for a family was $106,089 as of a 2011 estimate. Males had a median income of $69,888 versus $56,162 for females. The per capita income for the town was $45,453.
West Hartford abuts Hartford, with the border running in the middle of Prospect Avenue. Regarding Hartford:
The racial makeup of the city was 29.8% white, 38.7% African American or black, 0.6% Native American, 2.8% Asian, 0% Pacific Islander, 23.9% from other races, and 4.2% from two or more races. 43.4% of the population were Hispanic or Latino, chiefly of Puerto Rican origin. Whites not of Latino background were 15.8% of the population in 2010, down from 63.9% in 1970.
The median income for a household in the city was $20,820, and the median income for a family was $22,051. Males had a median income of $28,444 versus $26,131 for females. The per capita income for the city was $13,428.
West Hartford is a far more racially homogenous town and it is far more affluent than Hartford. This has been a source of conflict for many years, with the residents of WH aggrieved that they have to live adjacent to the poor, minority city of Hartford.
Which is why some of the comments in Stoller’s column by the Assistant Police Chief of West Hartford Daniel Coppinger were troublesome. For instance, he said:
“Patrons like West Hartford because they feel safe. It’s safer, it’s cleaner.”
Okay. Well. I get that people like that it’s cleaner. And safer too, I suppose. I like safe places. But safer than what?
“Cab drivers like it because of the same reasons. The people that they are picking up and bringing places aren’t stiffing them on cab fares. They are a nicer cliente to transport around.”
If the coded language hasn’t hit you in the face, let me spell it out for you. He’s referring to people from Hartford and probably referring to racial minorities. I can’t be sure, of course, because Stoller didn’t ask him what he meant by any of that. Instead, she moves on to an example of the type of problems the town does have: a drunk, probably white woman, who was adamant that she drive, who got into her car and rammed two other cars, who was then successfully detained.
There are other bizarre quotes in there too, about how they’ve used local town ordinances to strictly control the types of establishments that are allowed to serve alcohol and some “friction with folks who wanted to be nightclubs, do bottle service and be 21 and over” according to another Assistant Police Chief Bob McCue. He also said: “If folks are interested in that nightclub feel with bottle service and cover charges, go to the city, or go to a casino.”
West Hartford clearly doesn’t want dirty clients, or unsafe people, or people who aren’t nice to cab drivers, or who stiff cab drivers or who want bottle service, or nightclubs, or be 21 and over, or pay a cover charge.
If all of that seems like offensive coded language then you’re not the only one. Because a bunch of local Hartford people started questioning the language used by Coppinger and McCue, challenging Stoller and the Hartford Courant to explain just why the use of this language hadn’t been questioned when writing this article.
Then the unthinkable happened. The first quote by Coppinger disappeared. It’s not there; check the article. It’s disappeared by magic, as if it never existed. There isn’t a mention that the article has been edited, there isn’t an explanation for why it was taken down and there has been no response to repeated attempts to find out who edited it and why.
This poses so many questions: the most obvious is, why was this nefariously edited? Who decided this? Clearly, ethics in journalism mean nothing if this is permitted to stand unexamined.
But there are greater issues to think about here, issues that impact the current state of society in America: the issue of inherent or implicit bias in the way we see the world, the privilege we experience depending on the color of our skin and our social class and the subtle aggression and racism toward people of color that is a feature of every American institution.
Why did Stoller not raise an eyebrow when faced with these quotes? Is it because she, just like Coppinger, views the world in the same way? Is it because it is an unspoken code among racial or class majorities? Did she instinctively know what he meant, agreed with it and saw no reason to question it? Because that’s the world in her view? In other words, was this a product of her implicit biases?
Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.
The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance. These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages. In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations.
It’s critical to understand that the biases exist subconsciously. I have no doubt that if asked, Stoller and Coppinger will strongly attest that they are not racists, believe that to be true and act in accordance with that truly held belief. I am certainly not saying that Stoller and Coppinger are racist. I believe they are not.
But we all have biases. I do, you do and by extension so do Stoller and Coppinger. That’s what makes biases so insidious. We don’t know they exist and we don’t know that they affect and alter our behaviors and interactions.
Think about the impact of implicit biases in the educational system or in politics or in the criminal justice system. Policing has increasingly been viewed as racist or biased against racial minorities, yet most police officers would not be called racists by their friends or family. However, our policies are such that they affect the way we arrest and prosecute individuals, the way we offer plea deals or sentence defendants after trial. It affects the way we view claims of racism by others or we evaluate the life experiences of others.
To someone who has grown up with privilege – as the term is used today – combined with an implicit bias reinforced by one’s immediate society and the media that one chooses to watch – again influenced by that subconscious bias – there is absolutely nothing wrong with a town not wanting people who aren’t nice clientel to cab drivers.
But it affects everything. For a police officer, it affects the way they conduct stops and whom they stop and whom they cite. For a reporter, it affects the way they reproduce quotes and whom they turn a critical eye toward.
If we truly want to make society a more progressive place, a more inclusive and tolerant place, we must learn to recognize these biases when we are alerted to them, try and correct for them and gain an understanding that these are not flaws in our character, but a negative side effect of the environment of our existence.
What’s offensive about the article isn’t the quote – that would have served as an interesting study of the biases and subtle racism that exist, but rather its clandestine removal. The worst thing one can do is to ignore the existence of the bias or even give in to it, because that serves only to reinforce it.