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What Oprah missed when she criticized the Ferguson protests

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 14:  Oprah Winfrey attends the 'Selma' New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on December 14, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 14: Oprah Winfrey attends the 'Selma' New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on December 14, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images)
Rob Kim/Getty Images

Oprah Winfrey seems to want the Ferguson protesters to be more like the Selma protesters.

"I think it's wonderful to march and to protest and it's wonderful to see all across the country, people doing it," Winfrey told People Magazine in a Thursday interview promoting Selma, a film she produced about Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1965 campaign to win voting rights for African Americans.

"But what I'm looking for," she continued, "is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we're willing to do to get it.'"

Protest organizers and sympathizers swiftly slammed her comments, calling her condescending, ill informed, and dismissive of youth-led organizing in a way that widens the generational civil rights divide.

They may be right that Oprah has failed to pay close attention to the anatomy of the recent protests or the demands that have accompanied them. (After all, there is leadership, if in a different form than the MLK variety, and participants have said, "This is what we want" — demanding everything from an indictment of Darren Wilson, to mandatory body cameras for police, to federal investigations of controversial cases, to special prosecutors to ensure impartiality in all police-involved shooting).

But the biggest problem with Oprah's comments is that she's looking for the civil rights movement of half a century ago. The problem with that is racism looks different today — and so must the activism and the solutions meant to fight it.

Racism, circa 2014

In her yearning for a clearly defined leader to emerge and concisely articulate "what we want," Winfrey looks to be waiting for a legislative ask that resembles the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But today's protests against racism look and sound different because today's racism looks and sounds different.

In 1965, people were openly and proudly racist. During the civil rights era depicted in Selma, blatant, explicit discrimination kept African Americans from the polls. The Voting Rights Act, which civil rights protesters in Selma pushed for, could actually fix that. It was possible for the federal government to pass a law making it easier for African Americans to vote because it was racist laws — and lawmakers — that were making it so hard for African Americans to vote.

The fight there was between people who believed racism was good and people who believed racism was bad. Today, the fight is over whether racism persists as a live force in American life at all.

The battle is no longer between people who say African Americans should have equal rights and those who don't. It's between those who believe that we already have a colorblind society —a society where, if you just listen to what police officers say and don't behave like a thug, you'll be fine — and those who believe that racism still infects the criminal justice system, including among people who don't believe themselves to be racist.

Implicit vs. explicit bias

To get a bit social science-y about this, the protesters in Selma were fighting explicit bias and concrete discrimination. But those protesting racially biased policing in Ferguson and around the country are fighting something more complicated and more insidious: implicit racial bias.

Implicit racial bias is what happens when, despite our best intentions and often without our awareness, racial stereotypes, and assumptions creep into our minds and affect our actions.

Thirty years of neurology and cognitive psychology studies show implicit bias influences the way we see and treat others, even when we're absolutely determined to be, and believe we are being, fair and objective.

It affects all of us, including the people who keep the wheels of the criminal justice system turning — police officers like the ones who killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, members of grand juries who decide not to indict, and prosecutors who decide whether or how hard to push for charges.

Here's just one concrete example (and there are more): studies have shown that a person's level of implicit racial bias predicts the amount of shooter bias — meaning, how much easier it is to shoot African Americans compared with white people in a video-game situation. When researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and California State University, Northridge, reviewed a decade of empirical evidence about cops and implicit bias in 2012, they found police officers appear to possess implicit bias that might make them more likely to shoot black suspects than white ones.

Vox's German Lopez explained:

To test these disparities, researchers have run all sorts of simulations with police officers and other participants. In the earlier days, these simulations would quickly flash images of black and white people, along with different objects, and ask participants to identify if the object was a gun. More recently, researchers have used video games to see how people react to suspects of different races.

Josh Correll, a University of Colorado at Boulder psychology professor, ran some of these tests with a shooter video game. His initial findings showed police officers generally did a good job of avoiding shooting unarmed targets of all races, but, when shooting was warranted, officers pulled the trigger more quickly against black suspects than white ones.

While there's hope for minimizing the way implicit racial bias affects our actions (through, for example, counter-stereotyping training, or simply efforts to take the perspective of others), there's no one law that could put a dent in the way it informs the epidemic of police profiling of and violence against African Americans, let alone the way racism infuses decisions made at every level of the criminal justice system.

Even if we could fix police bias and systemic racism with a law, it wouldn't pass today

Even if there were a specific legislative fix for "what we want" —a fantasy law making it mandatory to reject the stubborn stereotype that black men are terrifying, "giant negroes," which has been around since the turn of the 20th century and reared its head again in Darren Wilson's testimony about why he killed Michael Brown; a mandate that officers have to see black 12-year-olds with a toy gun as a children, not a criminal threats; or a bill putting an end to the despair people feel when they know their skin color makes them perceived as criminals — this isn't the political system of 1965, either.

Remember, President Lyndon B. Johnson had huge majorities in Congress when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. As the 89th Congress opened, there were 68 Democrat senators and 295 Democratic House members — meaning Democrats had a more than two-thirds majority in both chambers. That's one reason King was so intent on winning new legislation — it was a moment in which new legislation could actually be won.

Today, Republicans hold Congress. So even if protesters did what Oprah is "looking for" and oriented the movement entirely toward legislative deliverables — even if they came together and focused on, say, an Erasing Implicit Bias Act, it might satisfy Winfrey's civil rights nostalgia, but it would never make it to President Obama's desk.

So it's perfectly appropriate that today's version of "this is what we want" is more complicated than a bullet-point list of legislative demands. It makes sense that it's instead a desperate plea for law enforcement officials and others to respect the humanity of African Americans by first acknowledging and then working to erase the racial stereotypes that can destroy their lives.

If Oprah is looking for a more specific, familiar, neat version of "this is what we want" than "black lives matter," she's better off watching Selma than criticizing today's civil rights movement. The only place an old-fashioned approach to old-fashioned racism is going to win the day is, well, in the past.

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