(Update # 2) Trayvon Martin and the Algebra of American Racial Math

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By Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law

“Although the meaning of reasonable doubt sounds precise, deciding whether such doubt exists is not reducible to a mathematical equation..” Professor Darren Hutchinson,  Race, Justice and Trayvon Martin, http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/07/15/race-justice-and-trayvon-martin/

At the time I read Professor Hutchinson’s excellent piece, I was thinking about math.  This essay discusses racial math as a way of articulating a structure of social attitudes that are endemic to American society.

(Update: One way of showing how endemic this social structure is the practice of teens of Trayvoning described here http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2362837/Trayvoning-latest-disturbing-social-media-trend.html – mimicking the dead body of Trayvon Martin.  So much for those who put their hope in the attitudes of youth.  That was something that was said when I was integrating schools 50 years ago and we can see the state of the progress today. Hat Tip to a colleague)

There is an adage that I was told growing up that I suspect most black Americans have heard that we have to “work twice as hard to get half as far.”  Other groups have had other adages I understand, for example, I understood  from a Chinese-American Law School friend that when he grew up he was taught that  “ For success, Asians need to  be in the hard sciences.”

In the post-Zimmerman acquittal world, I started to think about the starkness of the equation that I had heard and decided to warm up my high school algebra to express my personal reaction to this decision and many others things.

If we consider “x” a standard measure of work then pursuant to the adage that a black ”has to work twice as hard to get half as far” the equation would be 2x = .5y where “y” is a standard measure of success.  To introduce the racial component, we might further specify that the “2x” is really “2 black  x” while the “y” would not need that identifier as it is understood to be a measure of success in society that is standardized.  The resulting formula would be:

2 black x = .5y

If we were to understand that the adage is comparative in terms of what a given white person would have to do in this society to reach the same level of standardized success  then we would need to have a second equation.  Let us strip out the impact of gender for the moment and focus on white males as the longest standing dominant group referent and make an equation for a white male.  That equation would be for a control group and the logic would be that an “x” unit of effort by a member of that control group would lead to a standardized “y” unit of success or

white male x = y.

Bringing the blacks and white together would mean:

white male x = y = 2(.5y) = 2(2 black x)

In this kind of math then, a black effort of “x” would have to equal  4 times “white male x” to equal y or to have the same level of success.  Put another way:

4 black x = white male x = y.

One could also have a distribution of black experiences with the probabilities of blacks falling in each type of category and a similar distribution for whites.  For example,  a very poor black and a very poor white male might have this math work in a way that the end result was not “y” but was say “.25y”.  Similarly, for upper income blacks and upper income whites the equation would lead to say “2y” or even “3y”.

The question in the math would be whether there was a constant relationship operating and, if so, what is the measure of that constant relationship.  What is held constant is the unit of success (a “y”) and then one tries to find the measure of the kinds of work needed to get to that.

If the reader would bear with me, under this math vision, if we go to the adage of “For success, Asians need to be in the hard sciences,” then an equation might be made where the equation might be something like “(some number) Asian x in hard sciences = (some number) white male x = y.

I suspect, from this kind of approach, one can get data in every area of American life and seek to calculate the black and white male constants.  One can also go ahead and see if the exact formula varies depending on the activity (sports as players, music industry are classic areas where the adage was that blacks could do well in those areas).  I suspect that there are these constants on gender, ethnic, income, immigrant, education and other social category lines that could also be attempted to be calculated.  So the constants might vary by particular sector but the aggregated social situation (“The State of Black America” type vision) would lead to a social index number.

While durable, such a social index constant would be expected to have varied and continue to vary due to fundamental changes in society.  Thus, the amount of “black x” needed to equal “y” success in slavery would be unreachable (infinite “black x” would never equal “y”), less so but significant in segregation (something less than infinite “black x” would be needed to equal “y”) and even less in desegregation (the math I learned as 4 black x = white male x = y).

Similarly, to the changing constant of how much “x,” the value of “y” could change over the period as “y” in a great depression might be different from “y” in a period of rapid expansion or due to other factors such as the global market place, war, and natural disasters.

If one is still bearing with this thought experiment and if there is this kind of social index math as an articulation of the work required to overcome explicit and implicit bias in the American system, then the language of math might help assist us in comprehending social phenomena.

Because so many were both certain that Zimmerman would be acquitted but dismayed that he was in fact acquitted thinking justice did not get done, I thought of something.   If I were to set “y” as success meaning acquittal then for acquittal when killing a black teenager the American process requires less (“x”) from the white male defendant to get that success than would be the case if it was the black teenager defendant (“4 x”) charged with the crime of killing the white adult (for any given level of the crime).  This vision suggests that reversal of the roles does not changes the law but changes the socially constructed expectation as to what is needed for “y”.

Similarly, for stop-and-frisk in New York, if “y” is defined as not being stopped and frisked, the American process requires less from the white male (“x”) to avoid being stopped and frisked on the street then it does for the black male teenager (“4x”) and thus the differential results in stop-and-frisk.

Now, these numbers are only symbolic expressions as an attempt to express what might be an underlying reality.  I am not sure if 4 or 2 or 7 or 15 is the right number.  But, for purposes of black parents who internalize these numbers in the way they try to protect their kids, it would seem to me that this way of expressing the reality might help us think lucidly about what we and our children face in America when they walk out of the house/apartment/etc..

And this calculus is not only cross-racial but intra-racial such as the risks that a black child experiences in living in a black neighborhood or a white neighborhood or a mixed neighborhood in terms of the perception of their status as compared to some referent.

As someone with the income to do it, this case brought back to me the fact that we drove/took the subway/walked our children to school and picked them up from school to the extent we could all the years of their schooling.  This approach simply takes out the risk of school bus fights and all that.  When my son reached high school age, we were more amenable to having him have my car in a situation where I could walk to work.  Him being in a car avoided him walking on the street in a black or white neighborhood like Trayvon, which helped avoid the risk of him running into guys like Zimmerman.  Now, there is a chance he might be stopped by the police in my car or be carjacked by some criminal, but that risk seemed worth it as compared to the violence he might experience on the street.  My daughter never wanted to drive and until she got to graduate school she avoided the risk through one of us driving her to or from places.

For those who find this analysis repulsive, it is repulsive because it seems to cast in stone a disparity that is repugnant to those who speak of us all having formal rights.  I understand the domestic law fascination with formal equality, but as an international lawyer I am less enamored of the discussions on formal equality in the United States construction of itself as a state.  I think of equality in ways that are less tied to formal equality and less tied to the peculiar American history as enshrined in the Constitution.

If a case goes forward under federal civil rights law or a civil case, the “y” of successful acquittal or defense winning may operate according to the same cold calculus even though it is in a different forum or with a different burden of proof.  If there are such social constants at play, then they will play in whatever social construct is used as dispute resolution.

How can these hypothetical social constructs be changed?  Well, if I take the”4 black x” as an example, I can well imagine that in a kind of reverse calculus or reverse solving of an equation in physics that the “4 black x” might be viewed as (some number) black x multiplied by some quotient to express social effort at integration.  So for example:

3 black x multiplied by 1.33 social effort = 4 black x = white male x = y

might be an equation that expresses ameliorative efforts to make less uneven the work equation I was taught as a child.  That social effort might be in the form of state assistance or in the form of social support by private persons – an openmindedness factor or Good Samaritan factor.  Whether public or private, it could operate to encourage success.  Of course, conversely, if public or private hostility to success is enhanced then the equation might be even something like:

6 black x multiplied by .67 social effort = 4 black x = white male x = y

which would mean that even greater effort (the effort of segregation periods?) might be required of the black to reach that elusive “y” of success.

I suspect that there are those who will say in America that the black “x” is not equal to the white male “x” so that is why blacks have to do more.  There are the IQ types.  There are the I Will types.  There are the heredity vs. environment types and all that.  There are the talented tenth types.  I can imagine all the various ways that we talk about these things in society.  I am just assuming that the proper social index constant would take into account all those vagaries of socially constructed thought in the relative values set between black “x” and white male “x.”

But in a country where disparities of income in neighborhoods dictate the resources flowing to people in the different neighborhoods and disparity of income affects education and disparities of wealth affect the access to upward mobility and networks, I am comfortable based on what I have seen that the social index constants I am suggesting can capture all of those concerns.

Please note that I am not positing the math is this exact math.  All I am saying is that if one thinks in terms of implicit constants operating throughout society on every parameter of life, one gets a sense of a quantifiable dissociation that is endemic.

For example, the reaction to Obama as opposed to a white male Democratic President can be understood in terms of these background mathematical constants.  For him to have a “y” successful Presidency would require him to do 4 black x as opposed to white male x to reach the y of success.

I note that my use of x and y is provocative in its own terms as it suggests gender implicitly.  I am doing that explicitly to let the reader know that I sense there is something going on there that I am just not capturing well enough between the experience of black males and black females.  I am not capturing Hispanics that are non-white or Native-Americans either in all of this discussion.

(Update # 2 – As an example of my social blinders on these constants, while thinking instinctively of gender or other racial groups, it took me until today to think of sexual orientation and the LGBTQ social constants that are likely to be similarly operating.  I would expect LGBTQ parents  or parents of LGBTQ children would have a language to express the work needed for success by their child in this society even as we experience watershed changes of attitudes.  I suspect the inter-racial constants would still operate even in a completely LGBTQ setting, but it may also be true that the intersectionality would lead to a net increased constant across communities as opposed to within communities.)

In fact, I may not be capturing much at all in what  I have written, but this is what came to my mind today as I look at the Zimmerman case.  It also helped me understand the Voting Rights Act Supreme Court case (social effort decline) and the Affirmative Action Case (social effort likely declining) suggesting that as things are going now there is another adage I have heard that is becoming more true.

That adage was and is, “It is hard being a black man in America.”  We might call this a mismatch theory.

Just some thoughts for those who read this far.

Trayvon, rest in peace brother.