The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

“If You Plant Corn, You Get Corn”: On Mindfulness and Racial Justice in Florida and Beyond

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Before Sandra Bland’s questionable stop while on her way to start a new job at her alma mater and mysterious death in police custody in Mississippi;1 b efore Eric Garner’s killing for selling “loosees” (single cigarettes) in front of a corner store on Long Island;2 a nd before Michael Brown’s killing and horrifyingly public on-street display in Missouri,3 t here was the tragic death at the hands of neighborhood police watchman George Zimmerman of young, Twittles-toting, Arizona Iced Tea-drinking Trayvon Martin. From the Chesapeake Bay to the San Francisco Bay Area, millions watched as the investigation proceeded to trial, and the trial proceeded to an acquittal.4 A long the way, we witnessed a Zimmerman supporter admit to a view that, since prior burglaries in the area had been committed by black men, it would have been reasonable to assume, based on his mere presence in the neighborhood, that Martin was a burglar as well. “Well, you know, there’s an old saying: If you plant corn, you get corn.”5

If you plant corn, you get corn. We may never know exactly what he meant when he made this statement, but in context, the speaker seemed to be explaining why a bias against all black men — viewing them as would-be burglars, criminals — would be justified. He seemed to be admitting to explicit bias against young black men based on a presumed pervasive culture of criminality — a bias that would absolve a person who would assume criminality in any young black man he might encounter in a neighborhood under watch. As disappointing as it is for most of us to be confronted with such an explicit statement of bias, it is based on a specifically anti-black racial ideology — the “culture of violence” thesis — that has served as a politically (and legally) powerful alternative to biological explanation of racial disparities between blacks and others in the post-civil rights era.

As a law professor who teaches mindfulness, the phrase “If you plant corn, you get corn” has a different meaning for me. For the past 17 years, I’ve been teaching about race and law. At the same time, I’ve had a long-standing personal contemplative, mindfulness meditation practice. Long before research began to provide objective evidence to support doing so, I had begun to rely on my own practice to assist me in the difficult work of turning toward evidence of racism in our midst, again and again, and of helping my students, lawyers, and others to do so. Beginning in 2004, I began incorporating mindfulness practices into my work with lawyers and law students about race and bias and facilitating challenging conversations in mixed groups using mindfulness meditation and compassion practices as support for both myself and those in these challenging conversations. Through this combination of examining the new ways that racism operates in the post-civil rights era, and infusing these inquiries with contemplative practices, I’ve personally witnessed profound changes in myself and others.

Over the years since the 1990s,6 and even up through to today, the work of examining the operation of race in our systems and institutions has often been difficult, thankless, and often derided. It has been the target of derision by those at the highest levels of our society. For example, some members of the U.S. Supreme Court took aim at the very idea of teaching and helping white students examine the interlocking structures of race-mediated benefits known by sociologists as “white privilege.”7

And yet, the need for this work has probably never been greater in my lifetime. Over the past generation, and despite the highly visible success of “the two Os” — Obama and Oprah — the racism that runs deep through the soul of our nation has morphed once again, gone underground, renewed, and resurfaced. In some places and at some times, it may appear to have faded a bit, but it has never died and probably never will. Because few in power will admit that we have individual racists in our legal system — even Florida police officers found to have exchanged racist texts, for example, dismiss those as just “a culture,” nothing to worry about. But what is even more troubling is that in these same “cultures” in which racial messages dare not be called racist messages, we see evidence of systemic and institutional racism baked into our legal structures, operating irrespective of individual intent. We see the justice system serving as “the new Jim Crow” in Florida as elsewhere in the country.8 We appear, then, to be living and practicing in systems characterized by what Duke University sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva calls “racism without racists.”9

How can we begin to address these problems in ways that might lead us to a new and more truly just future? As I learned years ago, mindfulness and compassion practices can help. Here, for sure, if you plant corn, you get corn: Practicing mindfulness meditation and compassion practices lead, over time and with commitment and an attitude grounded in love, to a lessening of bias. They assist us in overcoming our tendencies to turn away from the evidence of bias in our midst, a practice we’ve been roundly encouraged to embrace as “colorblindness,” and instead, to develop a deeper understanding of how bias works in our lives, an understanding I call “color insight.” Through learning about bias and how it works today, how history and institutional practices work together to maintain patterns of privilege and subordination, with the support of mindfulness practices, we grow in patience, in empathy, in our capacities to hear from and care about one another. Over time, we may develop the capacity to work against our common tendencies to treat those who appear to be different from ourselves as “other,” less than, and somehow less human. We heal ourselves and our communities, together.

Indeed, researchers at Central Michigan University have found that mindfulness meditation reduces our tendency to react in biased ways, when measured by the Harvard Implicit Association’s test.10 In a simulated shooter study conducted at Florida State University, police who had higher levels of positive contact with blacks outside of work were less likely than those who did not to shoot an unarmed black suspect.11

These findings are consistent with what I’ve seen in my own teaching and practice experiences over the years: Mindfulness meditation and interpersonal compassion practices, when delivered in mixed groups, are tools-in-contexts that work. We should embrace these practices to minimize and redress racism in the creative ways necessary to address its manifestations in the 21st century. Indeed, planting the corn of mindfulness yields the corn of mindfulness in our relationships across diverse groups. Given the depth of this state’s and our nation’s deep historical divisions and the particular challenge anti-black racism poses for our justice system, this is more than reason for optimism. This is good news.

In light of this and much research consistent with it, advocates, policy-makers, and members of law enforcement at every level are joining to explore mindfulness and other contemplative practices as means of minimizing bias and promoting equity and true justice. In California and in other states, mindfulness practitioners and advocates are building relationships with law- and policymakers. This past September, Charlie Halpern (formerly of the Berkeley Initiative for Mindfulness and Law) and Fleet Maull (of the Prison Mindfulness and Engaged Mindfulness Institute) worked together with a steering committee, on which I served, to host more than 20 lawyers, advocates, professors, and policymakers from across the country in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to explore mindful criminal justice reform. The work is spawning collaborations at the local level in San Francisco and San Jose, in Portland and Seattle, in Kentucky and in Washington, D.C., with the promise of another conference next year.

In Florida, this turn of events has particular promise. After all, it was the killing of young, unarmed Trayvon Martin that gave rise to the movement that has become known as Black Lives Matter, in which the main demand has been a realization of the human rights violations at the heart of uses of excessive force against people, by police and agents of the police, and especially when used against black men — long the special target of violence as a means of social control.12 If we are to address the calls for justice from this community, in personal, interpersonal, and systematic ways, we will need to increase our capacity to listen to those whose experiences with the police may differ markedly from our own. We need to increase our commitment to the notion that we are all a part of the same human family, and the myths and structures that support racism and segregation need to be examined and challenged in spaces that permit compassionate yet equitable responses to all. The heart- and mind-opening practices of mindfulness can be a true foundation for the work that must be done to make real the promises of a legal system we would call racially just. Let the planting of kernels of mindfulness that has already begun here in Florida continue and spread in the interest of true justice — one law student, lawyer, paralegal, judge, or lawmaker at a time.

1 M. Smith, Grand Jury Declines to Indict Anyone in Death of Sandra Bland, New York Times, Dec. 21, 2015, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/22/us/grand-jury-finds-no-felony-committed-by-jailers-in-death-of-sandra-bland.html?_r=0.

2 J. Goldstein & N. Scweber, Man’s Death after Chokehold Raises Old Issue for Police, New York Times, July 14, 2015, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/19/nyregion/staten-island-man-dies-after-he-is-put-in-chokehold-during-arrest.html.

3 J. Boseman & J. Goldsteing, Timeline for a Body: 4 Hours in the Middle of a Street, New York Times, Aug. 23, 2014, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/us/michael-brown-a-bodys-timeline-4-hours-on-a-ferguson-street.html.

4 L. Alvarez & C. Buckly, Zimmerman Is Acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing, New York Times, July 13, 2013, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/14/us/george-zimmerman-verdict-trayvon-martin.html?_r=0.

5 S oledad O’Brien, Zimmerman Neighbor, fmr. Neighborhood Watch Captain: Prior Burglaries Were Young Black Males: “You Plant Corn, You Get Corn,” CNN.com, Apr. 3, 2012, available at http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2012/04/03/zimmerman-neighbor-fmr-neighborhood-watch-captain-prior-burglaries-were-by-young-black-males-if-you-plant-corn-you-get-corn/.

6 Sociologists correlate the current disinterest in studying race with the publication, in 1978, of William Julius Wilson’s best-selling book The Declining Significance of Race.

7 Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).

8 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2013) (“A stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”).

9 Eduardo Bonilla Silva, Racism without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (3d ed. 2014).

10 A. Lueke & B. Gibson, Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias: The Role of Reduced Automacity of Responding, Soc. Psych. & Pers. Sci. at 284-91 (2015), available at http://spp.sagepub.com/content/6/3/284.

11 M. Peruche & A. Plant, The Correlates of Law Enforcement Officers’ Automatic and Controlled Responses to Criminal Suspects, 28 Basic and Applied Psych. at 193-99 (2006).

12 See Opal Temeti & Gerald Lenoir, Black Lives Matter Is Not a Civil Rights Movement, Time Magazine, Dec. 10, 2015, available at http://time.com/4144655/international-human-rights-day-black-lives-matter/.

Rhonda V. Magee is professor of law at the University of San Francisco School of Law where she teaches torts, race, law and policy, and courses in contemplative and mindful law and law practice. She is a trained facilitator with an emphasis on mindful communication and teaches MBSR. In 2014, she was named a fellow of the Mind and Life Institute.