BROWN: Community of distrust

Addressing spotlighting and dimming in the the Honor System is integral to maintaining a Community of Trust

A recent letter published in this paper criticized Honor Chair Evan Behrle and the Honor Committee for their focus on so-called “spotlighting” of minority offenses and “dimming” of white offenses against the honor system. The writer called this “at best a disingenuous assessment of the cause of the problem,” and asserted, “The notion that somehow faculty and others reporting Honor offenses are discriminating against minorities is a foolish and misguided assumption.” While I think Behrle and everyone else involved with Honor have done an excellent job this year at bringing these issues to the forefront and explaining why they matter,I would still like to directly address the letter’s misconceptions here. Issues like spotlighting and dimming do exist and must be addressed, not just so the system is equitable and fair, but so it is effective at involving the entire student body.

More than 60 percent of Honor offenses reported since last April were against minority students, while less than 30 percent of the student body is of a minority race. Clearly something is wrong here. Some might say that minority students are disproportionately likely to commit offenses, and that is the entire cause of the disparity. It is impossible to gauge the accuracy of that statement without intensive research, but it would necessitate minority students being around 4 times more likely to commit an honor offense than their white counterparts. I find this very unlikely.

A much more likely explanation, which is the one the Committee is attempting to address, is that reporters of honor offenses are allowing a subconscious bias to influence their actions. Notice this is not intentional — no one is saying anyone is “discriminating against minorities,” as the letter suggested. But implicit biases are well-researched phenomena that often result in unequal treatment of minorities throughout society. Arrests for marijuana possession are good examples, where blacks and whites have about the same rate of usage, but blacks are almost 4 times more likely to be arrested. Spotlighting and dimming are just other examples of the same phenomena, where subconscious assumptions we make about certain students based on their race — say, that Asian students care more about their GPA and will cheat to maintain it — lead to those students being watched more closely. This makes them more likely to be caught when they do cheat, leading to disproportionate reporting rates. And it also makes it easier for students who do not provoke those implicit assumptions to get away with breaching the Honor Code.

Some may not question the disproportionality of the reports, but instead ask why it matters if one group is reported more than another, as long as the guilty are convicted and the innocent are not. It’s a fair question, and I don’t think anyone should be let off the hook because of their race. But as long as certain people feel like they are being targeted by the Honor System because of their race or appearance, it is impossible for them to participate in the Community of Trust that the system depends on. The system needs the entire student body to buy into it in order to work, and as long as the perception exists that the Honor System is targeting some people more than others, that won’t happen. As long as minority students are being reported more than white students, many minorities will not feel comfortable reporting offenses or serving on juries for a system that seemingly is out to get people like them.

How can these issues be addressed? The Honor Committee has already done an excellent job — just by making spotlighting a primary talking point in meetings and talking to papers like The Cavalier Daily about the issue, the public has become more aware of the problem. Public discussion creates awareness of the issue, which allows people who may unintentionally make implicit associations to critically evaluate their assumptions before acting. Creating a healthy dialogue will allow for more members of the Community of Trust to engage in this self-reflection, and I would encourage everyone to do so. These biases — which everyone holds to some degree — are deeply ingrained and difficult to recognize, and they can affect our interactions with others in a variety of ways. They are worth confronting for a multitude of reasons beyond the Honor System. I hope the Committee continues to address these issues as they transition to their new members, and I hope we all join them in creating a more inclusive Community of Trust.

Forrest Brown is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

Published March 21, 2014 in Opinion

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