Friday, December 19, 2014

Racism: We're All Victims

When I was a small child in the late 1960's, my family visited friends in a mostly black neighborhood in California--and my mother decided to warn me about playing out in the front yard while we were there. My memories of this are very sketchy. I think she said something about black people being mad at white people right now. Whatever she said, it caused me to have nightmares. I remember those vividly. In my dreams that night, coal-black men burst through the door of our hotel room and snatched me away.

Then we returned to the lily-white suburban neighborhood where I grew up, and the nightmares didn't follow me. I wasn't aware, for a long time, of any lingering effects. After all, there were only two black boys in my school district, and they were friendly and familiar.

But a dozen years later, I was at a Lutheran summer camp. It was the first day, and activities hadn't started yet. After dumping my things on a bunk in the boy's dormitory, I walked around the campground for half an hour. Then I decided to read under a tree, and so headed back to the dorm to get my book.

Three black teenagers were there, chatting and laughing. I froze in fear. I almost turned in the doorway. But I stopped myself. I forced myself to walk into the room, say hi, and get my book. They didn't beat me up. Instead, they said hi back. And I, still flushed with adrenalin, went and found a tree to read under.

In light of recent news out of Ferguson and New York, I've been thinking quite a bit about my childhood nightmare, and about my encounter with my gut-level racial fears in that summer camp dorm room. They are evidence of something--namely, that I've been harmed by growing up in a racist society. My best self has been harmed.

One of the things that profoundly shaped Martin Luther King, Jr.'s approach to fighting segregation was his conviction that the struggle was not between white people and black people, but between human beings and the racist system.This is one crucial reason why he insisted on an approach that eschewed violence and expressed love for the white oppressor: We're all in this together. All of us should work together to overcome racism, because all of us are its victims.

Let's be clear: King didn't mean that blacks are just as racist towards whites as the other way around, and that we're therefore all on the same footing. When a social system--defined by deeply rooted cultural practices and patterns of thinking and feeling--causes one group to enjoy privileges at the expense of another, there is no equal footing. And when members of the marginalized group lash out against the privileged group, it has a very different meaning than when members of the privileged group invoke their privilege to put the oppressed in their place.

Racism is not just about harboring animosity towards members of a racial group. It's about the oppressive use of social power. And unlike the frustrated lash-back of its victims, such oppressive use of social power can look very subtle, almost benign, to those who aren't its victims. When the oppressed behave badly, it looks like rioting. When the privileged behave badly, it looks like business-as-usual.

King called on all of us to stop behaving badly--but that call demands different things from the privileged than it does from the oppressed. It is one thing to resist the urge, in the wake of years of frustration and resentment, to lash out with flailing fists. That can be hard, especially in moments of acute outrage at specific injustices. But that challenge--to resist behaving badly in the face of an acute injustice--is very different from the challenge of resisting the urge to do what is socially acceptable, what is invisible, what you don't even know you are doing when you do it.

Racism drives the oppressed to moments of acute frustration, where it becomes hard to be your best self. But racism confronts the privileged with easy injustice, and it sometimes takes moments of acute emotion to begin learning to resist temptation. Racism harms me, a white male, not only because it make me unjustifiably afraid of my fellow Lutheran campers. It harms me because it makes it so easy, so painfully easy, to fall short of my moral aspirations.

And this is what King meant when he said that the racist system harms us all. White supremacists have been inhumanized by racist ideologies even as their black victims have been dehumanized. Well-meaning white people have had their best intentions undermined by subconscious prejudices that they don't even know are there, and black people have felt the accumulated weight of the micro-aggressions that result.

Research shows that even people who loathe racism are affected by unconscious prejudices. And no one is immune. Those in my profession are as guilty as anyone, as a recent study of college professors reveals. The evidence also shows that black children feel the effects of this unconscious racism very early on--starting as early as pre-school. Black children who behave the same way as white ones are perceived by white authority figures as a problem in a way that their white peers are not. It starts in preschool and just keeps happening. For some personality types, this may lead to a kind of cowering effort to avoid notice. In some, it may inspire a concerted effort to be better-behaved than everyone else, so that one can come off looking to unconsciously racist eyes as almost respectable.

But for some personality types, it can lead to growing frustration, growing anger, a growing sense of injustice. And if those personalities don't also possess uncommon resources for expressing their sense of injustice with eloquence and creative nonviolence--if they don't have the uncommon resources of a Martin Luther King, Jr.--they may strike back in more antisocial ways, creating a kind of feedback loop. Authorities treat you as a problem, so you react in ways that lead authorities to treat you as a bigger problem, and so on--culminating, perhaps, in a black teenager lashing out in explosive rage at a white police officer who orders him off the street, and a white police officer seeing a problem so terrifying that shooting seems the only way to get home to his family alive.

I've thought quite a lot about the tragic encounter between Officer Darren Wilson and teenager Michael Brown, and I'm uncomfortable with knee-jerk reactions in either direction. It was a black police officer who said, at a panel discussion I attended in early September, that the evidence available to him pointed to a justified police shooting. But if we accept that judgment, and also the judgment of the Grand Jury, it doesn't mean that racism isn't deeply implicated in what happened in Ferguson. Rather, it points to the deep truth that the racist system in this country has victims who are both black and white.

If Darren Wilson was justified in pulling the trigger, then it's because a system of anti-black racism worked itself out in the history of Ferguson, MO, and in the lives of the people involved, in ways that put that police officer into a desperate corner. Black boys grew up unfairly singled out as problems rather than people. A system evolved such that a city of mostly black citizens was policed by mostly-white officers who lived elsewhere, who were both physically and racially segregated from the community they served and so were unlikely to feel deeply connected to the community and its members.

The police have been targeted for a special kind of scrutiny by recent events, and given their important role in our society, and the power with which they are invested, I suppose such scrutiny makes sense. But the problem of racism is a social problem, not a police problem. I know a number of police officers and respect them all. They are good people devoted to serving the public good. As in all professions, there are bad apples. And as in all professions--including my own--the broad social influence of systemic racism will have its effects.

One of those effects is unconscious racial bias. The thing about such bias is that, unlike deliberate prejudice, we are not morally blameworthy for it. The enemy is the racist system; the fact that we acquire unconscious racial biases is a sign of the way that we all are victims. When blacks internalize such bias, it leads to self-destructive patterns, an internalized racism that leads them to underestimate their own potential. When whites do, it cuts them off from the full fruits of fellowship with their black neighbors, and leads them to unconsciously carry out patterns of behavior that defy their own values.

The moral questions comes into play when we wrestle with what to do with our racial bias.

When I came face-to-face with my own racial bias at that Lutheran summer camp, it awakened me to something I hadn't been aware of before. I might have pretended that race had nothing to do with my reaction--that I was just following a gut instinct that the teens standing there in the dorm were bad news. But I saw my own racial bias in that case, and over the years I have become convinced that there are many forms it takes which I don't see.

So what do I do with that? Here's one thing I do with it. You know that instinct you have, sometimes, not to get in an elevator when you see who's inside, or to cross to the far side of the street when you see who's coming towards you? I have that instinct. And here's the thing: I am probably more likely to feel it when the person in the elevator or coming towards me is black. But for that very reason, I am more likely to act on it if the person is white. Because if the person is black, chances are it's the legacy of the racist system at work within me--and that's something I ought to ignore. But if the person is white, I may be intuitively responding to something that I should pay attention to.

In other words, I am more suspicious of my instincts when it comes to my reactions to black strangers than to white ones, because I know how insidious covert racial bias can be. In relation to intuitive responses to white strangers, I hesitate less because there is less reason to mistrust my instincts. In relation to black strangers, I hesitate more. Now this still means I treat whites and blacks differently--perhaps differently in ways that might be noticed, that might still work in ways that are harmful. But it is the best I know how to do under the circumstances.

There's reason to suppose that white police officers in general have internalized the same lesson. A recent Washington State University study shows that, despite the evidence of unconscious racial bias in police officers (mirroring the unconscious racial bias in the general population), in circumstances that mimic real-life decision-making, white police officers hesitate more and make fewer errors when shooting black suspects. This is true even though the same study shows that the participants were more likely to perceive black suspects as threatening.

One way to understand this finding is that the police trust their gut more when the suspect is white, and so don't hesitate as long (and so make more errors). When the suspect is black, they have developed a meta-level instinct not to take their first-order fear-response as trustworthy. And so they hesitate longer, and make better decisions.

If this is right, then when it comes to the split-second decision-making of whether to fire their weapon or not, most police officers are doing the best they know how to do under the circumstances. Of course this is just one study, but it is a hopeful one. While there is little reason to suppose that the police are any more immune to unconscious bias than the rest of us, there is reason to think that, in general, police have some awareness of racism's potential to bias judgment and have--perhaps unconsciously--developed meta-level instincts to counteract those effects.

But racism is a many-tentacled monster, and doing the best you know how to do in split-second decision-making isn't enough to overcome a long legacy of oppression and injustice. Racism will sometimes rear its monstrous head in the form of overtly racist officers. Some police departments may foster a culture that discourages self-reflective awareness of racial bias and its effects, so that that the meta-level instincts to counteract such bias never take root.

But the bigger problem is that the police cannot be expected to become immune to racism in isolation. They cannot be expected to cope effectively with a society that treats black boys as suspect from earliest childhood, and reinforces that message so deeply through the years that it becomes a struggle not to internalize it. They cannot be expected to take responsibility for the whole range of social forces that turn the police into a group of outsiders entering a community they don't belong to and being received as an occupying force rather than as officers of the peace.

The police, like the rest of us, are victims of a racist system. As King insisted half a century ago, that system is the enemy. It's not the police, and it's certainly not the protesters in Ferguson and New York around the country who are rising up to say that black lives matter.

Racism has made victims of us all, but we don't have to stay victims. The trick is to remember who the enemy is, so that we don't turn against each other, human against human, and thereby allow the many-tentacled monster of racism to continue to do its terrible work unresisted.