What Moves us to Action

Economic decisions drive human decision making more than we like to admit. We are not often driven and motivated by causes that are larger than ourselves, and at the end of the day, we fall back on economic decisions and can’t seem to escape questions about money, about possessions, and about whether we as individuals get more or less from a decision. Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow looks at how economic decisions are shaping the criminal justice system and finds that concerns about fairness and justice fall short of the impact of economic outcomes when we think about how the system should change. As an American, I want to believe that things such as a concern for individuals and families should drive our considerations of how the criminal justice system operates, but nevertheless, these factors do not seem to be able to influence the system the way that economic arguments are able to. Alexander writes,

“Many of the states that have reconsidered their harsh sentencing schemes have done so not out of concern for the lives and families that have been destroyed by these laws or the racial dimensions of the drug war, but out of concern for bursting state budgets in a time of economic recession. In other words, the racial ideology that gave rise to these laws remains largely undisturbed.”

I think that Alexander’s quote ties in nicely with a lesson from John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series, Seeing White. Biewen looked at the history of slavery, especially American slavery, and explains the ways in which slavery and racism followed from the desire for economic exploitation. People had the ability and opportunity to subjugate others and to exploit people for economic purposes. From that exploitation followed excuses to rationalize those exploitative behaviors. Racism, in other words, followed from a desire to subjugate other people and to hold them down for economic benefit.

The war on drugs and our system of policing has disproportionately affected communities of color. We have incarcerated black and brown men to a much greater degree than we have arrested white men, but crime and drug use rates between white men and black men are almost identical. Alexander explains that we see changes in the criminal justice system in states where maintaining massive prison populations is becoming economically unsustainable. We are not changing our behavior out of moral principles, but out of economic hardships.

Looking at Alexander’s and Biewen’s work together reveals a common theme. Racial exploitation and subjugation follow economic incentives, and racial parity and justice is only possible in our country today if it is obviously economically beneficial. Our attitudes about others, about fairness, about justice, and about race take a back seat to our attitudes about our personal economic situation, allowing us to maintain mass incarceration systems today, and allowing our nation’s founders to exploit slaves two hundred years ago.

How President Obama was Viewed as ‘Other’

To understand the politics of race and who is and is not considered fully American in today’s politics and society, it is important to understand the way in which President Obama was perceived as something non-American during his time in office. The President was constantly portrayed as not quite American, and the “birther” conspiracy summed up people’s unwillingness to see him as an equal American. The conspiracy centered on a belief that President Obama was not born in the United States and therefore not a citizen and not eligible to be president.

 

David Sears and Michael Tesler were able to test theories of social response to President Obama’s otherness and analyze the data in their book Obama’s Race. The authors find that people who had less favorable views of black people and less favorable views of Muslims were more likely to support the birther conspiracy and were less likely to favor Candidate Obama in 2008.

 

Sears and Tesler wrote, “We expected most respondents to say Obama was born in the United States, even those who relied most heavily on Fox News. We were surprised, however, to find that only 21 percent of Fox viewers said that Obama was American-born.”  The authors also write, “It looks as if much of the driving force behind the dogged unwillingness of so many to acknowledge that Obama was born in the United States is not just simple partisan opposition to a Democratic president but a general ethnocentric suspicion of an African American president who is also perceived as distinctly ‘other’.”

 

It is important to note that simply watching Fox News cannot explain the reason why so many people felt that President Obama was an outsider and was possibly not born in the United States. From the data presented by Sears and Tesler, we cannot say that Fox News changed people’s beliefs, or whether people who already harbored feelings of racial resentment watched Fox News to reaffirm their beliefs.

 

Ultimately, what the research I believe shows us, is that we must be more considerate when we think about what makes someone American. Different groups across this country (across generations, racial groups, education groups, and groups defined by socioeconomic status) will have to accept the fact that American’s are changing demographically, with the nation becoming less white. This means that those groups who have dominated through their whiteness, even if the domination was unconscious or hidden, will have to shift who they understand themselves to be. This puts race in a pivotal role as we decide who will be American moving forward, whether the old order will cary the day, or if we are going to change who we allow to be American and represent American values.

Translating Symbolic Racism

What does racism look like when it is not overt and outwardly displayed? In Obama’s Race Michael Tesler and David Sears look beyond what people say and use survey data with carefully designed questions to try to look inside the mind of average people. Sears and Tesler are able to judge people’s affect, or their emotional feelings and responses, toward people of color, and look at their behaviors and actions such as their support for president Obama in the 2008 election or their support for public statements made in the wake of his election.

What the authors find is that many American’s, consciously or not, harbor feelings toward black people that cast black people in a second class status below white people. They write, “These earlier examinations have largely confirmed the original theory that the origins of symbolic racism for white Americans lie in a blend of antiblack affect and beliefs that blacks violate traditional conservative values such as individualism, obedience, and social morality.” The surveys show that white people view black people less positively than people similar to themselves. This is often not a conscious reaction, but rather hidden feelings that materialize in complex relationships in the real world.

I don’t think the results of the study show that we as white people are constantly acting against black people or that we don’t want to see black people live on an equal level with us, but it does mean that we tend to lean away from black people toward whiteness  without realizing it. This could mean that we like a resume from a person with a white sounding name more than an equal resume from a person with a black sounding name. It could mean that we are likely to be meaner to a black person who accidentally rear-ends us than a white person who rear-ends us. And it means we might choose to talk to a white person at a social event rather than a black person. None of these actions are directly racist and it is hard in the moment to ever recognize that you are making these decisions at all, but when a black person is constantly left out and receives harsher treatment, a sense develops that they are less valued within society.

I have recently been listening to John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series on the show, Seeing White. Biewen discusses the origin of race and racial discrimination not just in the United States but across the globe. In a powerful episode, he and the scholars he interviews explain that people enslaved others for economic exploitation, and that exploitation required justification for the domination of other people. From such exploitation came the excuses that those who were being enslaved were savage beasts, hardly able to live on their own and much better off being subjugated by another man. In the United States these views were weaponized against black people with the advent of race, a biologically false idea, but a socially powerful and socially real construct. To justify slavery and exploitation, white people needed to be able to see black people as less moral, unable to live up to American values of individualism and self responsibility, and any action against their bondage demonstrated their clear disobedience. According to the research from Tesler and Sears, America never moved past these views of black people, and the views we developed as an excuse for our desire to exploit and subjugate human beings were carried with us to the present day, when our President attempts to undermine every accomplishment and action of our previous black president, and openly embraces terms and ideas that are caught up in racists backstories.

Equality in the Abstract

Michael Tesler and Divid Sears in their book Obama’s Race connect historical attitudes about race in the United States to the current political and social climate of our country. Tesler and Sears write about current racial attitudes among white people who seem to be supportive of diversity, but fail to maintain such support in real world applications. The authors write,

“As a result, new theories arose to explain the combination of massive white support for racial equality in opportunity and treatment in the abstract, on the one hand, with continued white opposition to government action to produce racial equality on the ground, on the other. Some of these theories proposed a ‘new racism,’ postulating changes both in the content of contemporary racial conservatism and in its presumed determinants.”

In our minds we are all free from discrimination and want all people to be able to succeed based on merit and personal responsibility. What we see, however, when we look at decisions aggregated by communities and larger groups, is a system that favors white people and fails to live up to our ideals of merit. What is worse, white people in our country have developed ways of talking about race and about success that appear to be race neutral, but in reality support the status quo and work to undermine diversity.

White people within our society have not just rejected programs that are clearly meant to favor minorities and help reduce the disparities that arose from overtly racist periods in our country. We have developed structures that favor those who succeeded in the past and received more support while leaving out those who do not. What this means is that we have been more supportive of those who gained from the economic exclusion of black people and we have dismissed the needs and concerns of black people who lacked such advantages. In this sense we have worked to undermine the legitimacy of affirmative action and the defense we offer (that we select meritorious and qualified individuals for new opportunities) is often just a cloaked approach to defending racial superiority or oppression. We have literally created policies that advantage white people at the expense of black people, even if the policies do not say that directly. Every time we do favor such policies, we redirect resources away from black people toward white people, in a form of affirmative action that helps our white population instead of our minority populations.

This new racism discussed by Tesler and Sears focuses on the individual without regard for the history of the society in which the individual lives. There are certainly people who are able to overcome great challenges and racial disparities, but it is a mistake to look at those who do succeed in a vacuum and assume that racial tensions and barriers do not matter or do not exist. Our history of repression still has ramifications today, even though history’s impact is obscured and not easily understood. Our failure to accept that historical racial attitudes still shape the climate and opportunities of people today actually furthers racial disparities by assuming that racial problems have been solved and do not exist. When we create bills that favor meritocracy we sound as though we are acting in an egalitarian manner and are being fair to all people, but we end up advantaging those who have been privileged in the past at the expense of those who are exceptional and can succeed but are in challenging social positions that limit their ability to display or take advantage of their meritorious behavior.

A Common View

Michael Tesler and David Sears pull together a lot of research about race and politics in  their book Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. The authors look at the role that race has played in elections in the history of the United States and compare historical racial attitudes to contemporary politics and observations. When reading the book I came across a short line that stood out to me because it directly voiced concerns and thoughts that I had not fully articulated. “Others, however, viewed racial conservatism as a continuing source of partisan cleavage in the United States, not just between blacks and whites but among whites as well. Mayer (2002) finds a consistent partisan division about race in presidential campaign appeals from 1964 to 2000 (also see Gerstle 2002; O’Reilly 1995; and Schaller 2006) and the Edsalls (1992) articulated the common view among liberals that conservatism of all kinds had become little more than a mask for protecting racial inequality.”

The common view is that modern conservatives are not truly conservative in the sense that they prefer limited government as much as they are conservative in the identity politics that motivate them. This is a broad generalization of about half our country, but it is a view that is very common among Democrats. On the Republican side of the isle in the United States, the key foundations of most ideology hinges on personal responsibility, which creates a lot of gray space in which identity politics can operate. Through a personal responsibility framework, ideas of limited government can exist out of the idea that government should be limited to aid only those who are self reliant and can take personal responsibility for their given situation, be it economic, political (read as power position), familial, or social. These views of the Republican party are not really about a fear of the power of government or philosophical questions of the proper scope of government, but about whether we help those who are deserving and personally responsible. Who we determine is acting personally responsible and how we define who is truly deserving of government aid, however, is unclear in such a system, and identity politics is the simplest way to cut through the unending questions, hypothetical considerations, and nuanced details of life that make it impossible for us to decide who should receive what, when they should receive it, and why they should receive it.

This operation of identity politics in the name of personal responsibility is what those on the Democrat side of the isle have recognized, and this is where the common view of conservatism acting as a stand in for racism originates for many Democrats. Tesler’s book does not simply make observations regarding racial splits and racial attitudes on both sides of the isle, but instead incorporates research and data to support the ideas presented. I chose to include in the quote above the original citations from Tesler, to show that the common view of conservatism acting as little more than racial apologetics is backed by research and that the view is supported by academic studies evaluating people’s identities and general thought patterns.

I do not know how we cut through the apologetic euphemisms with which we communicate our political preferences, but I think it is crucial that we be able to dissect  political arguments to see what is operating in the background. Developing the ability to understand what we are arguing about and debating is crucial if we want to develop good policy and push back against identity politics. We must at the same time recognize that because so much of politics is about identity and race, significant policies aimed at more universal and egalitarian sharing of resources among races will face significant backlash without any backing that can be supported by empirical evidence. Because this backlash is motivated almost purely by obscured racial preference, tensions will be heightened and greater political division can ensue when lines are drawn in the sand.

The Onset of the Civil War

I heard recently in a podcast that the North won the Civil War, but the South won the culture war that followed. How we remember the civil war and think about the people who fought on both sides of the war is complex, and there is no easy way to remember and truly understand the history of slavery in our country. Many people in our country have a heritage that runs back to the colonial period prior to the civil war, and for many the iconography of the confederacy is a representation of that heritage. Unfortunately, that iconography, the men and women of that time, and the heritage represented cannot be untangled from the legal ownership and subjugation of human beings. There certainly had been slavery throughout the world before the United States’ Civil War, and outlawing slavery at the time our constitution was written would have required a monarch (something desperately avoided by our founders), but by the time the Civil War occurred, the legitimacy of owning people was very much in doubt. In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coats looks at the onset of the Civil War, and why slavery was worth protecting for white men and women in the South.

 

“At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies —cotton—was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. Our bodies were traded from the White House by James K. Polk. Our bodies built the Capitol and the National Mall. The first shot of the Civil War was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret. But we can do better and find the bandit confessing his crime. ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,’ declared Mississippi as it left the Union, ‘the greatest material interest of the world.'”

 

The right that Southern states wanted to protect was the right for white men and women to own black people as property. The South won a cultural war in changing the meaning and purpose behind the Civil War and throughout reconstruction and the early 1900s this idea was able to spread and gained legitimacy. When we reflect back on the period we should recognize that our history was not guided by angels but shaped by human beings. We made mistakes, we acted in self-interest, and we found ways to excuse our behaviors. We allowed the exploitation of human beings to form the backbone of our greatness, and then we made excuses to allow such exploitation to persist. As deplorable as our humanity may have been, we can still look back and celebrate the best part of our history, but we should not work to salvage memories of the worst part of our history. We can celebrate what men like Washington and Jefferson accomplished despite the fact that they owned slaves, but we should not revere the Confederacy or men like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or Alexander Stephenson who were major players in history precisely because they owned slaves and fought for the right to continue to subjugate human beings as property. The iconography of the civil war should be understood not as pride in being southern, but as the very battle symbol that men wielded in the fight to maintain the exploitation of black men and women. We cannot compartmentalize the state’s right that the south fought for, and the iconography of the time.

Exoneration

In the United States we love labels. We fully embrace the part of our brain that wants to categorize and classify everything around us, and when it comes to people we search for the right label to apply to every person to help us understand who they are, what they believe, and what they are likely to do or think. Our brains are constantly looking for patters, and labels are a type of heuristic to make people easier to understand.

A label that has been used more and more over the last several years, but has only become more complicated, is the word racist. Most people do not think seriously about race, though unavoidably race does influence our behaviors. Race triggers tribal instincts deep in our brain, encouraging us to look at others and decide whether they are like us or not like us, and associate and act accordingly. Where we live, who we hang out with, the jokes we tell, and where we go out for dinner are all areas where our tribal brain shapes our behavior based on perceptions of race, which is to say perceptions of sameness and otherness. Without self-awareness these implicit biases are hard to observe, understand, and counteract in ourselves, but they can be observed and criticized by other people or within a larger society.

It is this conflict, the challenge of seeing how implicit bias impacts our individual decisions and the ways in which implicit bias manifests in racial injustice, that has made the label racist so charged and so difficult to understand. We want to group social injustice, white people who make jokes about minorities, and our segregated society into the racist label, but the people who are tied up in everything described by the label are unable to see how they could be described by such a term.

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book Between the World and Me describes this problem and how white people in our country have reacted to the charge of racist. “My experience in this world has been that people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” In a sense, those who are grouped under the umbrella of racist become singularly focused with making excuses to show that they do not fit within the label. They demonstrate ways in which their behaviors are inconsistent with the most obvious forms of racism, and argue that their individual actions could not contribute to the system which has been oppressive for minorities and contributes the segregation that our society sees today.

Those charged with the label racist view racism as being overt actions, demonstrable discrimination, and unabashed ill-will toward minorities. The type of implicit racism that is rampant throughout society is somehow shielded (by hiding behind economic excuses) from the understanding of what racism is for those who are criticized as being racist. Society however, can see the way that individual decisions and historical injustice have piled on to create a society that is deeply affected by racist politics. Somehow we need a new label and new description to accurately explain society and individuals without forcing an exonerative reaction form those at fault.

Music, Fear, Culture

Ta-Nehisi Coats discussed growing up in America as a black man in his book Between the World and Me and two of the ideas he continually returned to were fear and not having control of ones body as a black man. Coats described the way that fear made its way into his daily life and manifested in the decisions he made, in the dangers of the places he went, and in the possibility of his future being taken away at any moment. By describing his understanding of the relationship between black people and police he described the possibility of other people using his body to control him. Combined, these forces shaped the culture around Coats as he grew up in ways both implicit and explicit. He never felt truly secure, and he never felt that there was anything physical that he had control over.

 

Born out of this culture, Coats explains, was music and attitudes that other people condemned. Describing his peers and their adaptations to these pressures Coats writes, “I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew,  the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrision and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies.”

 

The rap music so frequently reviled by people outside of the black community, when put in context, becomes more than just music with violent and explicit lyrics. It becomes a response to a world that pushes black people to live in fear and to live without control of even their most basic possession, their body. When police go out of their way to stop black people, search their person and property for drugs, and beat or use deadly force at the slightest sign of danger the boastfulness and power inducing feeling of rap music and gangster culture becomes more understandable. We live in a world where very few people are outwardly racist and where most people understand the danger in racist thinking, but nevertheless, racism continues with us thanks to our tribal brain. It exists not in individuals and their actions, but in systems, processes, and policies that appear race neutral but impact different racial groups in different ways. Racism today does not express itself directly, but is supported indirectly by those advantaged groups who do not want to see the status quo change and who hold up merit and colorblindness as evidence of a lack of racism, despite clear disparate outcomes for racial and minority groups.

 

The moment we meet another person we make snap judgements about them, about who we think they are, about whether we think they are like us, and about whether we can trust them. Colin Wright in his book Considerations spends a lot of time looking at these implicit biases and encourages us to become aware of them, and to become aware of times when we are pushing others away from us or withdrawing from situations where we are surrounded by people we deem to be others. Without realizing it we have perpetuated racism through implicit bias and through stories of colorblindness. Studies show that our implicit bias is to see black people as larger and more threatening, and that we will be more likely to expect crime and violence from black people, even if we are well intentioned.

 

Seneca wrote that even the most self-sufficient man could not live without the society of man, but when that society thinks you are a criminal, threatens you, and takes control of your physical body, your existence can never be fulfilled. Coats throughout his book describes the way that black people have their future robbed from them because the society they depend on does not care about their success as much as their punishment and their restriction. None of us actively act to put black people down, to instill fear in the minds of black children, or to control the bodies of black people, but we still have organized ourselves and throughout history have disadvantaged black people in a way that limits the aid and acceptance that society provides. At the same time, we demand that we ourselves are judged on a merit basis and we view our own success as coming from entirely within. We do not see the way in which we rely on the society of man for our existence. Like someone riding a road bike, even with a wind to our back, we still feel wind in our face, making it seem as though we are being pushed back, despite the fact that a strong wind propels us forward. Recognizing and understanding our dependence on society and how our society pushes back against black people can help us understand the culture and attitudes of black people in America today.

Acknowledging our True Selves

Colin Wright is a huge proponent of self awareness and ideas relating to self awareness. He advocates for recognizing ways in which our actions and ideas are shaped by our limited perspectives, draws attention to the parts of us we hide from ourselves and others, and he challenges us to rethink our goals and desires to become more aligned with our true personalities.  Throughout his book Considerations Wright brings all of these ideas into focus in ways which are very novel and were very new to me as I read Considerations.  Regarding self awareness and understanding our true selves he writes, “Reach deep and acknowledge the dark parts of who you are, then sand smooth or sharpen those aspects of yourself, just as you would with any bad habit or misfit trait.  It seldom serves us to conceal any part of ourselves, especially from ourselves.”

 

For me, Wright’s quote speaks about the importance of being honest with ourselves about the thoughts we have and the actions that result both explicitly or implicitly from those actions.  When we are able to accept that we have feelings, thoughts, or tendencies that run counter to our ideal self image, we are able to shift our focus to address those issues and make changes in our lives to grow for the better.

 

I think a fantastic example of this which I had to address myself deals with racism. I don’t think the majority of people in the United States would consider themselves to be racist or to discriminate against minorities, but unfortunately many people have an implicit bias that skews their behavior towards minority groups or individuals in a negative direction.  Within the first split second we meet another person we make judgements as to whether that individual can be trusted, is a good person, is successful, and whether or not they are someone we should interact with.  These thoughts and ideas race through our mind faster than we can recognize, and if we leave those thoughts unchecked, we may react negatively to another person, and those thoughts can materialize in small actions through body language, facial expressions, and through cordial or not so cordial greetings.  Without realizing it we may inadvertently frown at a member from a group to which we do not identify, or we may quickly advert our eyes, or possibly just not say hi or even acknowledge their presence.  None of these actions are explicitly negative or enough to classify any individual as a racist, but nevertheless, the person on the receiving end does pick up on the fact that they are not welcomed into your social circle.

 

What Wright in his quote above is advocating for is an understanding that we all have our dark spots like the situation I described. If we turn our attention inwards and focus a light on those dark spots we may not completely overcome them, but at least we can control them and manage the way they manifest in our lives.  Without accepting that we have these dark spots we live in an illusion where we have placed ourselves on a false pedestal. From our perch we risk inadvertently harming those around us by creating a blindspot in our actions. When we accept our shortfalls, we can identify new ways to move forward and become more egalitarian.