What People Don’t Understand About Racism

I’m about to make some controversial, yet, hopefully, thought provoking statements. In light of all of recent accusations of police brutality, riots, police shootings, etc., I have seen a lot of strong opinions on the topics. I’ll be honest, I don’t watch the news very often anymore. My life has enough going on without me taking on other people’s stuff. I’ve been accused of being uninformed and if that’s the case, then, I can live with that. I may be uninformed on the particulars of media slanted coverage that paints African Americans as crazed lunatics stopping traffic, looting stores and killing cops. I’m also under informed on the particulars of innocent police officers being gunned down for no other reason than wearing a uniform. But I am not uninformed when it comes to the underpinnings of the racial divide and why it is so vast. It’s my business to know.

Not only do I teach psychology with an emphasis on the socio-historical roots of why we as human beings think and act the way we do, but I also work in the behavioral health field and provide clinical supervision in one of the poorest,  most violent communities in Pennsylvania. I see racism everyday. I see it from Whites. I see it from Blacks. I see in it systemically in the government systems. My opinion is very, very informed.

I am often in awe of white individuals who try to downplay racism. I mean, I understand the urge. Who wants to say they are part of the problem? Who wants to admit to feeling uncomfortable walking down the street and seeing a young, black man coming towards them? Who wants to admit to holding their purse a little closer? Who wants to admit that they assume someone is uneducated, angry and gunning to gun down cops based solely on the color of their skin? But, it happens. It happens everyday. In every city. In every town. And you are kidding yourself if you would like to argue to the contrary.

But, I’m more interested in the why. Why do Whites fear Blacks? Why do Blacks assume the worst of Whites?

Through both my work in behavioral health and as a teacher of psychology, I have come to two very compelling reasons. The first is based on the socio-economic and historical underpinnings of the Black/White experience and the second is based on the concept of behaviorism itself.

We cannot escape our collective past. All of us are a product of what history has taught us about race, authority, crime and safety. Our personal experiences may greatly differ but the collective nature of our past is what has brought us to where we are today.

Our past has largely taught us to segregate. This goes back to a concept called “in group bias” in which, from an evolutionary perspective, it only makes sense to cling to others who are like us. This is what kept tribes alive, fed, and safe (and still does in many parts of the world). The in group bias intuitively teaches us to fear the “out group”, aka people unlike us. So, whether we are talking about race, culture or socioeconomic groups, we all have a tendency to assume our group is better than another.

We live in a country that has bred prejudice and discrimination since its inception. We rolled up and took land away from Native Americans. We brought Africans over and made them our slaves. We sent the Japanese to “encampments” during WWII to limit further possible attacks to our freedom. We didn’t let women vote. We didn’t let people of color vote. We made Blacks drink from different water fountains, pee in different toilets, and sit in the back of the bus. We blocked little children from entering school buildings. We left the residents of New Orleans to die after Hurricane Katrina. Nope….no racism here. No reason to worry, minorities.

If you are a young black woman or man today, your grandparents experienced the overt racism of the 50’s and 60’s. We are not talking about hundreds of years ago. We are talking about their grandparents. And while overt racism isn’t as politically correct as it was 50 or 60 years ago, covert racism is alive and well in America. Again, don’t kid yourselves. Studies as recently as 2000 looked at traffic stops in Midwestern States, where African Americans are by far the minority of the population. They were stopped at much higher rates than their white counterparts. These are statistical facts, published in scholarly journals. The California Housing Study sent out over 1100 identical emails to various landlords with vacant apartments signed with three names; Tyrell Jackson, Said Al-Rahman and Patrick McDougall. Guess who got the most positive response? Yep….the Irish lad, Patrick. The least? Yep…..that Black guy, Tyrell. Same email, yet a very different response. Maybe there is something to this racism thing.

If this has been your experience, coupled with the experience of your parents, your grandparents, their parents and so on, this is your history. This is your world view. Things probably don’t feel very fair.

Before I get into the behavioral elements (because they are super important), I’m going to address the obvious counter argument. Namely, “So what? Why perpetuate history? We all have free will. We can all overcome.” My answer to that is this….look at your own life. How many of us have really escaped our past? How many of us don’t credit our families, good and bad, for where we are right now? Bad temper? That’s dad’s fault. Kind soul? Well, that’s mom, of course. Yes, some of us break the cycle but it is the exception, not the rule. It’s not even close to the rule. And the race rule will never be broke when both sides are so diametrically opposed to even acknowledging its existence.

Now, put on your scientist hat and look at people as nothing more than robots reacting to various stimuli in the environment. Remember Ivan Pavlov and his dogs? Pavlov accidentally discovered that he could condition dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell in anticipation of food that would arrive shortly afterwards. This is called classical conditioning and it happens everyday. Advertising loves to pair once neutral stimuli (their boring product) with unconditioned stimuli (super hot, sexy model) to create a conditioned response (I have to have your lame product because that super hot, sexy model looks super hot and sexy holding it!!!)

Classical conditioning is at the core of media coverage of racially charged events. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times lately…..”What about when a black guy kills a white guy for no reason??? Nobody talks about that!” And you are right. They don’t, but not for reasons (from a conditioning perspective) that you might think. Here’s the deal. Historically, Blacks (at the core, a neutral stimuli) have been paired with unconditioned stimuli (crime, guns, violence) to create a conditioned fear response. Classical conditioning is subconscious. We don’t really recognize that it’s the super hot, sexy model that is drawing us to a product anymore than we recognize that selective media coverage of impoverished minorities are paired with crime. Both naturally become part of the collective unconscious.

African Americans as a group are disproportionately poorer than their white counterparts. They always have been. Crimes occur in these areas, not because people are Black but because they are poor. When people are poor, the rules that apply to people that have the basics covered (food, water, shelter) don’t mean as much. People will do things they wouldn’t do under other circumstances when they don’t have much. It doesn’t matter what color they are. Crimes occur in low income areas because of the socio-economic make-up of the area, not the race of the people living there.

I recently read a definition of empathy that goes something like this: If you can for one minute, stand in someone else’s shoes and understand why, then you have experienced empathy.

I empathize with the racial minorities in this country because I take the time to understand. I also empathize with the police because in my former life, I was a state trooper’s wife. I inherently know the difficulties of that profession. It changes people. No one is ever happy to see the cops show up. Think about every time you walk into a situation wearing that uniform, knowing that no one is particularly thrilled that you have arrived. It’s a hard life. And you have to empathize with them too. Because they do a job very few of us could ever do. Or would want to. No one deserves to die for putting on a uniform. For trying to protect. But no one deserves to be harassed or hurt or killed because of the color of their skin either. Regardless of the color.

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