BATON ROUGE, DALLAS, MINNEAPOLIS, AND PSYCHOLOGY
“I went to high school at a college prep school in New Jersey. I remember talking with a classmate in his room one day during our senior year, 1961. We were comparing our perspectives on race relations in the United States. I made a comment that sometimes it seemed to me that blacks and whites were learning how to get along. My buddy went over to his desk, and pulled out a small paperback book. He said – ‘My parents drove me up here from Louisiana. This book lists, by state, the names and location of restaurants and motels that will serve black people. My dad made sure to map out our route so we always knew we would have a place to eat and sleep during the long trip.’ I looked at this book and the first words out of my mouth were “Your father is the President of Grambling University! He shouldn’t need that damn book!’”
In the aftermath of the recent shootings, our nation is involved in a collective coping effort as we struggle with many disturbing realities. The TV networks are in full swing providing us with information, analyses, and opinions. One observation we hear from commentators about racial relations in the United States is, “We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
Indeed we have come a long way since the early 60s. Today, my prep school buddy wouldn’t need that book; there are no more “whites only” drinking fountains and restrooms; colleges and universities have inclusive admissions policies; the military is multi-racial; interracial romance and marriage hardly raise an eyebrow; multiple races and ethnicities are highly visible in many professional vocations. We have indeed come a long way, miles, when it comes to civil law and equal rights. But, and this is a huge but, when it comes to individual attitudes — the attitudes of individuals from the small-town diner on main street to the large-city bodega — moderation of personal bias in racial attitudes has progressed barely an inch in the past 50 years. And this fact is a concern to many psychologists. The psychology literature is filled with studies documenting racial prejudice in today’s world, and unfortunately it often occurs unconsciously. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Blink to see how so many of our unconscious biases express themselves in our actions.
Events today are also painfully visible through technology. There are security cameras everywhere, even on our police. Horrific events from these cameras contradict what we all want, including the police, and that is to be treated with dignity, fairness and decency.
Unfortunately, technology reinforces the bigotry and prejudice so many of us harbor within. The fact is, our psychological development has not caught with the rapid advance of technology. Families of victims look at a cell-phone video of police subduing a suspect and see an uncaring, hate-filled attack; police officers look at the video and wonder why everyone is against them as they try to do their job. When the Dallas Chief of Police, in charge of one of the most inclusive police forces in the country, says in a national interview that every day his officers go to their jobs feeling little support from the community, something is vitally wrong. The police have earned and deserve our support and respect. But deep within many of us is a raw bigotry that we mistakenly think we have long dealt with and put to rest. “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” are great rallying cries, but they tap into our prejudices and only serve to divide us. And to make matters worse we are in the midst of a presidential campaign that further ignites this prejudice and anger, and legitimizes aggression with cute, catchy, time-worn phrases like “law and order candidate.”
Dr. Brian Williams, trauma surgeon at Dallas Parkland Hospital, answered a question at a news conference shown on CNN recently. He noted the conflict he lives with every day: He supports the police and respects what they do, but he also fears them from his experiences as a young black male who quickly learned that he would always be viewed with suspicion. Dr. Williams admits to and accepts his fear and negative views of police, but he refuses to be dominated by those impulses and emotions within him. He even described how he performs random acts of kindness for police officers, especially when he is with his young daughter. He says he wants to teach her that negative feelings do not have to be translated into hateful actions.
Dr. Williams is a model for all of us, and an example of what psychology says is the only answer to racial conflict: Each of us must confront our racial biases, and we must look within ourselves and admit that there are certain realities about life that we must accept. We must accept responsibility for our actions and be held accountable with due process and justice. Bad police and bad citizens must be punished, just as bad politicians, bad psychologists, and bad lawyers must be punished. We must accept diversity, change, and the uncertainty that goes with them; we must accept that peaceful protests expressing disgust and frustration is part of the process by which we learn to move forward together; we must accept the fears, biases, and prejudices that lurk within us, but vow never to be defined by them; we must accept that others need our understanding, even when we dislike their actions; we must accept that love is never enough unless it is expressed in actions; and we certainly must accept that we are part of a grand and continuous thread from helpless infant and dependent child to an adult who both receives and gives. These are our realities and whether we accept them or not is our ultimate choice. So far, we are not choosing wisely.
Share a comment about whether you think racial bigotry is primarily an American problem.
For an individual, what purpose do you think is served by expressing prejudiced attitudes toward others? Comment on what positive things you think we get from showing our bigotry.
Does this blog sound to you like it was written by a black or a white person? How about a relatively young or old person? Do your answers tell you anything about yourself?