Clinging to Advantages

Over the last few weeks I have been very critical of American society and how we have treated black people and failed to live up-to ideals of freedom and equality for all. I have scrutinized white culture and politics and how our nation developed a system of mass incarceration that treats people differently based on race, and then hides behind ideas of colorblindness to deflect charges of racism and discrimination. However, it is important for me to address the human nature which drives the behaviors and attitudes of our majority population and dominant culture, so that I can better understand how we arrived where we are today.

 

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “it seems that an aspect of human nature is the tendency to cling tightly to one’s advantages and privileges and to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others.” I have written about John Biewen and his podcast Seeing White, and one of the key take-aways from his podcast was the understanding that racial discrimination followed economic exploitation. When our nation was not yet independent, we did not have genetic science, and we did not have complete working ideas of evolution and biology. In the United States wealthy European settlers enslaved black people for economic gain, and to justify that exploitation, stories, myths, and the idea of what would become the basis for “race” came into being. We would not have race and the creation of a caste system if people were not exploiting humans for economic gain in the first place. This system was never authentically understood or based on reason or science, but based on myth and the self-interest of those whose privilege provided advantages.

 

The quote from Alexander reminds us that we cannot just be critical and cast a judgmental eye on those who push back against our challenges to racial injustice. To a much greater extent than we ever truly recognize, we act more out of our own self-interest or our perceived self-interest than we act based on reason and altruistic values. I do not believe that the world is zero-sum, and I think you can cut behind popular views of the world as being win-lose to see ways in which we all grow and benefit even if we appear to be giving something up. However, the loss of status, the loss of social privilege, and even the loss of economic advantages can truly feel like a loss if you view the world as zero-sum. Giving up any of these things produces short term pains, and the payoffs are often far away and hard to recognize. Asking one group to give up their advantages and privilege may be necessary to ensure longterm stability within a population and may lead to greater economic prosperity for all over a generation or two, but the individual who must give up status and power may feel as though they have given up more than others, and they may feel attacked and victimized.

 

This is a challenge we must work through as a society. As we ask white people to step away from privilege, we must find a way to demonstrate that we are not attacking them personally or punishing white people for having been successful in our traditional system. Often times overall wealth and privilege is not as important for an individual as relative wealth and privilege. If you have more status among those around you, it does not matter that you are less wealthy and less powerful than those you will never meet or see. This vision needs to be shifted so that we look not at our status relative to those around us, but instead look toward stability and opportunity for humanity as a whole, recognizing that we, and our children, can still be prosperous and important, but in a larger system that depends on human connections more than it depends on individual wealth and success.
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Design Matters

One of my favorite podcasts is Debbie Millman’s Design Matters. She interviews architects, artists, marketers, designers, and other creative people about their work and their place in the world. It is an excellent show to learn about people who see the world differently and to see what people did to reach success, often without following a traditional path. A common theme running throughout Millman’s show is that design matters. It matters a lot when we look at the built world around us and ask questions about why things operate the way they do, about why people behave the way they do, and about why society is designed the way it is. Design matters because the built environment and the societal structures we adopt or inherit shape who we are as people. Everything hinges on the design we give the world around us: our futures, our possibilities, our idea of what is possible, and our understanding of what is reality.

it is incredibly important that we think about design as a society because poor design leads to inequality and bad outcomes for individuals and for society as a whole. I thought about this when I returned to a sentence I highlighted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society.” When we think about design we can begin to connect the inequalities, the disparate impacts, and the problems with society today to the attitudes and behaviors of the past. In his podcast series, Seeing White, on his show Scene on Radio, host John Biewen reflects on the structural elements of racism in our society as opposed to the individual elements. Individual racism is easy to see, easy to condemn, and easy to change, but structural and institutional racism is hard to see, hard to understand, and very difficult to change. However, just because it is hard to see and understand does not mean that structural racism is any less of a threat to society or any less real for the people impacted.

We should be honest with ourselves and accept the idea that structures and systems designed by people who were openly racist can still impact the lives of people today. System and procedures were designed with the interests of white people and white culture in mind, and part of the decisions that were made involved the oppression, the limitation, and the containment of black people. We still must deal with many of these systems, even if their design has been slightly changed, because the original design was effective in allowing some to prosper while others were limited. These designs mattered, and they still matter today. A system that deplores individual racism while supporting hidden and structural racism can influence and shape the lives of individuals and the direction of society arguably more effectively than a system that encourages individual and open racism. To move forward, our nation needs leaders who can be honest about systems and structures and understand that design matters when thinking about government, society, services, communities, and neighborhoods. By becoming more aware, all of us can recognize the way that systems which are currently in place can shape our quality of life and the perceptions we all share, and we can push for new systems that compel us to interact more with our fellow citizens, and encourage us to see each other as people as opposed to enemies.

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.

Increasing Racial Polarization

In their book Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears examine the ways in which President Obama split people along the lines of racial sentiment and attitude. The way that people saw race shaped the way that people viewed Candidate and President Obama. Research analyzing public opinion polls and voting behavior helps us understand how people truly reacted to a black presidential candidate and ultimately a black president. Tesler and Sears were able to use that analysis to see how public opinion changed from before the 2008 election throughout the campaign to 2010, two years into President Obama’s first term. The results of their study in 2010 pointed toward a rocky future, and their analysis was proven correct over the course of President Obama’s two terms and into the early presidency of Donald Trump.

 

Tesler and Sears write, “As we mentioned … our results from the campaign on the spillover of racialization are likely to have the most important implications for American politics in the age of Obama. If the racialized evaluations associated with President Obama spill over to people and policies strongly situated in opposition or harmony with him, as they had during the campaign, then partisan politics might become increasingly polarized by race and racial attitudes in the years ahead.”

 

Their prediction was absolutely correct as Candidate Trump turned identity and race into his signature issue, focusing intently on who is and is not a full American, and garnering support mostly among white voters.

 

The authors continue, “The natural extension of our discussion of Obama-induced racialization … is that racial attitudes should have developed a greater impact on opinions about health care after the 2008 election because of its strong association with President Obama.” This idea was fully born out in 2016 as President Trump attacked President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, which bears the former President’s name in popular discussion as Obama Care.

 

What is challenging for us today, is the lack of acceptance and understanding that race and racial attitudes shape so much of our understandings and interactions with the world around us. On a recent episode of the podcast Scene on Radio, John Biewen shares an interesting statistic. Many white people today feel that discrimination against white people is a serious problem, and many people who voted for President Trump believe that discrimination against white people is a larger problem than discrimination against black people and minorities. When we fail to understand how our attitudes have been polarized by race and how many people used President Obama’s race to polarize our ideas and opinions, we lead ourselves toward a place where people are disrespected and dismissed based on the color of their skin. We begin approaching politics within a framework where our true agenda (advancement of our racial group) is hidden behind surface level ideology that does not hold up when scrutinized. We argue about tax rates and health insurance coverage on the surface, but our true argument is about which identity group should receive greater support from the collective use of society’s resources and which group should not receive such support.

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.