Hostility Toward Blacks

In the 1970s Richard Nixon began using crime and the need to control crime as an excuse for policing and incarceration practices that had disparate impacts on black people. Through the 1980s Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior continued to push the “tough on crime” narrative, hinting at race while appearing neutral in their approach to policy and problems in the United States. In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander examines the evolution of these racialized messages and policies and describes the ways that anti-black sentiment spilled into the language that is still used to discuss politics and culture. I read Alexander’s book during the summer of 2016, before Candidate Trump had emerged as the Republican front runner, when racial attitudes in the United States felt like they could still take a major step forward.

 

Instead, what I believe we have seen in our country is backlash against President Obama and a return to the negative racial discussions that arose with President Nixon. Regarding Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr., Alexander wrote the following:

 

“Beginning in the 1970s, researchers found that racial attitudes—not crime rates or likelihood of victimization—are an important determinant of white support for “get tough on crime” and anti-welfare measures. Among whites, those expressing the highest degree of concern about crime also tend to oppose racial reform, and their punitive attitudes toward crime are largely unrelated to their likelihood of victimization. Whites, on average, are more punitive than blacks, despite the fact that blacks are far more likely to be victims of crime. Rural whites are often the most punitive, even though they are least likely to be crime victims. The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.”

 

We have fallen back to the same dangerous rhetoric today. President Trump has taken us to a place where the racial underpinnings of our politics are possibly more obvious. Lacking any policy understanding, he thrives on culture wars, and denounces black athletes, black protesters, and black politicians at any opportunity. He has used the NFL and NBA as targets for white resentment, especially rural white resentment.

 

I do not believe that facts like the ones presented by Alexander above will change the situation. I do not believe that demonstrating how white privilege has helped the core of the republican party will make a difference in where we are today. And I don’t believe that even the future (hopeful) election of another black president like Cory Booker will make a difference in where our country exists on race.

 

What will make a difference is for reasonable people to become more connected with racial minorities in our communities. Particularly within schools and youth groups, we must reach out and connect with those who have been disadvantaged. We must not flaunt our support for things like Black Lives Matter, though our support is crucial. We must not tell those opposed to racial equality that they are the bigots that they are, but we must quietly and rationally express our support for movements and policies that support diversity and individuals who have been victimized by race. Sharing these feelings with those closest to us will create a space where others can be more comfortable with movements supporting rights and policies that benefit minority populations. Demonstrating to our friend and family that people like them can also support diversity and minority populations will help them be more reasonable and less racially tribal in their decision making.
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The Words We Use

Have you ever had a disagreement with someone only to find out that you both agree on the same concept or principle, but you just don’t agree on semantics and vocabulary definitions? Author Colin Wright looked at this phenomenon within relationships in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. Wright has three rules regarding communication in relationships and his first rule is to keep in mind how other people use vocabulary different.

My college undergraduate major was Spanish, and I took linguistic classes in English and Spanish, so I am always drawn to conversations and discussions surrounding the use of language to express complex ideas with random sounds organized together. I love the different uses of language across a nation or across multiple nations, so Wright’s first rule of relationship communication is a natural fit for me. In describing his rule he writes, “The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like “relationship” and “love” and even “communication” will mean something slightly, or vastly different to each individual who uses them.”

It is not often that we discuss how language is used with the people in our lives, and in daily conversation we certainly don’t often dive into questions regarding the different meanings we all have with the same set of words. Wright’s description of vocabulary means that we are living in an unavoidable world of telephone, where the words can be the same, but what has been said is different from person to person.

Being honest and open in relationships requires strong communication practices that can be inhibited when we are not discussing the same idea with the same concepts arising from the same meaning in the vocabulary we use. It is worth being more aware of one’s own vocabulary to better recognize situations where communication is taking place, but miscommunication is obstructing the meaning of what is being said.

Human Speech

The last section I highlighted in James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, was written by writer Chris Kraus who spoke mostly of obsession in her letter to Harmon.  Near the end of her letter Kraus wrote, “Human Speech is driven, always, by the desire to achieve a goal. Realize you are constantly being manipulated.”  When we look at political speeches we are good at understanding that there is a goal or agenda behind the rhetoric used by politicians, but I am not sure we extend that to a lot of other areas in our life. Television and commercials are nothing but influence machines, and speech in the workplace often focuses on what we want or need others to do for us.  I think a big area where I am able to grow from this quote is by reflecting on my own speech.  By building a base of self awareness I can think more about what I say and evaluate what goal lays beneath my speech.

 

Krause also writes, “Nothing exists without a source. It is important to contextualize everything.”  I think this is important to consider when we are looking at the goals behind other people’s speech. The more focus and awareness we have the better we can be at understanding what goals people have, but keeping Kraus’s second quote in mind helps us see that there is a deeper level than just the goals of another person.  We can dive even deeper and start to evaluate where the other person’s goals came from, and just what they will gain when they reach those goals.  Seeing the context behind the goals will help us understand the motivation for others, and will help us react better to the other’s attempt to manipulate us.  If their goal is positive and pure, then jumping on board to help them and follow their goals may not be a bad idea.  If their motivation is purely self serving then perhaps it is better if we shy away from their goals and influence.

Spend Time Listening

At  the end of his letter of advice written for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Larry Niven writes, “Everybody talks first draft. Don’t react till you know what he meant.”  In this quote he is talking about the importance of taking time to understand other people and to have enough self control to not react instantly to everything you hear.  Niven would argue that it is important to give people a chance to explain what they mean or repeat what they said in a second way before we judge them. When people are speaking about something for the first time, as apposed to speaking about a routine topic, it is likely that they will not immediately have the words and language dialed in to explain themselves succinctly.

I really enjoy the self control aspect of Niven’s quote.  His idea is all about being less reactionary in general, and being patient enough to try and understand other people.  We often are in a rush, and it is easy to judge other people for their actions, appearances, and speech without trying to take a moment to understand them.  Listening to others and giving them an opportunity to repeat wheat they said in a new way encourages us to think about how the other person has reached the point they are at, and why they think and speak the way they do.  Our backgrounds all differ and we have many different experiences in our life that shape the way we view the world.  Listening to someone and not judging their views on face value requires that we understand their background.  To reach this level we must understand that what another says is never a complete summary of what they think and believe. Asking that person to explain and expand on what they are saying will help us dive deeper into their thoughts and ideas. Giving them more time to explain themselves helps us connect with others in a new way, and it helps us have a more well rounded approach to the world.

In addition, to fully engage in this quote we must see that we approach any conversation with our own background and expectations.  The way we interpret the other person or the topic will influence the way we think about what the other person is saying.  To allow ourselves to understand another person’s ideas, we must first make sure out understandings of that topic are out of the way. If we cannot reach that point we will be forced into a box where we only think about the things that do or do not align with what we already think.  Instead, we should listen for the overall meaning of what the other person is saying, so that we can expand our vision and thoughts.