If you collapsed the 239 years of America’s existence into a normal day in your life, our African American population would have had the same basic rights as livestock until just after lunch. They would have gained access to equal education and protection of employment and hiring rights by about 8:15 PM, giving them a few hours in the day to catch up to a white western standard of living millennia in the making. While people like me collapsed into our recliners, our work for the day that is American history sufficiently complete to earn my right to watch bad television for a few hours, black America was just getting out the door on a journey to catch up.
Five decades after the legislation that created the modern American social landscape, on the weekend we put aside to celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, we’re about to turn over the presidency of the United States from a black man to a white man for the first time. That process, whether you agree that race is an issue or not, has opened old wounds and perhaps divided us further. Whether or not it should be sufficient, after centuries of slavery and oppression, to just have stopped its legal practice, is what most of the racial political and socio-economic debate really boils down to. But the word that gets thrown around the most is racism. And I think it’s time we unpacked the word a little bit more than we have. Because sometimes it gets in the way. And others its wholly appropriate. Sorting it out though, comes with a bit more understanding of it than we have. Se we’re going to try to gain it.
It’s a big topic. With a lot of emotion. So we’re going to take the whole week to do it. Here goes.
Part 1: Getting Comfortable With a Few Things
I’m a believe it to see it kind of guy. It’s why I write and why I work in the tech industry. But there are plenty of see it to believe it kind of people in the world that don’t see things the way I do. It’s not a bad thing. If we were all abstracts, society would drive off a cliff whistling all the way down. I don’t need to see racism in action myself every day to know it’s out there. And I don’t need to see absolute proof that some level of prejudice plays a role in an act like the ultimate societal failure that is a police shooting. But that doesn’t mean that I should be satisfied with throwing out the word racism as cause for things and then wandering away and hoping my moral outrage is enough to urge change.
Racism is a really broad term. It’s like describing the cause of death for someone who drowns as “water”. It’s not wrong. But it’s insufficient to describe the problem in a way that narrows the forces at play to something we might be able to change for the better.
Change for the better is the point right? It’s not anger and outrage. It’s change.
To change something like the impacts of racism on 21st century America, you need to understand a little bit about what it is that you want to change. And what is just noise. To some degree, racism is noise. Ending it isn’t the end goal. Racial equality is the goal. Ending racism is a fine start. But it actually won’t solve the problem of our inequality gap. We’ve done enough to hurt that cause for long enough that we can end racism long before we end racial inequality, only to allow the evils of things like generational destitution and voluntary segregation to fuel the subconscious behavior required for more racism. In order to see the whole picture of what we need to change, from both perspectives of the story, you’ve got to get really objective. And you’ve got to get comfortable with a few uncomfortable things.
First, the idea of racism, in a literal sense as an ideology that supports that members of a given race are characterized by inferior qualities is virtually non-existent in America. When people believe it, they have no acceptable avenue to express it. And if they do, they are summarily dismissed from participating in society almost as quickly and thoroughly as murderers or sexual predators. Mel Gibson was nearly thrown out of Hollywood for his despicable racist statements. Roman Polanski was given a standing ovation at the Oscars despite not being allowed in the country because he’s been charged with raping a minor. If you’re wondering where I stand on those issues, I’m not standing and clapping for either. But it’s a telling comparison of how unacceptable overt racist ideology is in America.
The second thing we need to get comfortable admitting is that we all have a caveman brain. Genetic mutations that alter the physical makeup of the human brain usually take about 25,000 years to manifest themselves. Which means that we are all walking around in 21st century America with a brain designed for hunter gatherer, tribal society. That doesn’t mean we should be satisfied with acting on our base instincts as a guide for our behavior, but it’s important to understand the software we’re working with and the tendencies it has if left to its own device.
Lastly, we’ve had diverse ethnic cultures living in America for 400 years. For 350 of those 400 years, about 87%, we purposely excluded, in a focused unique way, people of African descent from full participation and integration into our society. The result of that exclusion is that for the ensuing 13% of our time here, we have remained culturally segregated. And though that segregation is slowly unwinding through normal forces of integration, we are still two groups, whether we like it or not. That’s the price of our intentional discriminatory history. And ignoring that reality is an obstacle to progress towards solving the problems of racial inequality. Believing that identifying that two distinct cultures exist among two racially different people is a racist activity makes the problem of inequality harder to address.
If you combine those three ideas, public racism is not accepted in American society, we have cave man brains and we are still undeniably culturally segregated, we can start to see 21st century racism in America a little clearer. It’s not that it’s gone. It’s just more subtle. And it looks more like the phenomenon of “tribalism” from our past. Which is different from the intentionally, discriminatory subjugation and oppression of the first 350 years of our existence as a people.
It’s not that it’s not a problem. In fact, the hardwired nature of it may make it even more of a problem. But we have to understand that we’re dealing with a fundamentally different thing here. And when you’re digging yourself out of a hole of four centuries of bad behavior, the more subtle headwinds of tribalism can be just crippling enough to keep an entire people down. That downward pressure is the difference between what my friends of color see and feel and what white folks like me see and feel every day. And it’s worth exploring deeper.
–> Tomorrow: Part II: The Science of Tribalism