Culture and Society

Deconstructing Racism in America: Part 3, Breaking the Tribe

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I’m pretty sure that I did other things when I was a kid besides play football. I just can’t remember any of them. Because youth football in Atlantic County, New Jersey, where I grew up, was a pretty big deal. Besides occupying my time every day after school and in the evenings from about the time that I was eight until I went off to college, youth football did something else for me. It put me smack in the middle of a social experiment that I didn’t realize I was in. So, instead of laying out, in painful detail, the double blind studies behind group think and racial stereotypes that I dove into for the rest of this project, I figured I’d try something a little more interesting. Talk Atlantic County youth football. 

Atlantic County, New Jersey is basically Atlantic City, New Jersey, it’s surrounding suburbs and some of the more rural areas that take up the space between the Jersey shore and Philadelphia. It’s a different place socioeconomically than just about anywhere I’ve ever lived. And I’ve lived a lot of places. Atlantic City proper, particularly the north end, is one of the oldest African American communities in the country. Shortly after the Civil War, freedmen moved into the newly constructed resort town and found work in the burgeoning hospitality industry. They started a prospering community that actually predated almost all of the white communities in the area, a rarity in our country.

In the 140 or so years since, most of the region has fallen in and out of economic depression. It’s currently stuck in a difficult one, the result of closing casinos and a multi-generational lack of economic development. What’s material to this discussion is that as recently as 25 years ago, that original area, the one settled over a century ago, was still entirely African American, while the surrounding areas were white. The original neighborhood in Atlantic City was also considerably poorer than the surrounding white suburban and rural areas. And the only time kids from the neighboring towns like the one I grew up in, Ventnor, engaged with kids from that part of town, was when we played youth football, once or twice a year. You can see from the picture below, the demographic differences are pretty clear. If you’re wondering, I’m the big kid in the middle of the top row that looks like he’s 20. There’s always one…

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Ventnor Pirates ’90

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Atlantic City Dolphins ’90

The football fields that we played on were less than two and a half miles apart, as the crow flies. But we were separated by centuries of social engineering. I didn’t know any of those kids. And they didn’t know me. But I remember playing them every year, like it was yesterday.

If you ask anyone on my team, the Ventnor Pirates, how they felt about playing the Atlantic City Dolphins, and they were honest, they’d tell you that we were irrationally scared to death of them. In the six years I played in that game, we split wins and losses. We played in a league with a weight and age limit. And we never had a single fight or even unusual event during a single game with them. Our coaches never once promoted or tolerated anything that resembled racist behavior. We had no material reason to be afraid. Yet we were. Because what we were experiencing was the well worn path of tribal thinking.

The science is pretty clear. We created stereotypes that were fueled by our lack of familiarity with another group of kids. Those stereotypes were based on the only piece of information that we thought we knew about them. They were from a “tougher” neighborhood.  That stereotype generated an emotion, fear. And that emotion generated an action. The science tells us that the emotions and the actions they generate are entirely predictable. A physical threat, generates the emotion fear. Fear generates the desire to avoid. I’ll tell you that desire was very real for us. Many of us really didn’t want to play them because we were scared. And when we did, we were a little timid, even me, the biggest kid in the league. I’m ok saying it. I’ve been off to war and checked a few “tough guy” boxes since then so I’m good with being honest with what my nine year old self was afraid of.

Now, it’s important to pause and recognize that I am calling my grade school aged self out for having a racially biased reaction to another group of kids. I’m doing it for a reason. Because what happened next, cured me of it. Because in my case, it was never really racially biased to begin with. My parents were both progressive educators who taught in the very neighborhoods these kids lived in. And they preached equality and tolerance in the home I grew up in. My fear was based on ignorance and a juvenile understanding of the life those kids led.  So what happened next was sufficient to eliminate that fear and bias in a number of hours. That critical event? Integration. We all went to high school together.

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About an hour into your first football practice, you learn peoples names. You start to understand who is fast and who is slow. Who is strong or who is weak. Who can be depended on to do what they’re supposed to do. And who can’t. Who you get along with, and who you don’t. And none of it had anything to do with the color of their skin or what neighborhood they grew up in. Because a new in group was developed. And it’s awfully hard to maintain racist ideology, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that we were all one team. It’s not impossible. But you have to want to be racist in that environment. And it’s rare.

But that doesn’t mean it’s rare or harmless in our society. There are plenty of people who never have the opportunity to integrate into a diverse daily framework like we did. And there’s also plenty of people who grew up with racist ideology preached in the home. Remember, the science tells us that our familiarity, or lack, drives how we view an out group. And how we view them drives specific emotions. And specific emotions drive specific actions. And one of the most common and dangerous ways we view people in an out group is as obstacles to our own in group’s prosperity. And when we view an out group as an obstacle, the data also tells us that the emotions that they evoke are the two killer building blocks of hatred: anger and disgust. And the one troubling action anger and disgust generate is aggression.

So what happens when we’ve got more at stake than just football? What happens when we’ve got a society charged by centuries of social engineering to create near permanent tribes? What happens when one group is constantly put into a situation where they are disproportionately viewed as an obstacle?  What happens when the in group is law enforcement? And the out group is a group whose centuries of oppression have socially engineered poor economic outcomes, high crime rates and mass incarceration? Well, it’s not good.

We’ll get into that, in part 4.

–> Tomorrow: Part 4: Breaking Down the Tribe

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