Charlie Hebdo’s Cartoons, Piss Christ and the Associated Press

The tragedy of Charlie Hebdo produced a generous amount of commentary. If I were to write directly about that particular event then I would probably just regurgitate some of what has already been said. In my blogs my preference is for arguments that have not been previously enunciated. So instead of directly discussing that horrible event, I want to focus on another occurrence that happened soon after the shooting – the removal of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photo by Associate Press (AP).

Until January 7, the AP had a photo on its website of a piece of artwork that is commonly called “Piss Christ.” This was a controversial, to say the least, photo by Andres Serrano of a crucifix placed in a jar filled with his own urine. One can find distasteful, insulting artwork rather easily, so the content of the photo alone did not create the controversy. But some of the financial support he received from governmental sources generated most of the debate. Some Christians believed that such support was reflective of a failure to keep the church and state separated. I am not interested in rehashing those old arguments but needed to make clear that the argument was not on whether Serrano had the right to do such artwork but whether such artwork should enjoy federal financing.

This photo had been on the AP website since 1989. So why, twenty-five years later, has it been taken down from the website? Soon after the assassinations, an AP spokesperson was asked why the Charlie Hebdo cartoons would not be published. He stated, “It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.” However the problem with that assertion is that Serrano’s photo could still be found on the AP’s webpage. Timothy Carney (Washington Post reporter) pointed out that the AP had a double standard in its willingness to have provocative images that offend Christians. It was then that the AP decided that twenty-five years was long enough for Serrano’s “masterpiece.”

So why did the AP show such willingness to publish a photo for such a long time that offended Christians but were not willing to publish a photo that would offend Muslims. I can only think of two good reasons for why we have such different treatment of these photos. Since I have not yet perfected my mind-reading machine, I doubt that we will ever completely know if one, or both, of these reasons for the discrepant treatment is completely accurate. However, both reasons provide us important potential insight into religious attitudes in our society, particularly the attitudes of important media leaders.

The first reason for the differential treatment of the photos is that the leaders of the AP are fearful of possible violence. Publishing the cartoons is clearly a potential hazard and one that was driven home by the tragedy in France. Such an attack seems less likely in the United States, since the Muslims in our country are smaller in number and less likely to be radicalized. However, it only takes one unbalanced individual to result in the killing of AP employees. Given that potential, who can blame the AP from refusing to post the Hebdo cartoons? Of course once they decided for safety sake to not publish those cartoons, they also lost any rationale for keeping up the Serrano photo. Are they going to say, “We do not mind insulting Christians because they will not shoot at us”? Clearly the Serrano photo had to come down as well.

If fear is the driving force behind the AP decision then there are important implications to be considered. I am a big believer that what people do tells us much more about their beliefs than what people say. One theme I have heard since the shootings was how all religions are fairly equally violent. In a somewhat funny presentation of this idea, one commentator equates the Paris violence to Jerry Falwell’s defamation suit against Larry Flynt. I am not a big fan of Falwell but really? If a lawsuit is the equivalent of violence then the word violence does not mean what I think it means. But the leaders at AP do not think that all religious groups are equally violent. I do not care if any of them state that they have such a belief; their actions betray a different belief. If fear is what motivated them to refuse to print the Hebdo cartoons then why did not such fear prompt them to avoid the Serrano photo? Clearly they are relatively unconcerned about Christian gunmen seeking them out.

When we think about it, it is rather incredible that the AP leaders are not afraid of Christian violence. Most individuals in the United States adhere to some form of Christian beliefs. In the United States there are many large Christian organizations that are theoretically capable of organizing a physical attack on AP personnel. It seems impossible for the FBI to keep tabs on all such organizations if many of them decide to become violent. Finally Christians, unlike Muslims, have some degree of political clout and may be able to protect those who engage in violence. If there is a fear of Christians acting out violently then the AP should be extremely worried given these conditions. Yet they posted the photo with seemingly no real concern for their own safety. I am not arguing that Christians do not engage in violence because we have some isolated cases where this has happened. And I am not arguing that Muslims are extremely violent. However, the evidence is that Christians are less likely, on a per-capita basis, to engage in violence than Muslims. Do not go on what I am saying; just look at the actions of the AP reporters. As such, arguments that all religions are equally violent are classical cases of false equivalency arguments.

However, there is another possible reason for the differential treatment of materials that seem intended to offend individuals of certain religions. It may be that the AP leaders are not driven by fear of Muslims but rather by anger and hatred towards Christians. This is part of the Christianophobia, an unreasonable anger and hatred towards Christians, which some of my previous work has documented. This explanation begins with a relative eagerness of the AP editors to post a photo that places Christians in a bad light. Even if they do not have a high degree of animosity towards Christians, they are at least very insensitive to the desires of Christians relative to other social or religious groups. When the cartoons became such a vital news story, these editors had an opportunity to place insulting religious images online, but this time images insulted Muslims instead of Christians. However, unlike Christians, these editors care about offending Muslims and thus chose not to run the cartoons. Once there as a clear double standard pointed out in their failure to use those cartoons, they experienced strong social pressure to also take down the Serrano photo.

There is evidence that Christianophobia may be the driving factor behind the discrepant treatment of the cartoon and the photos. First, the likely characteristics of those who have Christianophobia – well educated, irreligious, politically progressive, relatively high SES, white – are also likely to be the characteristics of the AP decision makers. It is plausible that at least some of them have some degree of Christianophobia. Second, it is interesting that while the photo has been taken down from the website that the AP is still willing to sell images of the photo. We still have differential treatment of the two images indicating that the AP editors ultimately are not concerned with respecting Christians to the same degree they respect Muslims.

If this second reason is accurate, then we have a classic case study of how Christianophobia can manifest. I have argued that often this type of anti-religious bigotry operates in ways that allow individuals to make symbolic expressions of it. When policies have a non-bigoted justification then those with Christianophobia will use those justifications to express their hatred or fear of Christians. When the Serrano photo first came out, those with Christianophobia could justify placing it on their website since it was clearly an important part of a national story. They could argue that offending Christians was less of a concern than accurately covering that story. If challenged, they could deny any particular animosity towards Christians by stating that Christians were not being treated worse than any other group. They could even accuse Christians of “crying wolf” about being persecuted.

However the refusal of the AP reporters to print the Hebdo cartoons indicated that the AP reporters do not treat all religious groups equally. Those with Christianophobia tend to be well educated and have a strong desire to not appear to be prejudiced. Once the double standard was exposed then the fiction that Christians were being treated the same as other social groups could not be maintained. So the photo had to come down. This case study indicates that Christianophobia can be reduced when those who act according to that prejudice are placed in a situation when they no longer have non-bigoted justifications for their actions. However, given our human propensity to find justifications for the actions we want to do, this is not likely to be a powerful limit on Christianophobia.

The only possible third reason I can think for the actions of the AP editors is that perhaps they have grown in religious tolerance between the use of the Serrano photo and the Hebdo cartoons. Perhaps I am being cynical, but I question whether such a revelation of respect for religion would have emerged if only Christians were the group to be respected. I have seen no evidence for this “personal growth” such as statements about the universality of dignity or respect. So I am sticking with only the other two reasons provided above for their actions. I do accept that there may be a combination of these two reasons that help to explain their actions. Indeed I suspect that it is partially fear of violence and partially hatred of Christians that both have led them to their differential treatment of the Serrano photo and the Hebdo cartoons. If the decision to take down the photo was made by several individuals, then it is quite likely that some of those individuals were driven by fear and others by hatred. However, we are likely to never completely know which legitimization force is most powerful and have to juggle the implications of both reasons as we understand the actions of the AP.

I have tried to approach this topic with some degree of objectivity, but I must admit that I am glad that the photo has come down. I want to live in a society where we work towards respecting each other and such a photo clearly does not support such a society. In the same manner, I have little use for the cartoons. I do not dispute the right of artist to construct such photos or cartoons; however, I like to live in a place where such expressions of “art” are marginalized by the disgust of the rest of society. To have this, we need to work, as a society, at treating all social groups in a similar manner regardless of whether we, as individuals, fear those groups or hate them. In such a society I, as an individual, can reject whatever religion or philosophy I want but informal sanctions and a sense of common decency prevents me from needlessly humiliating those who have other faiths or ideas. I am not sure if such a society is possible, but if the AP editors can begin to ask hard questions about why they treated the Serrano photos distinctly from the Hebdo cartoons, and make corrections to not repeat their mistakes, then we can move one step closer to achieving it.

Jonathan Gruber knows what is best for us.

Usually people do not pay attention when academics talk. Well, students in our classes may pay attention, but I wonder if even that is true. We go to conferences to discuss the latest theories, innovative methodologies and/or new data sources. I enjoy that interaction and the new information but know that most working in the social sciences do not care. I cannot blame them. I once went to a dissertation recital for a graduate music student. When she talked about the social history of the composer, I found it interesting. After all, I am a sociologist. But then she talked technically about the measures used in his approach. I am not an academic in a music field. At that point, I wanted to fall asleep. Academic jargon is usually only useful for other academics in that particular field. That is a major reason why the general public usually ignores our discussions with each other.

But then comes Jonathan Gruber who reminds us that perhaps at times it is good for us that the general public usually ignores scholarly talks. The first comment I heard was at a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania when he talked about how the stupidity of the American voter helped ensure passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He went on to say that while it was regrettable that the law was written in a “tortured” way that he preferred a confused type of writing versus not having the law. Of course such statements have fed into a nationwide criticism of Gruber. Some of his other statements have come out to feed into this criticism, but these few statements are enough to allow me to speculate about the dynamics behind Gruber’s attitude.

I am not interested in arguing about the ACA. Like most educated individuals, I have an opinion about it but do not think that my research provides me with any special insight into that particular political issue. But my research does provide insight into the type of perspective exhibited by Gruber. It is similar to some of the attitudes I found in my research of cultural progressive activists. I do not know if Gruber is a cultural progressive, although there is at least some writings of his that seem supportive of abortion. But his support of ACA definitely puts him on the side of progressives on certain political issues.

His statement about the stupidity of voters and affirmation that he wanted the ACA even if he had to fool those voters reminded me of a certain set of comments I read from my cultural progressive respondents as they described individuals in the Christian right. Here are a few of those comments.

Bafflement that they can mobilize millions of adults to vote against their economic interests.

The most negative thing, out of many negative things I could say is that they get people to vote against their own self-interests. An example of this is getting poor evangelicals to vote republican when the party does nothing to help the poor. Or opposing universal health care which would be in their interest.

… the Republican Party uses religion (esp. Christianity) to control people and fool them into voting against their best interests.

As can be seen in the comments, my respondents do not believe that conservative Christians, or perhaps conservatives in general, know what is best for them. This was not a rare sentiment among the respondents. It is a sentiment that comports with their belief that conservative Christians are irrational and ignorant. Such stereotypes help explain to my respondents why people would vote for policies they see as unacceptable.

This indicates an attitude among cultural progressive activists that they know better what is good for others than those people know themselves. I am not sure if this sentiment is relatively unique to progressives or if it is an attitude that activists in general tend to have. I tend to believe the latter as such attitudes can be quite useful in justifying activism. One can legitimate activism as not only good for oneself but as beneficial for others. But since I only studied cultural progressive activists, I cannot rule out the possibility that conservative activists somehow escape having this type of paternalistic attitude.

The similarities of my respondents’ comments to Gruber’s comments caught my attention. Like my respondents, Gruber assumes that he knows what is best for others and is so convinced that he is right that writing the ACA in a misleading, or tortured, way is acceptable. The comment about the stupidity of the American voter supports the notion that he is willing to fool voters because he does not think that they know what is best for them. He does not trust the voters to make the right policy decisions for themselves. He would rather not deceive voters but to him having the policy is so important that he does not have to respect their opinions. This is very similar to the attitude of my respondents who believe that Christians vote against their own personal interest. Some of them argued that the reasons why such individuals vote against their own political interest is their ignorance and stupidity. These are some of the same reasons given by my respondents for why such individuals should not have a voice in the public square. It remains to be seen if they are as willing to act upon their beliefs as Gruber.

It strikes me as wrong, and fairly arrogant, to assume that we know more about what is best for other people than they do themselves. Christians have been accused, sometimes fairly, for presuming that they know what is best for others. To be clear, it is perfectly fair to make a case for one’s social, political and/or religious philosophy. I know that I do. Trying to convince others of the rightness of our position is part of what rational discourse is supposed to be about. Of course we believe we are right when we make assertions because if we do not believe that we are right then we would not argue about our social, political and/or religious beliefs. I am not arguing that others are wrong for aggressively arguing for what they believe. But to assume that we should speak for others because they simply do not know what is best for them disrespects their right to agency. It is fine for me to believe that others are wrong. It is fine for me to attempt to convince them that they are wrong. But it is incorrect for me to assert that I know what they need more than they do. I do not live their lives; they do.

Let me use an illustration to denote the difference between asserting that others are wrong and asserting that they are not mature enough to make their own decisions. Several years ago I knew of a lady who was struggling to hold down a job. Her desire was to find a husband and to be a good wife to him. Knowing her, I came to believe that she would be happier if she could find a guy to marry and to work at being a wife rather than at a job. But, at the time I was making this observation, I was also in graduate school and learning more about feminist theory. While I am critical of some of the excesses of feminism, it has much to offer to our society. This lady was not a feminist. She probably would not agree with me in my support of some of the reforms in this ideology. We probably would have different voting behaviors on those issues. But feminism was not useful for the struggles she faced. The feminist fight for women in the marketplace was not something that helped her. She would be better off not focusing on a career, but building a traditional marriage. If she acted in ways that discouraged feminism she would be acting in her own personal interest. Some individuals would argue such actions would be to the disadvantage of all women and thus to her disadvantage. But I reluctantly disagree. A feminism that encourages, although not requires, women to enter the workplace creates an atmosphere that makes the type of traditional lifestyle she wants more difficult to sustain. To respect her agency, I came to accept that I think some of her ideas about public policies are wrong, but that she is making the best political decisions for herself. It would be fair for me to try to convince her to support certain policies but it is arrogant for me to presume that she does not know which policies are best for her but that I do.

Are there times where people vote against their own self-interest? Of course that occurs. But I suspect that it happens a lot less than Gruber and the social progressive activists think. Their attitudes are similar to a Marxian perspective of class consciousness with the focus on how the lower classes (proletariat) are misled by the upper classes (bourgeois). But often when we try to interpret the self-interest of others, we use our values and our priorities instead of theirs. The Marxian perspective focuses on the economic interest of different groups in our society. But not everybody prioritizes economic aspects above others. I respect the right of someone to vote according to their own priorities. Demanding that others vote according to our own priorities strikes me as ideological imperialism.

Many of my respondents talked about lower class and/or religious voters voting against their own economic interests. For the sake of argument let us say they are correct and the progressive economic polices they endorse are indeed better for lower class religious voters. Are those religious and/or lower class voters wrong in their nonsupport of progressive politicians? They are only wrong if their highest voting priorities are based on economic priorities. But perhaps they prioritize being able to express their religious beliefs in the public square and have concluded that progressive politicians are less likely to support their right to do so. Their lack of support of progressive politicians would fit solidly in how they have prioritized their own group interest. People are free to complain as much as they want that these individuals are voting against their own group interests, but in doing so they are requiring that individuals adopt their own priorities. I trust those lower class and religious individuals to make their own decisions about what their priorities should be.

As I stated above, Christians have been criticized for attempting to impose their own values upon other individuals. But Gruber’s actions and the comments of my respondents suggest that such tendencies are not limited to Christians. Wanting to impose one’s values on others seems to be a general tendency with whom occurs in other social groups as well. Recognizing this tendency within ourselves and/or within others that we agree can help us to be more forgiving when others engage in such tactics. However accomplishing such recognition is extremely difficult in a culture that does not encourage self-introspection.

Disrespect, Intimidation and Prejudice at the University of Colorado

Sometimes social scientists unexpectedly find out about data that was collected for reasons other than peer-review social research. That was the case when I found out about the 2014 Social Climate Survey conducted at the University of Colorado. The survey was commissioned by the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents. It was conducted on all four of the campuses in the University of Colorado system. Several questions assessed whether students felt welcomed, respected, discriminated against and/or intimidated due to their race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, creed, religion, sexual orientation, veteran status, political affiliation, and/or religious affiliation. The religious and political affiliation questions caught my attention as usually diversity surveys do not include such factors. An email or two with some of the individuals connected to the survey and I had crosstabulations of the data to assess and consider (Ideally I would have used the actual data to more fully test my ideas, but they seemed unwilling to release it.)

I have written before about my previous research on academic bias. My research was based on national data. The Colorado data is limited to a single college, but that data goes more in depth than my original data. There has been significant concern about the social atmosphere that people of color, women, and sexual minorities have to deal with on college campuses. However, given my previous work on academic bias, I wonder if those groups are the only groups experiencing hostile atmosphere on college campuses. How would the perceptions of hostility felt by people of color, women and sexual minorities compare to the perceptions of religious and political conservatives?

The first question of interest I found on the survey was “In your opinion, do you agree or disagree that students on your campus are respected regardless of their…?”. The students were asked about several different social categories (i.e. race, gender, age, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, physical impairment, mental impairment, veteran/military status, political philosophy, political affiliation and religion/spiritual beliefs). When students were asked about race/ethnicity (84.1%), gender (87.7%) and sexual orientation (84.4%), there was overwhelming agreement that students are respected. A majority of the students also believed that respect is accorded to students due to their religion/spiritual beliefs (76.6%) and political affiliation (72.2%), but support for such respect is distinctly lower.

A second question dealing with prejudice or discrimination indicated results supporting the findings in the preceding paragraph. The respondents were asked whether they experienced prejudice or discrimination on campus due to any of their social identities. If they stated that they did experience such prejudice or discrimination, then they were asked, “Was the prejudice or discrimination you experienced in a University of Colorado educational experience relate to…?”. This allowed the survey to assess which social identity was linked to prejudicial or discriminatory behavior. Generally, theories of discrimination are linked to issues of gender, race sexual orientation or gender identity. While gender (33.5%) was the social identity where students were most likely to indicate discrimination or prejudice, religion/spiritual beliefs was a close second (31.7%). Race/ethnicity (28.2%) was third. Political affiliation (24.8%) was a source of discrimination more than sexual orientation (10.2%) and gender identity (6.4%).

Finally, there was a question that asked “Specifically, have you felt intimidated to share your ideas, opinions or beliefs in class because of your…?”. Of the different social identities, it was political philosophy (23.0%) that was most linked to feelings of intimidation, followed by religion or spiritual beliefs (22.1%). In contrast, race/ethnicity (10.9%), gender (12.5%), sexual orientation (5.5%) and gender identity (3.3%) scored appreciably lower.

Up to this point, we know religion and political identity seem at least as important to the social atmosphere of students as gender, race and sexual orientation. This is regardless of the degree of attention given to social identities of race, gender and sexual orientation by academics and activists concerned about cultural acceptance and tolerance relative to concerns of political and religious social identities. This leads to the question of whether individuals in certain religions or with certain political identities are more likely to feel disrespected at the University of Colorado. When asked about religion, Mormon (29.6%), Muslim (24.3%) and Protestant (23.9%) had the highest percentage of those who felt disrespected due to religion. This is in contrast to Hindu (12.9%), Buddhist (15.2%) and atheist (15.8%) who were least likely to perceive disrespect due to their religious beliefs. On issues of religious prejudice and discrimination, it was also clear that higher percentages of Mormons (62.1%), Jews (53.9%) and Protestants (53.9%) perceived episodes of prejudice and/or discrimination. On the low end, agnostics (13.6%), Buddhists (15.5%) and atheists (25.8%) were least likely to perceive episodes of prejudice and discrimination. When it comes to those of different religious feeling intimidated to share their ideas, higher percentages of Mormons (40.7%), Muslims (37.4%), and Protestants (35.4%) experienced this intimidation. At the low end, it was agnostics (10.6%), Buddhists (16.0%) and Hindus (16.1%) least likely to feel intimidated. When I blogged about the inadequacy of the concept of Christian Privilege to adequately explain all areas of our society, I got some pushback. This data illustrates my point as Protestants are disrespected more on college campuses than those from eastern religions and the irreligious. I acknowledge that Christians, at least Protestants, have advantages in some areas of society; however, clearly the college campus is not one of those areas.

There were differences in campus atmosphere depending on the political ideology a student adopted. When asked if they were respected regardless of their political affiliation, Republicans were almost twice as likely as Democrats to feel disrespected (31.7% versus 17.0%). As it concerns political ideology, very conservative students were more than twice as likely as very liberal students to experience that disrespect (37.3% versus 16.4%). Republicans were more than three times more likely to feel prejudice or discrimination than Democrats (51.7% versus 14.3%) and very conservative students were more than four times more likely than very liberal students to feel prejudice or discrimination (61.8% versus 13.7%). Republicans were three times more likely to feel intimidated to share their ideas in class due to political affiliation relative to Democrats (36.9% versus 11.3%). Very conservative students were almost four times more likely to feel such intimidation relative to very liberal students (47.7% versus 12.3%).

A couple of points need to be recognized before discussing the implications of this study. First, due to my lack of access to the actual data, there are some tests I would like to run to gain a more nuanced understanding. For example, it is quite possible that the lower numbers of certain groups distort some of the earlier findings. Remember that students are more likely to feel discrimination or prejudice due to religious/spiritual beliefs and political affiliation than sexual orientation? It may be that these results are due to the larger numbers of Protestants and/or very conservative students relative to homosexual and bisexual students. For example, the percentage of homosexuals (70.9%) who experience discrimination or prejudice due to sexual orientation is appreciably higher than any of the religious or political groups in discrimination due to their respective social categories. However, bisexuals (32.8%) did not have as high of a percentage as the conservative religious or political groups. This propensity may also apply to other small minority groups such as the transgendered (64.7%) who scored fairly high when asked about prejudice or discrimination due to gender identity. (On a related subject, females at 44.8% have a slightly higher score than bisexuals when asked about prejudice or discrimination as it concerns gender. I did not have any data concerning race.). With a full data set, I could look at the categories of respect and intimidation to see the degree to which effects are due to differential size of social groups.

The other methodological point of concern is the way religion was measured. Categories of Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic and other are inadequate for assessing the religious atmosphere of the campuses. In my research on academic bias, I found that evangelicals and fundamentalists are rejected more than any other social group. Yet students from these groups would theoretically be lumped together with mainline Protestants, who faced relatively little bias, in the Protestant category. I have little doubt that the findings concerning Protestants’ experience of disrespect, intimidation and prejudice/discrimination would be much stronger if the religious identity question was careful to separate the mainline Protestants from conservative Protestants. Given my previous findings that conservative Protestants is the group most rejected by academics, more than Mormons or Muslims in my sample, it would not be surprising that conservative Protestants experience a more negative social atmosphere than Mormons or Muslims despite the relative scores of Protestants in the University of Colorado survey. However, due to the way the religion question was constructed, I can only speculate about the experiences of conservative Protestants.

The quantitative nature of this survey likely obscures some of the reality of culture at the University of Colorado. We can compare the percentages of those with different social identities in how they perceive acceptance at the University of Colorado. But I doubt that the experiences of each group are similar in kind and only differ in quantity of nonacceptance. The type of prejudice faced by women or homosexuals on college campuses is not likely to be the type of prejudice faced by religious and political conservatives. My guess is that the prejudice or discrimination faced by those former groups is more likely to come from students or staff, while the prejudice or discrimination faced by the latter groups is more likely to come from faculty. Of course, I may be wrong and it would be great to have qualitative interviews or open-ended questions to capture some of the different experiences between members of differing social identities. If the researchers at the University of Colorado redo this study, I hope they add a qualitative component.

So what are the implications of the University of Colorado survey? To my conservative friends, I warn them to not break out alarms and cries of persecution. Yes, there is information that they face a hostile social climate; however, for methodological reasons stated above, we cannot be completely confident that they face more hostility than other social groups. However, clearly the degree of hostility experienced by religious and political conservatives is not inconsequential. While I hesitate to argue that religious and political conservative students face more hostility at the University of Colorado than students of color, female students and sexual minority students, neither can we have confidence that those latter groups of students experience the highest level of hostility. It is not intellectually feasible to pretend that conservatives are merely “crying wolf” when they complain about the social atmosphere on campus unless we also dismiss the complaints of other students.

There has been much talk about creating an atmosphere on our college campuses whereby students are not inhibited by their social identity and cultural background. I applaud such efforts as making those from different social and cultural groups comfortable can produce more ideological diversity and help educate individuals from a variety of different groups. Given the results of this survey and other research conducted by myself and others, it is clear that our efforts to create an accepting social environment are incomplete unless they take into consideration political and religious conservative students. It is important to devise a holistic approach towards creating a tolerant, supporting educational atmosphere that takes into account the concerns of religious and political conservatives as well as students of color, women and sexual minorities. Those attempting to create a more welcoming educational atmosphere but are not concerned with the disrespect, intimidation or prejudice/discrimination felt by conservative students ultimately do not have the intention of creating a tolerant atmosphere. Rather they are only concerned with creating a tolerant atmosphere for certain social groups.

Ferguson, Staten Island, What’s Next?

So when will we have our next racial controversy? We know that there will be more after Michael Brown and Eric Garner. We will see another issue of racial conflict, confusion and miscommunication again. It may not involve the police but it will happen. Activists of color will flock to the area where it occurred. Conservatives will minimize the racialized component of it. We will argue. Fox News will take the side of white conservatives and moderates while MSNBC takes the side of activists of color. The event will be interpreted by the particular racial perspective one has and indeed all of the racial animosity we see today we will see all over again. Treyvon Martin, Sean Bell, and Ramarley Graham all suggest that future racial controversy is inevitable.

The sad part is that even though our progress towards racial understanding has stalled, the way we are handling our past racial controversies has not really changed,. So when we have the next racial incident where individuals at the extremes of the racial argument will reinforce previous biases and speak mostly to only those who already agree with them. They will demonize and blame those who disagree with them. Calls for a national conversation on race will be met by conservatives with derision. Calls for minority personal responsibility will be met by activists of color with anger. This pattern is all too familiar because this is how we have dealt with our past racial conflict, and this is how we are dealing with these current racial disputes. They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and yet expecting a different result. On racial issues we are an insane nation.

We have an opportunity to deal with the simmering racial wounds that have damaged our society. But then again this was the case with any of the dozens of other racialized controversies that have taken place over the past decade or so in the United States. We did not use those controversies to have the dialog we need, so why would any reasonable person expect us to have that dialog today? Are we willing to take the hard steps necessary to make Ferguson and Staten Island more than just the latest racial incidents but rather to make this time the opportunity to change our sick race relations? Our history indicates that we are not.

No matter what we do, at some point people of different races will have conflict in a given situation. Whether that conflict morphs into a racial controversy depends on our ability to work through our current racial arguments. If we can use Ferguson and Staten Island to create an atmosphere whereby future incidents are evaluated with limited racial baggage then we have a chance to stave off a future racial explosion. But as it is clear by my initial comments, I highly doubt that we will use them in that manner.

Michael Emerson and I wrote Transcending Racial Barriers – a book where we argued for a healthier approach towards fostering interracial dialog. We contend that people of different races have to learn about the concerns of those with whom they disagree. We have to consider what we have in common as well as where our opinions differ. We argued that people of good will should work towards devising solutions that address the worries brought up by those of different races and not just their own complaints. In doing so, we believe that real solutions can be devised that have legitimacy from a broad range of individuals. Attempts to force solutions that do not address the concerns of those of other races upon the large society will only be met with resistance and ultimately are unsustainable.

So what does this mean for situations such as Ferguson and Staten Island? Conservative and moderate whites need to realize that these racial deaths are not about the character of the particular victims. It is about the larger context in which racial violence takes place. In the Ferguson case, questions are asked about why the police force is so overwhelmingly white in a town with such racial diversity and why the body was left in the street for so long? In the Staten Island case, questions are asked about the need for such force in such a minor crime and why an alleged chokehold was used? People of color are not just concerned about the possible misuse of police force in these particular incidents, but also for how the systematic propensities in the criminal justice system work against them. Many people of color have life experiences that confirm some of their fears that they will be mistreated by law enforcement agents. Of course there is also quantitative data collaborating their worries.

White conservatives and moderates generally cling to a colorblind perspective that is usually confirmed by their life experiences. It is understandable that they would use this perspective to try to understand contemporary racial issues. But they often halt communication by clinging to colorblind narratives that dismiss the lived realities of people of color. Many believe that we live in a race neutral society. But people of color know that their racial identity has a negative impact on their lives. To be told that our concerns are insignificant so often feels like we are being lied to by those with societal power. Any healthy conversation will require whites to suspend their racial assumption of colorblindness so that they can honestly hear about the struggles that still exist for people of color. If they fail to respect the perspectives coming from people of color, then they foster a conversation whereby they are attempting to force people of color to accept the perspectives of the majority group before the discussion even begins.

Whites willing to engage in an honest conversation will encounter painful racialized social facts. Naturally at times they will feel attacked when confronting those facts. When that happens, there is often a defensiveness among whites which makes conversation difficult. I want to challenge whites to work through that defensiveness. Chances are the person of color is not accusing you personally of racism. That feeling of accusation originates from the individualism European-Americans tend to possess. Many times people of color are expressing concern about larger social structures, which do not require individual racism to disadvantage people of color, creating frustration for them. If majority group members can remember this and take the concerns of people of color seriously, then we can gain from a beneficial conversation. But if whites insist that people of color adopt the same type of colorblind, individualistic mindset they possess, then productive conversation becomes impossible.

But it is not merely whites who are hindering productive communication. I looked at the titles of some online articles written by racial progressive activists.

Listening Well as a Person of Privilege
What White People Need to Know and Do, After Ferguson
12 Things White People can do now Because Ferguson
8 Things White People Really Need to Understand About Race

Do you notice anything missing here? The progressive activists are paying attention to what whites need to learn and doing so with the assumption that there is nothing for people of color to learn. I know where this mindset comes from. This is a mindset based on the notion that people of color understand the problems of racism in our society since they have to live through them. Thus their only responsibility is to teach whites about the horrors of racism. It is a perspective that totally discounts the perspectives of majority group members. Those who express this perspective, whether intentionally or not, are advocating for a conversation where whites are expected to merely listen and agree with people of color.

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone only trying to get you to agree with them and who puts forth no effort to listen to you? Did you ultimately agree with them? Yeah me neither. It is understandable that many people of color will not agree with the perspectives of majority group members. However, if they want an honest dialog with such individuals then they will have to respect the point of view of those majority group members. They will have to invest some of their energy to listening for understanding, and not merely for counterargument. Otherwise, it is unlikely that such activists of color will pick up support from whites who do not already share their racially progressive ideology.

One of the consequences of such a one-sided approach is that some activists of color really do not understand whites, even though they may think that they do. Whenever I hear an activist of color talk about white supremacy as the motivation of large groups of whites in our society, then I know I am listening to someone who has failed to listen to whites for a long time– if ever. White supremacy was a real problem in our society and is still a problem among a small group of whites today. But a simplistic attribution to white racism is not an adequate description of the sources of contemporary majority group members’ attitudes. If activists of color have such a low opinion of whites, then it is easy to understand why whites are unwilling to dialog with them. Would you want to dialog with someone who thinks the worst of you and does not want to listen to you?

Emerson and I pioneered in our book what we called a mutual accountability approach towards racial issues. We contend that both whites and non-whites have responsibilities towards communicating in ways where we can find solutions acceptable across different racial groups in our society. What passes for interracial conversation today is quite laughable and sad. White conservatives/moderates and activists of color spend more time demonizing each other than trying to find solutions everyone can accept. Whites tend to do it by attempting to force people of color to accept their own colorblind reality while people of color tend to do it by refusing to consider the perspectives of whites. In both cases we have groups talking passed, and not to, each other. They certainly are not listening to each other. Instead they seem to be focusing on ways to put their group on top no matter what the consequences are to the larger society. This is an all or nothing strategy whereby each side is attempting to force its will on the rest of society. It is a strategy that will ensure that our racial fighting will continue. We can change our current racial climate. However, having the conversation we need is painful and there is plenty of tribal incentive to avoid it.

Our racial dialog cannot start with either side predetermining the outcome. Rather, individuals will have to both talk and listen so that compromises can be made that lead to the alterations in our racial relations which can prevent the next racial controversy. The conversation will be messy. There is no way that a conversation this sensitive in nature and has been postponed for so long will be anything but messy. The participants will have to exhibit a high degree of patience and persistence to make progress with such conversations. It will not be easy but such conversations can break the cycle of one racial controversy after another that has plagued us. Yet, I do not see such conversations occurring in the near future. That is a shame. Short-term strategies that provide temporary power to one’s own in-group will prevail over longer term changes that might actually make a difference.

When I was younger, I was fairly optimistic that at some point we would overcome our awful racial history and develop a society that matched the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. But as I have watched the pattern of racial controversies followed by recriminations and demonization of the racial/political other, I have become more pessimistic. I want that optimism of my younger years, but my observations of a human nature that hinders our ability to see perspectives other than our own makes it harder for me to recapture that optimism. I hope that events in the coming days will prove my pessimism to be wrong and help me to regain that optimism. But so far I have not seen anything to warrant such hope. I expect that once everything calms down that we will merely wait for the next racial confrontation continuing our cycle of racial hostility because we will talk, but we will not listen.