Ferguson, Staten Island, What’s Next?

Ferguson, Staten Island, What’s Next? December 13, 2014

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.

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