Why Some People Can’t See Racism

Why Some People Can’t See Racism July 14, 2016

3BuddhasThe last few weeks have been exceptionally difficult for a number of people, including me. To begin with, we had already gotten this year off to a tumultuous start by kicking off the most improbable presidential primary season in recent memory.

One party’s primary was won by a narcissistic con artist with zero experience in public service, a person whom no one within the party wants to touch with a ten foot pole yet whom evangelicals are lining up to support as if he were not actually the physical incarnation of Beelzebub himself. The other party appears to have become bitterly divided over its established leader and a democratic socialist revolutionary whose most vocal followers would sooner hand the country over to Beelzebub than vote for their party’s presumptive nominee.

The emotional effect this election season has had on people within my social circles has been demoralizing to say the least. It has already provided us with a full year’s worth of drama, and we’re barely even halfway through the year. As an interesting aside, our closest European ally (and in fact our parent country) has itself become politically unsettled by cultural tensions similar to the ones dividing the conservative half of my own country. They recently voted to leave the European Union altogether, prompting their own prime minister to quit immediately, and it is likely that the mess these things are creating will impact international trade and travel for some time to come.

But then more shootings happened here in the U.S., and once again the tragedies of lives taken out of fear and hatred have been compounded by a national discourse which seems to be going nowhere because it revolves around social and economic differences which are almost impossible to explain to people on opposite sides of these divides.

The discussions about race in my corner of the world have become almost unmanageably toxic. Thanks to increasing cultural polarization, it’s becoming harder and harder to make people see what the roots of these issues are. It’s not just about who’s most likely to get shot by a police officer, although that’s a huge part of it. The fundamental issues go much deeper.

I feel like my peculiar life has given me a bit of perspective which I wouldn’t have gotten any other way than by losing so many things that were of value to me. I won’t go into great detail here today because this isn’t about me, but my experience has taught me some of what it feels like to have had privilege at one point and then to have lost it. I have also witnessed first-hand the multigenerational consequences of institutionalized racial discrimination.

How I Gained a New Perspective

I grew up fairly well-off, in an upper middle class family with a large and at least locally powerful social world. I also grew up evangelical Christian (in my case Southern Baptist) and belonged to one of the largest churches in my state. My family’s church is five stories tall, takes up two city blocks downtown, and boasts of an annual budget exceeding $10M. I used to be pretty well connected.

But I chose a career in education and moved my family around for the benefit of ministry opportunities, and after I left my faith (or rather it left me), my own family split up. Like a good sacrificial Christian, I did what I could to absorb as much of the practical loss that entailed, and as a result have left myself in a perpetually tenuous financial situation. The life I live now looks quite different from the one I knew growing up, and I’m convinced my family of origin has no clue how wide is the gulf between us. They’re taking fourth and fifth vacations while I can’t even afford to fix the air conditioning in my car.

On top of that, the career I chose put me in settings I never knew growing up. My own education was private from start to finish, but the bulk of my 15-year teaching experience has been in the public school system working with lower income minorities, in some cases situated in communities divided over gang allegiances. I’ve seen up close what decades of racial discrimination can do to a community, and I’ve felt the distrust and resentment it engenders in the culture in which my students are becoming who they will be.

In my last teaching post, I taught as many as 34 students at once in a classroom with only 27 desks. Many of my students had to sit on stacks of old textbooks because the city’s school system suffers from the same malady that so many other inner city school districts have to live with: All the resources have fled to the suburbs and no one really cares about the inner city. At best it becomes a collection of charity projects put on by people who live at least 30 minutes away, where the schools are much better and you can walk the neighborhood without fearing for your safety.

Even in those cities where money comes back in to develop and restore downtown areas, it is mainly the well-to-do who can afford to do so, driving home values in those subdivisions far above anything the middle and lower class residents could afford. There are at least two overlapping Americas today: the urban one and the suburban one. Even in rural America, the two sides of town are often bifurcated by long defunct train tracks, and the differences between the two subdivisions are palpable. They live completely different lives. In the Deep South those socioeconomic divisions are virtually identical to the demographic distinctions keeping black lives and white lives comfortably separate.

And that right there is what I cannot figure out how to get across to anyone who doesn’t already “get” it. I don’t know how to use words to make people understand what I’ve seen about how the world operates. My students are growing up in a world that operates on completely different principles from those of the world in which I grew up.

The Seeds of Racial Distrust

Tribalism is inherent in our species, but in America racism has also been reinforced by hundreds of years of institutional injustice. Everyone already knows it began with importing slaves from Africa, and most everyone knows that it took a war to force the Deep South to let go of its economic dependence on free labor. Students of American history also know that for nearly a hundred years after the ending of slavery, certain parts of the country used blatantly discriminatory legal structures to suppress the voices of black Americans (and other minorities) and preserve the superior socioeconomic position of whites.

Back in the 1960s, it took years of tumultuous protests, organized demonstrations, and timely opportunistic political negotiations to effect any meaningful changes in the social inequities woven into the fabric of American life. In my state, Bobby Kennedy had to call in the National Guard to force white Mississippians to accept black students into their schools. Incidentally, those students who spit on them and called them “n***ers” are now running my state as lawmakers, judges, and business leaders. They can no longer use the “n word” in public but the disdain is still there, lurking beneath the surface. They can’t admit it out loud anymore (which at least indicates some progress), but they still let it out in the privacy of their own homes and in locker rooms and on golf courses or wherever.

The resentment continues for blacks as well. I’ll never forget when I first realized how deeply ingrained that animosity goes while teaching in one of the poorer sections of an Atlanta area school district. I watched a high school administrator have to chase down a student, following her into my classroom to ask her to sign a disciplinary form after she was caught starting a fight in the cafeteria. She tore up the piece of paper right in front of the principal and then shot back at him in defiance: “My momma told me don’t never sign nuthin’ the principal give you!” The girl sitting next to her nodded her head and the one on the other side of her said, “Mmhmm. My momma said the same thing.”

At first I was floored at how uniformly these students’ parents had taught them to distrust their authority figures. The majority of the principals at this school were of the same race as the students, so it couldn’t be a racial problem, right?  Later that same day I was teaching a unit on the Civil Rights Movement when it dawned on me: The parents of some of these students can still remember getting sprayed with fire hoses by the police. They’ve also watched for years as politicians and police officers enacted and enforced laws that never explicitly spell out how to treat one race differently from the other yet somehow always end up doing just that.

No wonder they don’t trust authority. If they’ve learned anything in their lifetimes, it’s that justice isn’t color blind, and you can’t trust the people in authority over you to give you a fair shake. It doesn’t even matter if the ones trying to do their job are better than that. At this point it doesn’t even matter if they’re of the same race, they are still seen as the enemy because as long as their job is to enforce the rules of an imbalanced system, they are ultimately not your friend.

Earlier this week, Ta-Nehisi Coates put it this way:

In black communities, the police departments have only enjoyed a kind of quasi-legitimacy. That is because wanton discrimination is definitional to the black experience, and very often it is law enforcement which implements that discrimination with violence. A community consistently subjected to violent discrimination under the law will lose respect for it, and act beyond it.

Does that make sense? It finally did to me. It took about a decade of working with students who live in neighborhoods in which you don’t walk alone at night because you might get shot to realize what’s going on.

Getting Cheated Out of a Future

I’ll give another example. At the last school where I taught, cheating was an almost insurmountable problem. My school lacked the administrative support to adequately enforce cell phone rules, and all of the textbooks and tests I was given to use in class had answer keys available online. Students with third grade arithmetic skills kept turning in perfect answer sheets on high school level Geometry assignments, and there was very little I could do about it. I tried withholding credit on any assignments that didn’t show their work, but the school system’s automated grading software wouldn’t let me give them anything below a 50 (and 60 was a passing grade).

Social promotion happens when school systems which lack the resources to adequately prepare students for post-secondary education keep advancing them to a higher grade because holding them back will only flood the lower grades with teenagers who make classroom management nearly impossible. They just keep moving students along through the system and then throw them out into the world without ever providing them with the educational experiences they need to become competitive laborers in an increasingly hostile working environment.

Can you really blame my students for cheating? I found that whenever I went through the trouble to create my own tests (a move that’s frowned upon in some schools), my students failed miserably. I know that I taught those lessons thoroughly, and I worked very hard to break each assignment down into manageable chunks, explaining every step of each procedure as clearly as I knew how. But it didn’t matter, because at least half of the high school students I taught were working from a third- or fourth-grade comprehension level. There isn’t enough time in a semester for me to adequately remediate the missing skill sets of 180 students that far behind grade level.

My students had already been cheated out of an education by a socioeconomic system that disadvantaged them every year since kindergarten. What motivation would they have for not returning the favor? What reason would people have for following the rules of a system that they know good and well is prejudiced against them? Is it even reasonable to expect people to obey the dictates of an unjust system?

These students will graduate and enter a work force which rewards skills and traits they have never seen modeled but which punishes traits they have internalized through growing up the way they did. Everything from the way they dress and the way they talk to the music they listen to and the things they do for fun are seen as “lower class” by the people whose job it is to hire and fire.

The same can also be said for those who write and enforce the laws. Both experience and cultural predisposition have taught them to react differently to people brought up inside this world, and those reactions teach people like my former students to distrust those in authority, doing what they can to “go around” them since the system they represent is so clearly biased against them.

I’m not really trying to justify dishonesty or cheating to get ahead. But I am trying to explain how people can grow up to so deeply disrespect a system that they know good and well is rigged against them. Their disrespect in turn will eventually land them in trouble with the authorities, thus reinforcing the animosity between them and the people in power, and on and on it goes year after year, decade after decade.

What Can Be Done About This?

I have a lot to say about this, and if I can ever get my virtual desk cleared off enough to tackle it, I will get around to writing about it. For one thing, my experience working with underprivileged students has taught me to empathize with those who engage in punching up.

“Punching down” happens when people in a secure position of power over others use that position to keep the people under them where they want them. When those at the bottom of the food chain fight back, that’s called “punching up.” I used to recoil at the very idea of justifying “punching” of any kind, since it implies aggression and therefore potential harm. But now I’ve seen enough to understand the difference between the two.

When the deck is stacked in such a way that one group holds considerable leverage over another group, the fight isn’t fair. The potential for damage isn’t symmetrical. And you can’t just talk people into giving up positions of power. That’s not how it works. There is a place and a time for diplomacy, but imbalances of power will eventually require that people fight for their right to be treated fairly.

I can’t really dictate what that would look like. But then that’s not really up to me, is it? It’s not up to anybody but the ones who are getting the short end of the stick. They will fight back when they’ve had enough, and at times they will even do some damage. I’d like to say that a rational appeal can be made to those in power. But by itself that’s not how it works. Diplomacy plays a part, but diplomacy alone will not effect meaningful change whenever established power structures are what needs to be changed.

Personally I have found that unless you have been through a great loss of power or privilege yourself, you will not be able to grasp the psychology of someone who has. Discussion always centers around what is “the right thing to do,” like just following the law. “If people would only follow the law,” people often say, “none of this would happen to them.” Clearly whoever says that has never been on the losing side of the privilege game.

Whether you believe me or not, I have been on the losing side of that, and as a result I now find it easier to identify with the ones who are punching up. I feel their anger at the inequities of their situation and I do not agree that it’s as simple as following the rules. I’m not suggesting that violence is ever the answer, but I am suggesting that people can’t merely be talked into a better understanding of the injustices inherent in our social systems.

I think you have to live it to understand it. You have to have tasted some of those losses yourself or you will likely never understand where they are coming from.

Granted, some people are exceptionally empathetic. Some people seem more naturally inclined to understand the plight of others less fortunate than themselves. Those people seem to be drawn toward the progressive end of the political spectrum, and they do what they can to stand in solidarity with those who aren’t getting a fair shake. They will use what positions of power they can achieve in order to help pull the others up along with them.

But for everyone else, these words are just hitting a brick wall because they have never had the shoe on the other foot. Some people are just naturally less empathetic, and no amount of arguing will change their minds. I’ve tried, and I’ve watched others try as well. The words just don’t sink in. They’ve got all their own statistics to prove why your statistics are wrong. I am so beyond tired of trying to make them see why they’re missing the bigger picture. Their experience blinds them from seeing what life is like on the other side.

Human beings aren’t nearly as rational a species as we like to think we are. And when it comes to seeing injustices from which we ourselves reap the benefit, we are as blind as can be.

Racism in the Atheist Community

I must add one final word before I wind this down. There has been a good bit of discussion lately about the prevalence of racism among high profile commentators and YouTube personalities like The Amazing Atheist (aka TJ Kirk). I’ll be honest with you and admit that I’m not much of a YouTube watcher, so I’ve never even seen a single one of his videos. But I’ve read enough excerpts transcribed from his videos to recognize the lack of awareness he displays on this issue.

I went and looked up who are the top ten YouTube personalities in atheism by number of subscribers as of this morning, and here is what I found, counting down from the tenth most popular to the most popular.

10. AronRa: 139,189
9.  Atheist Experience: 146,011
8.  The Atheist Voice: 160,715
7.  The Thinking Atheist: 221,446
6.  Cult Of Dusty: 241,906
5.  Pat Condell: 276,675
4.  Jaclyn Glenn: 423,637
3.  Dark Matter: 535,988
2.  ThunderF00t: 603,096
1.  The Amazing Atheist: 953,321

That was news to me. If it were up to me to rate those channels based on the people I know, the order would be virtually reversed. I don’t know if this speaks more to how long each of them has been at it, or if it speaks to the popularity of the things that they say. But it does tell me that the atheist community has some major blind spots where social justice is concerned (I hope to address its inherent sexism in an upcoming post).

Over on his blog, Barrier Breaker, Martin Hughes began calling out Kirk on some of the overtly racist comments he has made and it kicked off several rounds of argumentative back-and-forth (see Martin’s pieces here, here, here, and here). He eventually challenged Kirk to a moderated debate but Kirk eventually backed out of it. Since that skirmish began, a number of fellow Patheos Atheist Channel writers have weighed in to show their support for Hughes and their disapproval of racial discrimination in the community:

Needless to say, at least as far as the Patheos team of writers is concerned, we see the racial inequities inherent in our social fabric and we feel it’s necessary to call it out for what it is. For most of us, the same critical thinking processes that led us to reject the God hypothesis also lead us to root out those elements of social injustice which stand in the way of moving the human race forward toward becoming what it could be.

Of course, merely blogging about this stuff isn’t what makes real change stick. But it’s a start, and responding to injustice with silence only reinforces the unjust systems that are already in place.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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