Racism and Violence in America: What are White Allies to do?

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I see no changes, all I see is racist faces
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races
We under, I wonder what it takes to make this
One better place, let’s erase the wasted

Tupac Shakur, Changes (1998)

Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, Tupac’s words seem prophetic. Despite decades of tireless work by activists and advocates of social justice, the mixture of ethnocentrism, racism, violence and oppression on which the U.S. was partially founded seems immovable. Yes, more overt forms of racism can seem to ebb, but more implicit forms of bias and civilized oppression often replace them, and in periods of economic downturn, overt racism and xenophobia come roaring back triggered by despotic politicians leveraging fear and hate. In an exceptionally militarized country awash in firearms (with more guns than persons) and security personnel, where income inequality is extreme and where the incarceration of 2.4 million of our own citizens (the highest in the world) disproportionately imprisons members of minority groups, high levels of criminal and state-sanctioned violence come to seem inevitable. As Tupac said, “That’s the way it is”.

This discrimination and violence is today occurring in a nation becoming increasingly more ethnically mixed. A report published by the left-leaning Center for American Progress and the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute in 2015 titled “The States of Change: Demographics and Democracy” found that the United States is experiencing a sharp rise in states with majorities of minority citizens. The report projects that by 2060 nearly half (22) of the states will be majority-minority, accounting for about two-thirds of the country’s population.

As the painfully high levels of tension between police and communities of color in the U.S. indicate, our transition to a more multicultural society is arduous. A study conducted by Putnam in 2007 surveying thirty thousand people in forty American communities found that greater racial diversity in communities was correlated with a greater loss of trust and increased withdrawal from community life. In this context of alienation and recalcitrance amidst dramatic demographic change, fear, rage and violence often prevail.

Let me acknowledge at the onset that I am a privileged, white male working in an elite job at a university. Although I was born poor working class, I have gained considerably from the benefits bestowed in this country to those with the color of my skin. I have studied and worked on these issues for decades, and have been frequently approached by well-meaning whites who say, “I get the problem of pervasive racism, but what can I really do?” So what can a well-intentioned white ally do to increase the probability of justice and reform and decrease the probability of violence in our communities? Here are five guidelines supported by sound research:

Understand the deep structure of our challenges to inclusion and fairness. The system of inequality, racism and violence in which our country is mired is highly complex and resilient. It has many layers, from thinnest to thickest, including:

  • The Competitive Conflict Layer: simple intergroup competition over scarce or otherwise important resources (good jobs, pay, housing, political office, etc.). These conflicts can be particularly intense between members of different low power groups struggling for the scarcest of resources;
  • The Collective Identity Layer: perceived threats to our collective identities (which increase ethnocentrism, stereotyping, bias and discrimination) are particularly toxic and can mobilize the politicization of groups and, under certain conditions, a turn to violence;
  • The Culture Layer: where fundamental cultural differences in beliefs, values, and norms complicate understanding and communication across groups, with multiculturalism (multiple groups vying for resources and control) complicating matters considerably;
  • The Power Layer: the fact that hierarchies of power relations are pervasive across societies and that typically the mores, laws, policies and institutions established by dominant groups (and enforced by police) reinforce the status quo; and
  • The Historical Oppression Layer: the fact that many marginalized groups have experienced long histories of discrimination, injustice and oppression at the hands of dominant groups, fueling a deep reservoir of negativity, distrust and rage, at times setting a lower threshold for destructive intragroup and intergroup relations.

Of course, these five components of destructive relations typically feed and reinforce one another, contributing to cultural patterns that are particularly resistant to change. This suggests of course that there are no simple solutions to these challenges and that attempts at genuine reform must be considerable, multifaceted and adaptive.

Recognize and battle your own bias, racism and privilege. Like it or not, we are all biased and ethnocentric. Neuroscience research by Emile Bruneau at M.I.T. shows that humans are seemingly hard-wired to move toward the similar (members of their ingroups) and away from the dissimilar. Recently, Pew Research Center conducted a study using the Implicit Association Test, a method that attempts to measure unconscious bias by assessing how quickly individuals associate positive and negative words with different racial groups. Decades of such testing have shown that most humans display bias against out-groups. The Pew experiment found that about half of all whites in the study automatically preferred whites over blacks (48%), including about a third (35%) who favored whites moderately to strongly. This supports other research through the Project Implicit website which has found that most whites demonstrate a clear bias for whites and against blacks.

White privilege is the other side of this same coin. Ian Ayres wrote recently in the New York Times, “What does white privilege mean today? In part, it means to live in the world while being given the benefit of the doubt.” He cites studies where different types of decision makers were found to “use discretion to bestow benefits (to whites) in a discriminatory fashion.” Most famously, Peggy McIntosh in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” outlined the 50 ways that being white bestows on her special privileges (See also Cheryl Harris’ 1993 essay “Whiteness As Property”).

The hopeful news is that vigilant attention to and awareness of our own biased tendencies and privilege can help us keep them in check. A classic set of studies by Devine in 1989 showed that conscious attempts to control bias can in fact inhibit the effects of automatic bias leading to less discrimination and prejudice. But bias is much easier to succumb to, and vigilance against it takes energy and persistence.

Learn to tolerate difficult dialogues. Research by Derald Wing Sue at Columbia has found that honest and open racial dialogues between individual members of different racial groups can be important means toward racial healing because they lessen the power of racism, make hidden biases visible, and facilitate understanding of different worldviews. Opportunities for racial dialogues can present themselves in classroom interactions, counseling and therapy sessions, and cross-racial supervision and training at work. Such dialogues are made more difficult when they involve an unequal status relationship of power and privilege between the participants, and hidden disparaging messages to People of Color (what Sue terms racial micro-aggressions) who find them offensive, triggering intense emotional responses. The explosive nature of difficult dialogues makes it hard for participants to understand one another’s points of view. Sue’s research has identified four fears that make race dialogues particularly threatening to whites:

  • Fear of Appearing Racist – The U. S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights all teach us to cherish freedom, equality and the intrinsic worth of everyone, so there can be a great deal of shame in appearing otherwise.
  • Fear of Realizing their Racism - The most threatening realization of many white Americans is that they are, indeed, racist. White students and teachers are adverse to seeing how their beliefs and actions contribute to the oppression of others.
  • Fear of Confronting White Privilege – Difficult dialogues can force whites to consider the possibility they have benefited from the racist arrangements and practices of society.
  • Fear of Taking Personal Responsibility to End Racism The ultimate white privilege is the ability to acknowledge its existence and do nothing about it.

Nevertheless, effective facilitation of difficult dialogues on race represents a vital and necessary component of education in multicultural societies. Research by Bruneau on such dialogues across members of unequal power groups offers one major bit of advice: Members of more powerful groups need to stop talking and listen (and hear). That is when real change happens for all.

Beware the White Industrial Savior Complex. Ironically, white allies in the struggle against racism tend to be particularly impatient and demanding. As a privileged group, we are used to getting results and find the pace of change with regard to racial injustice excruciatingly slow. Nevertheless, we must resist the tendency coined by author and activist Teju Cole as “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” As he wrote in his sequence of tweets in 2012, “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening… The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm…. This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah… The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

So what should well-intentioned whites do?

  • Talk to your kids about race. White parents, even Liberals, find it very difficult to talk to their kids about race. But children start assigning meaning to race at a very young age. Starting at age 4 or 5, kids start to develop “high-status bias,” showing implicit preferences for individuals who are members of high-status groups (whites). Children of parents who actually did talk meaningfully with them about race had better racial attitudes, and were better able to detect evidence of racial discrimination.
  • Pay attention to your language when speaking about race, and to how the media you choose to consume represents race. These processes of meaning construction quietly fortify our bias and racial supremacy, and that of those around us.
  • Confront racial injustice where you see it happening. If you look for it, you will see it happening because it is everywhere in big and small doses. Addressing it will make you and others uncomfortable.
  • Work among white people to generate more allies. Rather than imposing your well meaning will on communities of color, work to broaden your coalition of white allies. Build social movements among whites to dismantle white supremacy.
  • Get up and protest. Generally speaking, members of dominant groups have little motivation to attend to the needs of more marginalized groups for any sustained period of time, unless circumstances require it. So require it.
  • Finally, support local initiatives in communities of color initiated by, for and with members of these communities. Research has shown that these types of locally informed, bottom-up initiatives are far more effective and sustainable at addressing ills and do much less harm.

Ultimately, aim for broad-based institutional reform. In a ground breaking study assessing federal data describing the workforces of 708 private sector establishments from 1971 to 2002, Kalev, Dobbin and Kelly identified the three most common approaches to enhancing diversity and reducing discrimination within organizations and communities: 1) Establishing institutional responsibility for diversity, 2) Moderating managerial bias through training and feedback, and 3) Promoting inclusion through supportive networks. The study found that efforts to moderate bias through diversity training and diversity evaluations are least effective at increasing the share of white women, black women, and black men in management. These, of course, are the most common initiatives in organizations. Efforts to attack social isolation of members of minority groups through mentoring and networking showed modest effects. Most important, efforts to establish responsibility for diversity in institutions (establishing responsibility for setting, implementing and evaluating affirmative action plans through careful oversight), led to the broadest increases in managerial diversity. Moreover, organizations that establish institutional responsibility see better effects from diversity training and evaluations, networking, and mentoring. This means that bias awareness and difficult dialogues only really matter when they are linked to real reforms addressing institutionalized forms of racism. In communities, groups such as Hope in the Cities and the Public Conversations Project often combine dialogue forums with joint community action planning to address bias and mobilize needed reforms. It is only through dialogue and sustained action that we will ever truly interrupt the system of inequality, racism and violence in which our country is trapped.

This work is hard and will be plagued with setbacks (read Te-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me if you feel otherwise). As James Comey, the Director of the FBI stated in his 2015 Georgetown talk on race and law enforcement in America, “America isn’t easy. America takes work”. But as James Baldwin wrote in 1963, “If we - and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create the consciousness of others - do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world”. We whites would do well to face the realism and pessimism of Coates, while earning the hope and optimism of Baldwin.