Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Well-Meaning Blacks and Whites Continue to Talk Past Each Other About Race

In dysfunctional families, one common attribute that most people have makes it difficult for them to resolve their differences in a constructive way in order to solve family problems. Each family member becomes so convinced, and can give a lot of evidence for, their own ideas about what is going on that they do not seem to listen at all to the other person’s point of view.  

When the other person gives his or her point of view, family members tend to invalidate the other by merely restating their own point of view, as if the other person had not said anything at all.  And rare is the dyad in a family that considers the idea that they may both be right and that their views are not really incompatible at all.

Another one of the major points in my ideas about dysfunctional families is that the problems commonly seen in these families often represent a sort of microcosm of the very same conflicts seen in larger groups within their particular society.

I saw an interesting example of this that stems from the discussions of racism that were triggered by the recent murder of Treyvon Martin.

There was an interesting posting of two “dueling” op-ed pieces in the Memphis newspaper on March 28, 2012: one by a Black columnist, Walter E. Williams, and one by a White columnist, Frank Cerabino.  Strangely, the Black columnist took the position that I have seen usually taken by Whites, and vice versa.

Frank Cerabino
The main point of Cerabino’s column was that if the roles were reversed – if a White man was killed by a Black person who was serving on a Neighborhood Watch, then the shooter would have been arrested immediately.  The columnist even had a real life example to give that illustrated his point.  Cerabino also thought that if the shooter Zimmerman had been Black and Martin White, that the shooter would have been held without bail. The obvious implication is that society is still far more racist than it often claims to be.

Walter E. Williams
Williams, taking the traditionally White argument, points out why in our society “Black and young” has become synonymous with “crime and suspicion.”  Furthermore, he believes that this equating these two is not always based on racism, but more often on our universal tendency to profile strangers on the bases of categories that represent higher versus lower risks to ourselves.  Even African-American cab drivers and pizza delivery men avoid certain Black neighborhoods, he points out, because of concerns about their safety. 

Most people are familiar with the statistics about young Black males that show that they represent a disproportionate share of all the people who commit violent crimes, and therefore such determinations are not actually racist but more statistical or something like that.  And parenthetically, most of their victims are other Black people, not Whites. “We humans are not Gods,” Williams says, “therefore, we must often base our decisions on guesses and hunches…based on easily observed physical characteristics…”

The justaposition of these two articles reminded me of a segment of the now defunct news magazine show Primetime Live that was broadcast twenty years ago.  It seems like the arguments have changed very little over that period of time.

PrimeTime Live
The segment was entitled “True Colors” and was broadcast on ABC on September 26, 1991.  Documentary filmmakers had two men of the same age, one Black and one White, go out to society and apply for jobs, try to rent an apartment, and browse the aisles of different stores.  The two men had been trained to present themselves in an identical manner.  Both were equipped with similar histories (education, employment histories, credit scores, and so forth), and both appeared to be upper middle class.  They were dressed as one might expect the White man to be dressed, and both spoke English in the standard White dialect.

In some instances, they were reportedly treated the same by society, but many times this was not the case.  Jobs that were “open” to the White applicant suddenly became “filled” when the Black applicant showed up just a short time later.  The Black guy was followed around by the help in a variety of stores as if he might shoplift something at any moment – but this did not happen to the White guy when he came to the same store.  Potential landlords would lecture the Black man about such things as paying the rent on time, and did not appear particularly welcoming to him.  Again, the White man got a royal welcome and no lectures.

After the film was shown, members of a discussion group organized by the TV show began to express very similar points to those expressed by the two columnists in the Memphis newspaper.  

Tellingly, neither side (and the Whites and Blacks in this case took the expected sides) was willing to concede that the other side’s point had any validity at all.  Instead of a engaging in problem-solving about what to do about this dreadful state of affairs, the discussion just degenerated into an argument.

Now, in all of these cases, I believe that the discussants and writers involved were not overt racists, white supremacists, or black supremacists – remember the newspaper writers actually took the opposite positions from their television counterparts.  Even Jessie Jackson once said that if a young black male stranger were walking behind him in some circumstances, he would feel somewhat threatened.

So which side is right in this debate? 

Duh!!  Both are.  

Subliminal and not-so-subliminal racism is far more prevalent in White society than one side cares to admit.  And young Black males are on average more likely to be a significantly higher risk to a stranger than a young White counterpart.  On Primetime, the side arguing for the former proposition (and arguing as if the other side's argument could not possibly also be true) argued that the Black man in the film was nicely dressed, not speaking in Black slang, and very polite – and yet he was still treated as if he might be a member of the Crips or something.  

Quite true!

In fact, considering American history, it might seem that Blacks should be more threatened by Whites than the other way around.  In my lifetime, TV production codes prohibited the depiction of financially successful and well adjusted Black people.  

And then there was the terrifying documentary on PBS recently about the “felon leasing program” that took place in the South after Reconstruction and continued well into the twentieth century.  Black men were routinely arrested on trivial or flimsy charges, convicted by all-white jurors, and then leased out as slave labor for various businesses.  Victims were treated even worse than slaves because, in this situation, they did not represent valuable “property.”

Even today, being African American can lead you to get a longer sentence than for a White when being convicted of the same crime.  Until very recently, sentences for crack cocaine (used more often by Blacks) were far longer than sentences for powdered cocaine (used more often by Whites).

On the other hand, as I argued in my blog post The N-Word, a significant proportion of Blacks often do, in fact, act in accordance with old White stereotypes of Black people.  The reason is that doing so had survival value in more racist times – times that were not at all that long ago. For example, the Black comedian Chris Rock jokes about a Black motorist in the Old South who was shot to death at a stop sign by a White policeman - because he could read the sign.  Unfortunately, when Blacks of today act as if they do not want to be educated, it reinforces the Black stereotype for Whites.

In order to solve the problems of racism for both Blacks and Whites, we all need to start trying to be empathic to all of these points of view, and validate each other whenever we can.  We need to stop being so defensive and actually listen to each other.  Stop arguing and start putting our heads together!


  1. Martin was not murdered.
    Murder is the wrongful killing of a human.

    He died during the commission of a crime (at the very least, assault, and a case could be made for attempted murder, since he was beating his victim's head against the sidewalk; see police photos of Zimmerman's head, taken at the scene & immediately after, at the station).

    He died because his victim wasn't able to retreat (since Martin was sitting on him), did not get help from nearby residents though he was screaming for it, and had to preserve his own life.
    Even one blow to the head can kill. Zimmerman took blows front & back.

    1. Hi Lynn,

      Thanksfor your comment, but you conveniently leave out the fact that Martin was being stalked and threatened by Zimmerman, who if I'm not mistaken was carrying. One could make a good case that Martin was trying to stand HIS ground.

  2. I think we can understand the race problem in America by thinking of us as a giant dysfunctional family. African-Americans are clearly the spoiler. They do a great job of distracting white people from their own problems by making them feel anxiously guilty, anxiously helpless, and hostile because... white people are inadvertently communicating to black people that that is what they want them to be! Unless we all look at our dysfunctional behavior, this will never be solved. James Baldwin said, "The question you gotta ask yourself –the question the white population has to ask itself—is why was it necessary to have a Negro in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you gotta find out why. The future of the country depends on that."

    I really, really enjoy your blog. My father-in-law has BPD and he and my husband have been semi-estranged for about ten years. Your writing has given us some hope that a relationship is still possible. Thank you.