Fandango’s Provocative Question this week: Do you believe racism is an inherent human train or is it learned? Either way, are there actions that society can take to eliminate, or at least diminish, racism? Or will racism always exist, no matter what we do?
These questions resonated with me because they align with the things I have been thinking about, and learning about, since George Floyd’s death.
First a little perspective:
Like many with White privilege I didn’t think much about racism. I, naively, thought it had been “cured” by the Civil Rights movement. There aren’t currently any black people in my sphere, but there have been. Mostly when I was at MIT in the early 1980s. But not much since, I can’t even do the “I have one really good black friend…” rationalization, so Black-White race relations are abstract for me.
The systemic disregard for Black lives was first driven home to me in the death of Charleena Lyles in 2017. It probably didn’t make the news outside of Seattle (a tell in itself). While I realize that I didn’t know the exact details, it sure seemed to me that in not taking a non-lethal way to deal with someone both known to have mental health issues and be pregnant the police officers where basically planning to commit murder when they took the call. A double homicide. That incident is why the Seattle Police still have to report to federal overseers.
I am a very conventional person and when people started to call for de-funding the police, a couple of months ago I was taken aback. But, on further study about what people really meant by that, and reflection about the Charleena Lyles case I can’t help but wonder: what if a mental health professional had gone on that call? Would both mother and child be alive today?
Is racism an inherent trait or is it learned?
People are herd or pack animals. On some level, that type of animal depends on an ability to discern who is, or isn’t a part of the tribe. Skin color, eye color and shape, body build are the easiest cues to read. It starts with recognizing Mommy and Daddy, siblings and extended family. People who tend to share physical traits.
We also learn. We learn that some traits matter less than others, for example, people can have different color eyes and still be in the same family. We also learn the way our herd treats non-members, an ethos. Included in the ethos may also be a morality about how human beings should be treated, there are references in the Old Testament to obligations to the stranger. (There may be in other cultures that is just the one with which I am familiar.)
We also learn through life experiences: I have never viewed Black people as intellectually inferior, because most of the ones I have known are MIT graduates, smart, talented and well educated people. Yet I know that some people do see Black people that way, either because they have not known any Black people well, or because their experience is with those who did not have access to education.
Are there actions that society can take to eliminate, or at least diminish racism?
Yes. I think there are ways.
Per Wikipedia: The Overton Window is the range of policies acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time. I learned about this concept from the Beau of the Fifth Column YouTube channel. P
Shifting this window is probably the single most effective thing that can be done.
In my lifetime it has shifted in both directions. First, when I was a child, it moved in the direction of justice for all, and fairness, equal rights and so forth. That is not to say that all wrongs were righted, but effort was made. John Lewis was an example of someone who shifted the Overton Window in a positive direction. it became less acceptable to talk about minorities as being inferior. Diversity was viewed as positive.
In the past ten years it has shifted back in the other direction. Shockingly so.
The current incumbent of the White House is a master of shifting the Overton Window.
One example of this is in the area of justice. I believe that one factor in people rallying to try and help the Black Lives Matter movement is that many have been witnessing this erosion of principles with regard to justice. They were galvanized by the sight of a human being judged and given a death sentence without due process in such close succession to some of the truly awful people who have been pardoned, by a criminal who has stated that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters”.
How can the Overton Window be shifted?
Well, it seems like the current incumbent of the White House uses words, most often tweets. How about a tweeting for justice? (I shouldn’t suggest this because I don’t Twitter or use Facebook, but it does seem to be an effective way to signal.)
Facebook makes its money from people seeing ads. Some companies forced it to at least pretend that it was going to change policies. Maybe that could be used further? Setting a tone that certain discourse is not okay (outside the window). I unfriended someone who shared something I considered out of bounds. I go back and forth about whether I should have confronted the person, but at the time I didn’t want to validate it by engaging in discourse, as if the concept was valid enough to discuss.
I eventually closed that account altogether, because the platform seems to have become one for evil trolls and marketers. The algorithm that determined what I saw creeped me out as well. One person quitting may not be important, but if a lot did…
In this case, I am talking about improving the quality and availability of education to EVERYONE in the USA, with a goal to fill our graduate schools with people from the USA. I am talking about raising everyone up, giving those without means an extra nudge of assistance. We are alone in the first, and second world in not nurturing our own talent. If you aren’t born rich the odds are that, even if you are a genius, you will not be able to live to your potential. This is terrible for the USA as well as the people.
The H1B visas currently being yammered about are primarily to bring in skilled professionals (when they aren’t being used to bring in “models”). They are necessary in large measure because we do not nurture our own talent.
The systematic degradation of our education system is a Republican strategy intended to keep people down. They were worried that educated people don’t vote for Republicans. It is ironic that the people resenting and lamenting Huawei’s success in 5G are the very reason why the USA doesn’t have adequate talent and resources to be competitive anymore.
I have been careful to not specifically mention Blacks so far in this one, because I feel like women and other minorities are also intended victims of the education policies.
Another note on education: I’ve seen discussions lately about teaching history better. That is not what I am talking about here. While changing the history taught to be more accurate and realistic is a great idea, I fear that it muddies the water. It is too easy for the discussion about education to degrade into “okay, we’ll change the history to be slightly less racist…” then change the subject away from education. I am talking about both access and encouragement so that everyone can participate in the future instead of a dead end past.
Will racism always be there?
I fear that the answer to this is probably “yes”, at least on some level.
That doesn’t mean that it needs to be regarded as okay. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to right the wrongs or be better. That doesn’t mean that Black people should be held down. It means that we need to always be learning, and teaching, that “freedom and justice for all” actually means freedom and justice for all. Black Lives Matter is part of that.
We can make changes to systems so that the racism is not intrinsic to the systems. Fair systems help to keep the balance. We would be so much stronger as a nation if we could learn this.
The best way to move to the future would be to create a shared goal that could pull people together for the common good. We could, potentially, be using the pandemic to unite and build a better future, but I’m not seeing signs of that in the current administration. Joe Biden has put forward ideas of that nature for moving forward if he is elected.