Institutional racism

One of the most challenging days of my life was the day I spent in a roomful of lawyers, in Germany. An Army 1st Lieutenant and race relations education officer, just back from six weeks of training at the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI), I was assigned to conduct a one-day race relations seminar at the U.S. Army headquarters in Heidelberg. The attendees were the staff of the Judge Advocate General – all of the Army lawyers in Germany, including the one-star Judge Advocate General, himself. Because lawyers join the Army at the rank of Captain, I was the lowest-ranking officer in the room. And I was the only non-lawyer.

I was used to encountering resistance to race relations education, and I knew that leading this seminar wouldn’t be easy. Sure enough, during the morning session, many of the things I said about personal racism were challenged, and I felt like I was being cross-examined. I wondered if my presentation was getting through to anyone. Then, gradually, some of the lawyers present nodded their agreement as I made controversial points, and seemed to be coming around.

When I talked about institutional racism in the afternoon session, I continued to encounter resistance from some of the lawyers. But others began to side with me, saying things along the lines of, “Actually, Tom, he’s right about that” and “Let him finish making his point.” At the end of the day, several attendees thanked me and shook my hand. A week or so later, I got a letter of commendation from the general, stating that it was clear why I’d been chosen “to be an instructor in the difficult subject area of racism.”

The only way that I was able to hold my own in a roomful of lawyers was that the evidence was on my side. I had the facts; the lawyers who argued with me only had opinions. Still today, many white Americans remain blind to institutional/systemic racism and white privilege. They have opinions about the disparities between the white majority and people of color, but they don’t know the facts about institutional racism.

Many of the facts I learned at the DRRI came from the 1968 Kerner Commission report, which analyzed the societal factors that provoked the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. The report disclosed inequities in employment, housing, social services and education, and identified discriminatory practices in policing and in the criminal justice system. The report concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” Sad to say, not much has changed since the release of the report.

Institutional racism is a web of persistent, interrelated inequities having to do with housing, hiring practices, education, nutrition, health care, and law enforcement. People who are blind to institutional racism tend to believe that the disparities in wealth and social status are attributable to factors like intelligence and ambition. But, in fact, there is still widespread societal discrimination against people of color. The playing field is still not level.

The “white flight” to the suburbs left many inner cities mostly populated by people of color. Since most school districts are funded by local property taxes, and property in run-down inner cities and pockets of rural poverty is generally less valuable than in white communities, many minority group children get an inferior education, limiting their job prospects. Access to affordable health care, including preventive care, is often limited in minority communities. Many of these communities are also “food deserts,” with no supermarkets to provide fresh produce and nutritious alternatives to the junk food sold in neighborhood bodegas and convenience stores. Not only are job opportunities limited by poor schooling and job training, numerous studies have shown that many employers are unconsciously biased toward white job candidates over equally-qualified minority candidates. The economic inequality between white people and minorities can’t be denied. White people who don’t see or understand the mechanics of institutional racism are likely to lay blame for this disparity – consciously or unconsciously – on the victims of systemic racism.

People of color are disproportionately accosted or arrested, persecuted, incarcerated and killed in police custody, relative to white citizens. This is either because people distinguishable by their abundance of epidermal melanin are “racially” more prone to criminal behavior (as some people still believe), or because our criminal justice/law enforcement system is systemically racist, and in need of reform.

On race relations

As an Army officer, I was trained to be a race relations educator at the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI) in 1972, and spent a year in Germany leading race relations seminars. I’ve written in a previous post (“Who is a racist”) that it’s not simply a matter of whether one is or is not a racist. Personal racism isn’t a binary, either/or phenomenon. Racism exists along a continuum, between “hardly any racial bias” and “hates people because of their skin color or ethnicity.” Everybody has a place somewhere on this continuum, and where you place yourself may not be where others who know you would place you.

One thing I learned at the DRRI, and still believe, is that you can’t grow up in a racist society such as ours, unaffected by racism. None of us are completely color blind. I’ve known many people who would reflexively deny having any racist beliefs or tendencies whatsoever, because they don’t understand the insidious nature of racism. To admit that you’ve inherited residual racist beliefs or inclinations doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or, if you’re white, that you should feel guilty for being white. Another thing I learned at the DRRI was that guilt is a lousy motivator for change. Despite my personal history of ongoing self-examination and of actively opposing racism since I was a young man, I still can’t claim to be completely free of racism’s taint, myself.

In my DRRI training, I learned about both personal racism and institutional racism. I think that there are still a lot of good, well-intentioned white people who are blind to the institutional racism that still exists in our society; but in this post, I’ll only be writing about personal racism – specifically implicit bias and confirmation bias.

Bias is universal; it’s part of being human. It can be racial, cultural, religious, or political. Implicit bias is often reflexive, unconscious; and it’s not always necessarily a bad thing. I may have a bias for bland food or for spicy hot food, depending on the foods I grew up eating. This may mean that when I eat out, I’m not likely to try a new dish that the menu describes as spicy hot. It may mean that when I choose which movie I want to see at the cineplex, I’m more likely to choose a film whose protagonists resemble me, or who come from my culture. It’s easier to identify with people I see as being like me. It doesn’t mean that I’m racially prejudiced; it’s just my unconscious preference. Being a heterosexual, I may prefer a traditional romantic comedy over a gay-themed love story, even if I’m not homophobic. No matter your race or cultural identity or sexual orientation, you’re biased to choose one thing over another, based on your life experiences.

Confirmation bias is also universal, and usually unconscious. It means that if I’m given new information on a topic that I’ve already formed an opinion about, I’m more likely to believe and remember things that confirm what I already believe, and less likely to have my opinion changed by things that might challenge my belief.

Even if we bear no ill will to persons of a racial or ethnic group other than our own, our beliefs about them may be unconsciously influenced by common stereotypes attached to that group of people. When I lived in Germany, I observed that some of the same stereotypes that have been attributed to African Americans in our society were attached to Turkish “guestworkers” who lived in ethnic ghettos: they were lazy, stupid, untrustworthy, and all the men wanted to have sex with German women.

The biggest remaining fallacy that continues to fuel racial stereotyping is the idea that race is a biological phenomenon. The concept of race as we know it didn’t exist until the era of European colonialism. Race is a social construct designed to justify the exploitation, colonialization and enslavement of that segment of the human race identifiable by the darkness of their skin. Part of the concept is hierarchal: some races are superior to others. In fact, all human beings belong to the same race. If you go back far enough, we’re all kin.

So, now I question whether or not “race relations” is an outdated term, perpetuating the notion of different races. It seems to me that “intra-racial relating” might be more accurate in describing the sometimes troubled relations within the family of man.

Hip, cool, and woke

I got a BA in English before I got my MA in psychology, and I’ve always been fascinated by language. I learned that languages are – other than dead languages like Latin –  living things that evolve over time, to capture meaning and convey information. So,  my first point is that “hip,” “cool,” and “woke” are just words, with meanings that vary from person to person. What’s cool to you might not be cool to me.  But in my experience, many people use hip and cool interchangeably, and apply the term hip to places like coffee shops and to things that can be bought, like clothes or haircuts. This is a significant departure from the original  meaning, in which hip is a state of mind.

Cool is in the eye of the beholder, and it applies to people, places, things and actions: you can eat at a cool tavern, with cool friends, wearing cool clothes, and listening to cool jazz. Cool fads come and go, and the cachet of cool is used to move a lot of merchandise. Things can be made to seem cool by marketers and influencers. Certain things cannot be cool, like prisons.

Hip can’t be bought or rented or worn or inhabited, although marketers have used the word as an adjective, to be applied to this destination or that product. In its original meaning, hip can only be applied to persons. Dialectically speaking, you either are or are not hip – but it can also be seen as existing along a continuum. A synonym for hip is “aware,” as in “hip to what’s goin’ down.” “I’m hip” doesn’t  mean the same thing as “I’m cool”; it means “I understand.” To be hip is to be in the know, to see what un-hip people don’t see. Hip originated in Black dialect, because people of color tend to be aware of things that the majority of white people are blind to – as I once was. If you were hip, you kept your eye on what The Man was up to.

I wasn’t truly hip to American racism until, as an Army lieutenant, I attended the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI), to be trained as a race relations education officer. Sure, I had been aware of some aspects of racism before then. I knew that people of color were frequently discriminated against. Although I ‘d had Black classmates and teachers at the international school I’d attended in Vienna, my Georgia high school didn’t integrate racially until my Junior year. I hated racism and thought I was pretty well-informed about it.

But it wasn’t until my immersion in race relations education at the DRRI that I truly became “hip to what’s goin’ down” in America. Not only did I learn from classroom instruction, but in late night discussions in the barracks with brown- and black-skinned classmates (as well as a few Asians and Native Americans), who talked frankly about their own life experiences. We were the pilot class at the DRRI, and we felt a sense of brotherhood and trust. I became hip to the reality that white people live in a different America than people of color. I began to see things that I had been blind to.

Just as religious people can be guilty of “holier-than-thou” attitudes, it’s possible to fall into “hipper-than-thou” judgments. Hipness is perhaps best viewed as existing along a continuum, and where you place yourself on the Hipness Scale may not be where other hip people would place you. But it’s not a contest.

The concept of hipness seeped into white consciousness via the so-called Beat Generation, especially through the writings of Jack Kerouac. (He wrote that his definition of hip was someone who could score drugs in a foreign country.) The Beat Generation had a great influence on the Baby Boomer generation, and hipness was so central to the youth rebellion of the sixties that the long-haired, tie-dyed cultural rebels became known in the media as hippies. Not all of them liked the term, but the so-called hippies prided themselves in “knowin’ what’s goin’ down” and “dropping out”  of conventional society. They kept their eyes on what The Man was up to.

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry wrote, “There are no “squares” . . . Everyone is his own hipster.” What she meant by hipster was something entirely different from the contemporary meaning of the word, as I understand it. These days hipster seems to describe a style or a lifestyle and, to me, more resembles “cool” than the original meaning of hip. Perhaps the word “woke” is the contemporary analog of “hip to what’s goin’ down,” with a side of political correctness.

Overcoming homophobia, Part 1

My first memory related to homophobia is from middle school. I was about to attend my very first dance, at an international school in Vienna, and was talking to a friend who had already been to school dances. Asking for instruction, I reached out as if to a dance partner, left arm up, right arm at hip level. Jumping back, he said “What are you, a homo?” I’d never heard the term before. I didn’t know anything about homosexuality, except that it was bad.

Like most of my generation, in my teens I heard “fag” jokes, and my image of a gay person was the stereotype of the effeminate “fairy.” That image changed in high school, when I was groped by a “normal looking” man at a news stand in Columbus, Georgia. I was scared and disgusted, and practically ran from the store. I got propositioned by men a few times as a young man, and never had a positive, non-threatening encounter with a gay man until years later. When I was an Army Lieutenant, I was propositioned by a bisexual Major. When I thought about men having sex with men, I felt disgust.

I’ve already written about my time as a race relations educator in the Army.  Although I wasn’t raised in a racist family,  during my training at the Defense Race Relations Institute I realized that you can’t grow up in a racist society, untouched by racism’s taint. As I became aware of the need to work on ridding myself of my own residual racism, I also became aware of my homophobia. I’d grasped the principle that people often fear things they don’t understand;  and I certainly didn’t understand homosexuality.

Over time I came to the realization that homosexuality wasn’t a choice, and that the stereotypes I’d associated with being gay weren’t accurate. I saw the movie “The Boys in the Band” and for the first time realized that gay people are just as varied, as individuals, as straight people. I read a speculative fiction story about a future dystopian society where homosexuality was the legally-enforced norm, and heterosexuals were persecuted as “queers.”  It really made me wonder what it would be like to be labeled a “queer” just because of who I make love with.

After I got out of the Army, my then-wife Doris and I (we’re still good friends) visited a former soldier I’d worked, traveled, and even shared hotel rooms with during my time as a race relations educator. Although he’d successfully passed for straight during his Army service and I’d never suspected otherwise, seeing him in civilian life it was quickly apparent  that he was gay. He revealed that he’d always felt very attracted to me. I suddenly realized that I’d had many positive, non-threatening encounters with a gay man whom I considered my friend. And he’d never hit on me! It was a major breakthrough. Thank you, Scott, wherever you are!

In grad school I conscientiously worked on chipping-away at my residual homophobia, knowing that I’d have gay clients in therapy. My real-life test came when I attended an afternoon immersion-experience workshop at a psychology conference, titled “Being Gay for Part of a Day.”  We were split up into small groups by our gay facilitators, and asked to role-play being gay, in a bar with other gay men. (Each group had at least one gay facilitator in it.) I’ve acted on stage, and did my best to get into character, so as to make the most out of out of this educational experience. As instructed, I chose the man in my group that I thought I might be most attracted to if I were gay, and focused my attention on him.  After we ended the exercise and I broke character, it quickly became apparent that the guy was convinced that I was really gay, and either on-the-make or still in denial about my sexual orientation. At first, I felt humiliated and defensive. I protested that I was happily married and tried my best to convince him that it had just been an act; but my efforts just seemed to reinforce his belief. It was a liberating experience when I decided that it was okay for him to be convinced that I was gay. I just let it go and was immediately at peace, because I’d internalized the belief that I’d need in order to do therapy with gay people: There’s nothing wrong with being gay.

By the time I became a professional therapist, I felt comfortable working with gay (lesbian, trans, etc.) clients, many of whom were confused or conflicted about their sexual orientation/identity. Many were dealing with their own homophobia. As a non-judgmental straight male, I was in a good position to validate the client’s sexuality. More than once I said something like this: “I hear that you don’t want to be gay, but you can’t deny your feelings. I’d say that what’s important for now is to accept that you’re a sexual person, like everybody else, and that’s a good thing. In time, you’ll figure out what prefix – hetero, homo, bi, trans, whatever – to put in front of it. I just hope you know that there’s nothing wrong with you if it turns out that you’re gay. In the meantime, what’s important is that you’re a loving and sexually responsible person.”

In my next post I’ll tell you about my final breakthrough in overcoming my own homophobia.

Who is racist?

I was raised by parents who had risen above the racist influences in their lives. My father’s father, born and raised in the Bronx, was a bigot who used words like nigger, kike, wop and spic. My mother grew up in racially-segregated Charleston, South Carolina. But I never heard either of my parents use disparaging terms for minorities. (Negro was considered polite back then.) If I had parroted racial epithets I’d learned from my peers growing up, I’d have been strongly admonished not to do so, if not punished.

I served as a race relations education officer in the Army in the early seventies, leading three-day seminars designed to alleviate racial tensions and conflicts. I was stationed in Germany, and in the year that I led seminars I learned a lot about my own country. I’d read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and bought his assertion that “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” of societal racism. I’ve done many things since my Army days to try to be part of the solution and I know firsthand what it’s like to be in a recognizable racial minority, having lived in Jamaica for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I’ve known many white  folks over the years who would instantly deny having any racist tendencies whatsoever, because they don’t understand the insidious nature of racism. I believe that there are two kinds of racism, which I’ll cover later in this post.

I grew up in a racist society, and to claim that  I was untouched by racism would be ignorant. I learned to be a race relations education officer at the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI). There I learned the (now obvious) point that you can’t grow up in a racist society without being influenced to some degree, no matter what your race or ethnic group. I was also taught that guilt is a lousy motivator for changing racial beliefs and attitudes. Racism isn’t an either/or thing, but exists along a continuum. To admit that you have residual, learned racist beliefs or (often unconscious) inclinations doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or, if you’re white, that you should feel guilty for being white.

A Defense Department manual issued by the DRRI to support the race relations education program addressed military commanding officers who earnestly believed that that they were “color blind” or “didn’t have a racist bone in their body.” It suggested that they should discuss with their race relations education officer just how this miracle occurred in our racist society. When I encountered this attitude in race relations seminars, I’d ask with a straight face, “What planet did you grow up on?”

Despite my personal history of self-examination and of actively opposing racism since I was a young man, I can’t claim to be completely free if its taint, myself. It’s not simply a matter of “being ” or “not being” a racist, it’s matter of where you are on the continuum. Everyone belongs somewhere on this continuum, and where you see yourself may not be where others might see you. It’s not just white people who are unconsciously biased along racial lines. While I believe that America is less racist than when I was growing up, we still have a lot that needs to be examined and changed. I believe that there’s less unconscious bias among most millennials, and hope that they will prove to be a watershed generation in healing the scars of racism.

It seems to me that there are two distinct kinds of racists: those who fear and hate people who don’t resemble them racially, and those who harbor unconscious racial bias and stereotypical beliefs. It’s easy to understand why one of the latter would be offended if they thought they were being accused of being one of the former. I’ve known a lot of white people who, because they don’t fear or hate people simply because of the  color of their skin, honestly don’t believe that they’re at all racist. They would feel guilty if they admitted to having any racial bias at all. My parents belonged to this category.

There are a lot of good, well-intentioned white people who are blind to the institutional racism that still exists in our society. As a psychologist, I believe that unconscious bias – not just racial bias – is universal. Nobody has perfect, objective insight into their own beliefs and behavior. The more aware you become of your particular biases, the less they unconsciously affect your behavior.

My first epiphany regarding American racism came when I attended the DRRI. I learned at least as much in the mess hall and in late night discussions in the barracks – with white, black, Latino, Asian and Native American classmates – as I did in the classes we attended. At some point it was as if “the scales fell off my eyes” and I saw that people of color live in a different America than the one I live in. I can only imagine what it might feel like to be a black person who grew up in the South in the Jim Crow era, hearing the phrase “the Land of the Free” in our National Anthem. In high school I’d thought that racist jokes were harmless, but stopped telling them. (My high school was racially segregated until my junior year.) After my epiphany I stopped laughing at them, because I no longer found them funny. Polish jokes (for instance) are only funny if you buy the stereotypical premise that Poles are stupid.

My most recent racial epiphany was my grasp of the concept that race isn’t a biological phenomenon to begin with, but a social construct. All homo sapiens belong to the human race. I’ve long felt that every human being is kin, if you go back far enough. Racism results from learned myths and stereotypes; it’s not innate in our species. Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a song about racial prejudice for the Broadway production of “South Pacific”: “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” (It was considered too controversial and replaced by “My Girl Back Home” in the film version.) We can only shed racial biases when we acknowledge that we have them.