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.

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.