Monday, February 20, 2017

Trump, Implicit Bias, and the Dream of Racial Progress

“We have made progress in everything, yet nothing has changed” – Derrick Bell

Only eight short years ago, the United States elected its first Black president, and lo, the end of racism was heralded across the land. Commentators of all political stripes breathlessly reported the redemptive significance of Obama’s ascendance; the US had finally, once and for all, transcended its ugly racist past. Eight years later, that apple has certainly lost its luster. The deep and broad racial divisions revealed by the Obama presidency have thoroughly spoiled our post-racial happy ending. Thanks a lot Tea Party!

It is easy to see why rational people are willing to buy into the post-racial myth. Besides our longing to believe in racial progress, there is evidence for it. Surveys of white people have shown a steady drop in explicit racist sentiments since the 1960s. And, every time a racially charged incident occurs, remind ourselves of how far we’ve come. So, how are we to understand the Obama backlash? How did we end up electing as President of the United States an epically unqualified buffoon who built his political profile on reality TV and birther conspiracies and based his presidential campaign on stoking white racial fear and resentment?

Ironically, it appears that our investment in the story of racial progress may played a role. We white people seem to have been blind to the way racial attitudes have evolved until this seething undercurrent of racism erupted into the political sphere. Conventional surveys seem to have missed it, but researchers have known about it for decades. This unspoken form of racism is most commonly known as implicit racial bias, and is measured using the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The test has revealed that a striking 88 percent of white IAT participants show pro-white, or anti-black bias. Still, although this discovery was greeted with surprise, it has never been seen as a serious challenge to racial progress story. Indeed, it is often discussed as if it supports the racial progress story.

In the remainder of this piece, I outline three specific examples of how the discovery of implicit racial bias is framed as supporting rather than undermining the racial progress story. First, mainstream discussions tend to emphasize that implicit bias is unconscious without clarifying that, within cognitive science, the term does not mean hidden so much as overlooked. Second, racial bias is typically discussed as if it is a psychological remnant of past racism rather than a contemporary phenomenon with contemporary causes. Third, instead of asking what the prevalence of implicit racial bias might suggest about society at large, discussions typically treat it as simply a form of personal racism. These three interpretative strategies are mutually supporting, and together, allow us to sustain our belief in racial progress.

Implicit Bias and the Cognitive Unconscious

It is common to see the word unconscious substituted for implicit in mainstream reporting as well as in the scientific literature on implicit cognition. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, since the two words are technically synonymous. However, the word unconscious can be read as suggesting that our biases are harder to see than they are. Unlike the word implicit, which is unfamiliar to most non-specialists, the word unconscious, derived from psychoanalysis, has a rich history in popular culture. For the non-specialist, the word may imply that relevant mental content is inaccessible to our conscious minds. This can end up letting us off the hook from taking responsibility for our biases.

Popular writings about implicit racial bias tend to emphasize that most people renounce prejudice and are therefore shocked when they learn, usually via the IAT, that they harbor hidden racial biases. In their excellent book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Bajani and Anthony Greenwald affirm this trope in the title of their book. But the evidence does not quite justify it. Research only shows that associative memory works independently of explicit cognition, and therefore people can endorse egalitarian beliefs and be unaware that they also harbor negative racial associations. But not being aware of something does not make it hidden.

In the public imagination, unconscious often implies a shadowy realm of animalistic drives, shameful desires, and repressed memories. Thus conceived, the unconscious is so obscure that its murky depths can only be explored with the guidance of a professional. It is otherwise inaccessible to our conscious minds. For cognitive psychology, by contrast, the unconscious is relatively mundane. When cognitive psychologists talk about unconscious cognition, they are simply referring to the involuntary and automatic processes, such as framing effects, representativeness, and priming. Thus, when they describe a process as unconscious, they simply mean that its operation is not available to direct introspection. But just because a process is unobservable does not mean the products are. We are perfectly able to know that we hold negative racial stereotypes. We only need to notice them.

The real issue is that we white people have good reasons to deny our implicit biases, thanks in part to the racial progress story. The social stigma associated with racism is so powerful that even the Ku Klux Klan denies being racist. To become aware of a racist thought threatens our belief that we are decent people, creating cognitive dissonance. The mind tries to reduce this dissonance by reflexively pushing unwelcome thoughts out of awareness. We may tell ourselves that this is OK since we don’t believe our biases anyway. However, one of the most important findings of implicit bias research is that these stereotypes can affect our behavior whether or not we believe in them. In fact, the less awareness we have of them, the more vulnerable we are to their influence.

Implicit Bias as Residue

The commitment to racial progress in mainstream discussions also downplays implicit racial bias by portraying it as a remnant of an earlier era. Descriptions often refer to bias using words like “persistence” or “remains,” which suggest that it has no relationship to the present. The website for Teaching Tolerance describes implicit bias as “mental residue.” An article in Psychology Today argues that MRI results “explain why bias stubbornly persists even if our cultural mores tell us it’s wrong” (emphasis added). This language suggests that our racism is not really ours, as if it’s somehow left over from our grandparents. Moreover, the “residue” frame subtly implies that the move from conscious to unconscious is just a step on the path to extinction. In fact, implicit racial biases are a function of associative memory, and associative memory gets its content from our own direct life experiences.

It is uncomfortable to examine the source of our negative racial associations because it forces us to confront unpleasant truths. My own story is emblematic. I grew up in an all-white suburb of Youngstown, thanks to racist 20th century housing policies. My school system was practically all white. My Boy Scout troop was all white. The employees and most of the customers at the supermarket where I worked were white. The shopping centers, restaurants, and nightclubs I frequented were essentially all white. Even the local university I attended, Youngstown State, was practically all white. I literally didn’t know a single people of color until I started my post college career.

In addition, from early childhood, I imbibed a steady stream of associations between blackness and criminality, blackness and poverty, blackness and violence, blackness and sports/entertainment. I encountered few associations between blackness and heroism, blackness and genius, or even blackness and middle-class ordinariness. Most of these negative associations came from TV and film. In real life, I lived in a safe, quiet, all-white neighborhood where I caught the school bus each weekday morning to attend a well-resourced school full of college-bound white kids. In school, I learned a white-washed history full of white heroes and villains, white geniuses, and white “regular folks.” Meanwhile, my direct experience taught me that there are good neighborhoods, like mine, and bad ones, where the schools fail to educate, crime and drugs are rampant, and black and brown folks kill each other over nothing. I mostly saw the latter on the nightly news, but I understood where these neighborhoods were in relation to my house. It’s hard to imagine coming out the other side of this without anti-black and pro-white biases.

Meanwhile I learned from television that racial prejudice is wrong and backward. Reasonable people like Phil Donahue and Michael Stivic rejected bigotry, while we all laughed at Archie Bunker. The story of racial progress was also being represented through the rising status of TV’s Black families. Good Times and Sanford and Son portrayed folks living in ghettos and struggling to keep it together. Then, on The Jeffersons, a working-class family moves on up to the owning-class, but brings their working-class sensibilities with them. Finally, on The Cosby Show, Black professional-class security and familial harmony was portrayed as ordinary and natural.

The ascent of the Black TV family was a positive influence on me, and I assume others, but it may have had an unintended consequence. The rise of the Black middle class on TV and in real life occurred at the same time the crack epidemic was ravaging inner-city Black communities and feeding a panic about Black crime. Political and media exploitation ensured that for every minute of Huxtable harmony on TV there was an hour of crack-related crime and consternation. I suspect that this duality contributed to the divergence of my own explicit and implicit racial attitudes. I’m probably not alone in being able to enjoy Black sitcoms and vote for a Black president while at the same time holding a cluster of implicit anti-black associations. These associations are not left over from my racist ancestors; they are simply products of growing up in this racist society.

Implicit Bias and Individual Psychology

Perhaps the most insidious way the racial progress story distorts our understanding of implicit bias is its inability to acknowledge the structural level of racism. For the racial progress story, structural racism is a thing of the past, and all that remains is individual bigotry and discrimination. This is why mainstream commentators have trouble explaining the racialized impact of voter ID laws, but they can’t get enough of Donald Sterling and Paula Deen. Indeed, implicit bias is useful for those pressing the racial progress narrative precisely because it seems to explain continued racial inequality without appealing to structural causes or widespread bigotry. Moreover, by classifying racial bias as a glitch in individual psychology, it can be framed as an isolated problem that can be remedied through training, medication, or a bias cleanse.

This excessive focus on individual bias is playing out in the police brutality controversies. Thanks to smart phones and social media, the white public is finally waking up to police violence in communities of color to the killing of unarmed Black men, in particular. Many observers attribute these killings to the racism of individual officers. The police strongly deny this. And since explicit racist intent is almost impossible to prove, such accusations usually go nowhere. The implicit bias approach, however, is being welcomed by the public as well as law enforcement agencies because it helps account for racial disparities in the use of force without assuming racist intent. In addition, it offers the promise of solving the problem with anti-bias training.

Unfortunately, structural questions are largely ignored because the racial progress narrative focuses our attention on individual psychology. But an understanding of the larger historical context, including the war on drugs and the cynical political calculations that launched it, is essential for grappling with police violence. In fact, to understand why communities of color are aggressively policed, we need to recall how these communities were created. These economically and racially isolated pockets of urban poverty are products of the federal government policies that subsidized the creation of white suburbs. While generations of white families were given a chance to accumulate wealth through home ownership, black and brown families were trapped in inner-cities, with failing schools, where their choices were limited to renting or being exploited by predatory lenders. When unemployment and hopelessness led to addiction and family decay, the public policy response was to “get tough on crime,” adding more police with more weapons and more ‘intrusive practices’. Given this structural reality, people of color are assured of suffering disproportionate police violence with or without racial bias.


For decades many independent lines of inquiry have pointed to the same disturbing conclusion: a cesspool of racist stereotypes & attitudes churns just beneath the surface of our post-racial good manners. Racism has certainly evolved since the days of public lynchings and legal apartheid. But the racial progress story obscures more than it reveals. While congratulating ourselves for using the same water fountains, we failed to notice when our implicit fears were channeled into the creation of a system of racialized mass incarceration on a scale unprecedented in human history. More recently we’ve been allowing a systematic attack on voting rights, based partly on racially charged claims of inner-city voter fraud. Now a megalomaniacal demagogue has been elected president despite (or because of) his willingness to foment explicit racial resentments and pal around with white supremacists. Old fashion racism is making a comeback. And no amount of implicit bias or diversity training is likely to stem this noxious tide.

The resilience of racism in the US is not the result of antiquated attitudes buried in the dusty corners of individual minds. It is not really about attitudes at all. Whether implicit or explicit, racist attitudes are outward symptoms of a deeper sickness. Racism, specifically white supremacy, infects white America’s collective identity at its core. This sickness produces not only our biases but also our denial. And it supports our conviction that we are steadily moving toward a multicultural utopia. In reality, the only way forward is back. We must grapple seriously with the nation’s historic atrocities and work to heal the wounds wrought by slavery, genocide, Jim Crow, the war on drugs, and the continuing legacies of colonialism and capitalism. Only by collectively acknowledging and repairing these historical harms can we achieve sustainable progress toward society with liberty and justice for everyone.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

What I Said When My White Friend Asked for My White Opinion on What a Black Woman Said When Her White Friend Asked for Her Black Opinion on White Privilege

My title is an homage to a wonderful blog post by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, entitled “What I Said When My White Friend Asked For My Black Opinion on White Privilege.” That post was the stimulus for the following exchange. I am sharing it in the same spirit in which Ms. Hutcherson shared hers, to offer support to curious white folks who are just starting to explore how racism has shaped us and the world around us.
Dear Gregory,
A friend posted this article, which I read. It helped me understand what white privilege means. I was wondering what your view was on this article? I want to make sure I am filling my head and heart with truth. Also, I feel like there is white shame that goes along with this. Is the antidote to shame, telling the truth? Advocating for change? Acknowledging racism? Something else? Thank you. 
Becky (name changed)
Dear Becky,
It is very nice to hear from you. It is especially nice to hear from you on this topic. It warms my heart when fellow white people begin to get curious about what it really means to be white. It also gives me hope for the world. So thank you!! To answer your first question, I think this article is wonderful. It is an act of profound generosity when a person of color shares their experiences of racism because, as the author says, these experiences can be painful to relive. Furthermore, though the author didn’t mention it, I have heard from others that it is extremely vulnerable for people of color to report on the racism they experience because they are so often not believed. It is hard for people who benefit from white privilege to acknowledge the racism that many people of color must deal with on a daily basis because this knowledge provokes shame.
Which brings me to your second question: I believe shame is one of the biggest hurdles we face, as white people. It arises naturally as we begin to awaken to the enormous suffering caused by structural white supremacy, which despite being all around us, we have somehow failed to see. It comes as a shock when we begin to realize the degree to which our lives are shaped by systems that use terror and brutality to maintain structural inequality.
To look for the first time at the true history of genocideslaverylynching, and racist housing policies, and to see how that history lives on in the violence of racist policingmass incarceration, and gentrification can overwhelm us with shame, not to mention guilt. One of the hallmarks of white privilege is that we are typically oblivious to the violence that sustains it. One of its costs is what Robin DiAngelo calls white fragility. Those of us who suffer from this condition lack a certain emotional resilience and tend to become highly triggered when the topic of racism comes up.  
The antidote to shame for me has been engagement, but engagement is no magic bullet. Thanks to my own white fragility, I still get knocked off center by the emotional currents surrounding this topic. The only way to build stamina is to stay engaged, especially when we feel uncomfortable. Because this is difficult emotional labor, we may be tempted to look to people of color to receive our remorse and our tears. We must resist this. Comforting and reassuring white people requires energy that people of color, for whom racism is a matter of life and death, cannot spare. Moreover, it is not their responsibility to attend to our feelings. I have found that my own sustainability in this work depends on having a community of white people. It is crucial, I think, that white people find or create spaces where we can share support and encouragement so that we can show up for the struggle as fully resourced as possible.
Once we have begun to really feel what it means that our society is rooted in white supremacy – that we are embedded in its systems and its systems are embedded in us – we are ready to act with authenticity and accountability. Acting with authenticity means confronting white supremacy, in society and within ourselves, not from a desire to “help” people of color (as if they need our help) or to feel better about ourselves (by trying to fix other white people), but from a foundation of understanding that our own liberation depends on it. Acting with accountability means taking leadership from and be willing to answer to those communities that are likely to be impacted by our actions, however well-intended they may be. 
How we each engage in the struggle is a personal matter. There is no formula for dismantling white supremacy. But there are endless ways to step up, from interrupting racist jokes to challenging workplace practices; from talking to our neighbors to shutting down freeways; from writing letters to running for office. What matters is that we show up and do what we can, with the knowledge that ending racism is essential for our personal and collective healing, as white people and as humans. 
Best Regards,

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Whiteness and the Violence of Victim Blaming

“Black on black” violence is not a thing. Not. A. Thing. It is a racist trope, a story deployed by the chief spokespersons for white supremacy (I see you, Fox News) as part of a rhetorical strategy to avoid responsibility for the grievous historical crimes committed on its behalf and, most recently, to derail criticisms of the police.

Yes, it is a fact that 93% of black homicide victims are killed by black perpetrators. But we should all know by now that statistical facts are only meaningful given a particular context or theory. And of course, if the fact supports an existing cultural narrative, it may be seen as basic common sense, making it that much more challenging to question. The 93% statistic is part of the “common sense” of black on black violence which in turn springs from a deep and well-practiced story of black criminality that goes back to Reconstruction.

The story of black criminality began to take hold soon after the end of legalized chattel slavery in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. In the absence of slavery, white U.S. Americans had to contend with the fact that four million people had gone, practically overnight, from bondage to freedom. And these were people that generations of Americans had been taught were naturally childlike and servile based on the color of their skin. This created a national crisis of sorts. White America had invested an enormous amount of psychological and moral capital in its construction of itself as a chosen race, destined to spread across the land, manifesting its Empire of Liberty

White America solved its conundrum with the story of black criminality. As Khalil Gibran Muhammad argues in The Condemnation of Blackness, beginning with the 1870 census, white academics and politicians began to deploy crime statistics to
demonstrate the inherently inferiority of black people. The statistics were already meaningless in relation to what they purported to show. After all, this was at a time when the black codes were being used to round up black men in the South to supply labor for the convict leasing system. Regardless, this new narrative became quite popular, and justified ever more intense policing of black communities in the South and North, resulting in more statistical ammunition for the narrative.

Another landmark event in the construction of this story occurred in the 1930s when the U.S Department of Justice developed its Uniform Crime Report, which tracks all crimes in the U.S. and reports them according to the racial identities of victim and perpetrator. From the beginning, the reports agglomerated various European immigrant groups into the category “white,” rendering their ethnicity-specific criminal behavior essentially invisible at a time when crime and violence were rampant within working class ethnic enclaves in Northern cities. The statistical assimilation of European immigrants was of course part of the more general 20th century expansion of whiteness to include ethnic groups from eastern and southern Europe. Meanwhile, as Gibran Muhammad explains, with respect to European immigrant communities, “struggling neighborhoods were considered a cause of crime and a reason to intervene [e.g. building libraries and community centers]. Among blacks, they were considered a sign of pathology and a reason for neglect.” (p. 76)

The story of black criminality is directly responsible for the dominant culture that easily accepts stop and frisk, the school to prison pipeline, and mass incarceration while shouting “tyranny” about universal health care. The story was decisive in providing justifications, explicit and implicit, for practices such as redlining, loan discrimination, urban renewal, and interstate highway construction, which created the economically and socially isolated black neighborhoods that are now subject to educational neglect and over-zealous policing.
This extreme residential segregation along with the failure of Civil Rights era reforms to improve the situation, led to a number of civil uprisings in the late 1960s. These events exacerbated white fears, which were then mobilized by “law and order” politicians, to launch the war on drugs, which has, from the start, been a war on black communities.  As Heather Anne Thompson explains, the drug war is directly responsible for the epidemic of violence experienced by these communities in recent decades.

The violence in inner-city black communities has, thankfully, been in decline, but this has not led to a corresponding reduction in police violence. The U.S. is now experiencing a new uprising of black people who are fed up with the violence perpetrated on their communities, not only by police, but by an entire system that some believe is bent on their eradication. The murder of Mike Brown in August 2014 was the latest (but not for long) in a tragic series of police and vigilante killings of unarmed black men stretching back to Reconstruction. The rallying cry #BlackLivesMatter is reverberating across social media, letting the world know that the treatment of black people as inherently threatening and/or ultimately disposable must stop.

After four centuries of dehumanization under de facto and de jure white supremacy, during which every one of the above-mentioned policies and practices were rationalized by conservative voices citing statistics and anecdotes absent any meaningful historical context, the pseudo-post-racial compassion of calls to focus on black on black violence ring hollow.  Before we even bother to quarrel the with these moralistic invocations, however, we must recognize their essential racist intent. Once you accept the notion that black on black crime is a thing, you have already bought into a 150 year old story, the purpose of which has always been to justify institutionalized and culturally sanctioned violence on black bodies.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Reflections on Whiteness, Fear, and the Culture of Separation

                               Photo: Twitter         

"One of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don’t know who they are or where they come from. That’s why you think I’m a problem. I am not the problem; your history is. And as long as you pretend you don’t know your history, you’re gonna be the prisoner of it. And there’s no question of your liberating me, ‘cause you can’t liberate yourselves. We are in this together. " 
- James Baldwin

I have been seeing pictures on social media of protesters holding up mirrors to the police so the officers can see what they look clad in full riot gear. While this is a powerful tactic, I want to suggest that the reflections in those mirrors, the helmets and body armor, and the police state they symbolize, are actually a direct expression of the collective fears and anxieties of our society, especially white society. As white people, it is not only dark skinned people we fear. We also fear our own repressed history. And we fear looking at our ongoing complicity in the violence that afflicts communities of color, even as we displace our seemingly limitless capacity for violence onto them, thereby magnifying our fears and justifying the police state we've created to allay them.  

And then Ferguson happened. We have had more than enough of our young brothers and sisters of color being killed by police, vigilantes, and other panic-stricken white people. If you've been paying attention, it's obvious that this has been building for some time. Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, and on and on. It may be a surprise to some, but there is nothing new about black people in this country being killed with impunity. Most black folks have noticed the low value this society places on black lives. What is new is that white people have finally begun to notice the pattern and to look at it through the lens of white privilege.

There have been a good deal of discussion on social media about the very real differences in the way we, as white people, are treated, especially by law enforcement. One particular meme consists of white folks holding signs citing outrageous behaviors that did not get them shot by police. There is an excellent blog post on XOjane in which a white mother lays out all the ways she knows her white sons will be able to roll through their young lives without fear of being bothered, much less killed, by police.

As important as recognizing our white privilege is, however, this is not enough. Admitting that, as a white man, I am treated with respect and deference by institutional power (and don't ever worry that any mistreatment I may receive is due to my race) is a crucial first step. However, observing that the system is unjust in my favor does not, by itself, remedy the situation. This awareness must be coupled with collective political action. Having recognized that, as white people, we have special access to institutional power, we must use that access to demand genuine accountability and begin to co-create a truly equitable society. This is what being an ally means.  

It isn't always easy to hold institutions accountable, of course. In the case of law enforcement, according to Mother Jones, "no agency appears to track the number of police shootings or killings of unarmed victims in a systematic, comprehensive way." This, in itself, is a profound indicator of the depth of the problem. To fill this void, following in the footsteps of Ida B Wells' anti-lynching campaign, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement has issued a report documenting 275 unjustified killings of black people by police, private security, and vigilantes in 2012. As the report shows, very few of these killings resulted in the shooter(s) even being charged, let alone convicted, a fact that attests to the deep and tangled roots of white supremacy in the U.S.  

The virtual police occupation of communities of color in the U.S., along with the school to prison pipeline, and the racist mass incarceration system, is not a product of individual-level racism. It is a product of us as white people acting collectively and consistently based on a distorted idea of our racial self-interest. We may not explicitly support law enforcement tactics that result in human rights violations, but our failure to oppose policies that promise to "keep our streets safe," by being "tough on crime," constitutes our tacit support.

That probably sounds a bit harsh, but I really don't mean it as an accusation. The race discourse is rife with accusation already, whether it's white conservatives and their black allies blaming black culture, white liberals blaming other white people, or activists calling out their fellows. This all helps to create and sustain the culture of separation, which is one of the centerpieces of white culture. What is most needed is healing and reconnection, and where we need to look first (and deeply) is to white socialization. White socialization teaches us not only to see ourselves as separate individuals, but to fear each other. And it teaches us to value separateness, not only from each other, but also from the parts of ourselves that are not acceptable to the false standards of whiteness (innocence, independence, reason, culturelessness).

As white people, we need to build a new consciousness and a new sense of who we are as members of the larger human family, which begins with unlearning some of our white socialization. This is certainly challenging and deeply personal work, but it is not work we can do on our own. There is no individual credential to earn or penance to pay. There is no competition to win. There is simply the opportunity and responsibility to reawaken long dormant capacities for being together in community. Thus it is work that can only be done collectively. Indeed, the real revolution begins the moment we come together with our vulnerability, our uncertainties, our fear, and our longing.  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

When Whiteness Backfires: Isla Vista and the Hidden Cost of Privilege

Anyone who is paying attention has heard by now about Elliot Rodger's killing rampage in Isla Vista last week and about his misogynist and racist motivations. Even the corporate media is happy to talk about these aspects of the situation. As long as there are isolated bad apples (e.g. George Zimmerman, Donald Sterling, and now Rodger) to blame for racism or sexism, there is apparently no need or desire to look deeper or wider. And the corporate media certainly has no appetite for examining the culture of white supremacist hetero-patriarchy that constitutes the real source of these men's worldviews.  This analysis is showing up in the alternative media and blogosphere, so I will just add one perspective that I have not seen, which concerns the role of whiteness, as a source of privilege and an agent of tragedy.

Rodger was a white-identified male. I know he was technically bi-racial. His writings and videos, however, leave little doubt which half of his lineage he identified with and which half have he found despicable. Moreover, his whiteness formed the basis for his feelings of entitlement to the attention of white women and the homicidal resentment he felt when he saw white women hanging out with men of color. In addition, the intersection of his whiteness and his social class were decisive in shaping the way he was treated by the system. One particular incident speaks volumes about the way whiteness (mal)functioned in the weeks leading up to the tragedy.

Either a friend of Rodger or his therapist or someone from his family contacted either the police of the county mental health service because of his disturbing social media posts. Media reports about this notification are vague and inconsistent, but it is clear that the notification did take place because it prompted the police to visit Rodger's apartment on April 30th, one month before the shootings. The police spoke briefly to Rodger at his front door and then departed, having concluded that he did not meet the criteria for an involuntary mental health hold. Sheriff's officials claim that the officers, "handled the call in a professional manner consistent with state law and department policy."

Let me state, for the record, that I have no quarrel with this official account. Indeed, my critique hinges on the fact that this tragedy happened despite everyone doing what they were supposed to do. Let's begin with the offhand way Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown defended the actions of his officers. Brown said, that when the officers spoke to Rodger at his front door, "He was articulate. He was polite. He was timid." Brown did not say, nor did he need to say, why these factors were considered relevant. Their job, I assume, was to investigate the possibility that Rodger was planning to harm himself or others. What does that have to do with him being articulate, polite, and timid? What if he had been inarticulate, or worse, belligerent, or worse yet black (in which case just being on your front porch may make you suspicious)? Would any of those factors have made him seem more like a threat to himself or others? From what the Sheriff said, it seems that, simply by adhering to the white social norms that signal respectability and self-possession to white-dominated institutions like law enforcement, Rodger was able to override legitimate concerns about his mental health.

Interpersonal whiteness was not the only factor at play, however. Another way Rodger's whiteness protected/doomed him was in terms of his mental health history. Among the reasons cited by authorities for not detaining him was that he had no criminal record or history of mental health crises. But of course he did have a history, one that reflected his race and class privilege. The fact that he had access to private treatment meant that he was able to avoid leaving precisely the sort of institutional track record that would have given the police a legal basis to take more action. It is highly unlikely that a low income man of color with mental health issues could reach 22 years old without having been branded in some way by the system. When people of color are dealing with mental health challenges, school systems often respond with harsh discipline. Behaviors such as truancy and addiction are often criminalized, resulting in young people becoming fodder for the school to prison pipeline. Obviously, I'm not suggesting that the system works for youth of color. Mostly the system works for white people, but, in this case, the privileges of luxury, privacy, and autonomy that go with whiteness simply backfired, taking seven people out in the process.

Finally, we must consider how whiteness protected/doomed Rodger by allowing him to avoid having his home searched by law enforcement. Under prevailing law, the police not only did not have probable cause to seek a search warrant, they could not have confiscated his guns even if they had found them. However, anyone familiar with the way the war on drugs is waged or the stop and frisk practices of big city police departments knows that affluent white communities and low income communities of color are subjected to different standards of probable cause. While the concerns of Rodger's family and therapist about his mental health apparently did not justify searching his home or taking his weapons, in communities of color, all it takes is a tip from an anonymous informant to trigger a SWAT team raid. Indeed, police often end up breaking down the wrong doors, terrorizing and injuring innocent families based on these notoriously unreliable tips. I want to be clear, though, that this double standard is not simply about racist police forces. It is the end product of a complex set of laws and practices that has its roots, ultimately, in the politics of white privilege.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on my argument, let me just spell it out. I am not saying that the white male privilege or misogyny or racism or bad policing or the under-funded mental health system caused the Isla Vista tragedy. It was all of them plus everything else. And, at least part of what made it difficult for anyone to intervene, was the system of visible and invisible protections and privileges afforded to Rodger in virtue of his whiteness. Given that mass shootings committed by alienated, resentful, and aggrieved white men are becoming part of normal life in America, it might be time to consider whether this system, which we white people set up to protect us from scary black and brown others, can protect us from the monsters of our own creation.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Whiteness, Microaggressions, and the Threat to White Innocence

A recent article in the New York Times by Tanzina Vega entitled "Students See Many Slights as Racial ‘Microaggressions’" highlights a new movement intended to bring attention to the experiences of people of color interacting with supposedly non-racist white people. Initially, I was pleased to see the dominant media reporting on the issue of racial microaggressions, but I was quickly disappointed by Vega's attempt to offer a balanced take on this "trend." She purports to present both sides, but her superficial notion of balance, which is firmly rooted in whiteness, severely limits the article's potential to add anything useful to readers' understanding of the issue.  

The problem with this article is its unflinching commitment to the white racial frame, and specifically to its post-civil rights liberal offshoot, the diversity frame. According to the diversity frame, the relevant context for understanding microaggressions, as with all  race-related issues is difference, and specifically, difference from a largely unnamed norm of whiteness. Beginning with her implication that microaggressions are occurring as a result of "an increasingly diverse culture," to her closing with Henry Louis Gate's call for equal opportunity oppression, the overall moral picture she paints is of a world where racial differences are more or less neutral, and bear no larger historical or political significance. From the vantage point of Vega's diversity frame, it seems, microaggressions are being discussed now primarily because people from "diverse" groups are interacting with each other more frequently. There is no acknowledgement that microaggressions are actually about white people (consciously or not) perpetuating white cultural dominance.

After characterizing "microaggressions" as "the social justice word du jour" and describing the proliferation of blogs, facebook pages, academic papers, and student theater productions documenting the phenomenon,  she traces the term's popularity to Columbia psychology professor Derald W. Sue, author of an influential book on the topic. This would have been a great opportunity to get a clear articulation of the theory of microaggressions directly from the source. Unfortunately, all we get from Dr. Sue is a conjecture that the increased use of the term is due to the changing demographics of the country. The article is peppered with quotes from few individual students of color describing their experiences of being targets of microaggressions, but the author lets these stand on their own, making little or no effort to situate these experiences in the context of the theory.
Meanwhile, Vega is fairly generous in giving voice to those who are more of less skeptical of the concept. She quotes Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter, who suggests the need to distinguish truly abusive statements - like assuming that every black student on campus is an affirmative action case - from more innocent speech such as an assertion of colorblindness. Vega also cites more serious skeptics, such as Harry Stein (an author noted for his conservative views on race), who criticizes the term microaggression for exaggerating the significance of these encounters and encouraging a victim mentality. The article ends with the venerable Henry Louis Gates Jr. emphasizing that, in the interests of genuine multiculturalism, "the public airing of racial microaggressions should not be limited to minorities."   

An all too familiar feature of the white racial frame is the urge to portray reports of white racial insensitivity as exaggerated and as the cause, rather than the result, of racial tension. Vega makes no secret of her suspicion that much of the discussion of microaggressions may be a matter of "divisive hypersensitivity." This attitude is exemplified by her treatment of Dr. McWhorter's defense of white folks' professions of colorblindness. When McWhorter says that, "whites do not have the same freedom to talk about race that nonwhites do," Vega lets this statement stand unchallenged. This uncritical acceptance makes sense from within a diversity frame which recognizes difference but not power and privilege.

Illustration by Gabriel Ivan Orendain-Necochea/CSUN Daily Sundial

A writer with a critical race frame (which is what is called for here) would have pointed out that the training of whites to avoid talking about race is one of the defining features of post civil rights white supremacy. It is a primary means by which the white power structure maintains itself. Whether the scene is a family holiday, where talking about controversial topics is impolite, or a political campaign, where mentioning racism is "playing the race card," or a community college classroom, where white students are able to shutdown a conversation on race because it's making them uncomfortable, white social norms and white institutional power are very effective at silencing race talk. Moreover, the opportunity to benefit from whiteness while refusing to acknowledge racial differences is the sine qua non of white privilege. Precisely for this reason, from the standpoint of the critical race frame, white people who oppose racism actually have a moral responsibility to talk about whiteness and racism whenever possible.

Another consequence of Vega's white racial frame is her failure to offer any explanation of the theory behind the "trend." Indeed, she fundamentally misrepresents it. In their landmark paper on the topic, Dr. Sue et al. define racial microaggressions as "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color" (italics mine). The definition, which is conspicuously missing from the article, is quite explicit that the psychological impact of racial microaggressions is assumed to be independent of the intentions of the speaker. Moreover, all the literature supporting the theory emphasizes that the negative effects of microaggressions do not arise from isolated interactions, but are cumulative in nature.

No idea is immune from criticism, of course, but there is a significant difference between critique and obfuscation. Rather than challenge the idea of microaggressions on its merits, Vega leaves her readers with the mistaken impression that the discourse is about ascertaining the true intentions of a speaker in order to figure out whether a particular interaction should count as a microaggression. This is clear from the outset, when she wonders if the discussion is useful or whether it represents a "new form of divisive hypersensitivity, in which casual remarks are blown out of proportion." Whether her confusion is genuine or strategic, it comports well with her white racial frame. By concentrating on the question of intentionality, she managed to change the subject in a fairly predictable way. Rather than helping her readers understand the life experience of people of color who are routinely confronted with minor insults, indignities, and invalidations, she opted to wring her hands over the possibility that some "innocent" white people might feel unjustly accused of racism.

This article is a heartbreaking missed opportunity. It could have given Times' readers the gift of a genuine appreciation for the suffering caused by racial microaggressions and made a contribution to the healing of our society's collective racial trauma. Instead, by remaining solidly within a white racial frame, the article ends up simply re-perpetrating that trauma, while giving us white folks more fodder for our claims of innocence.