As we begin a new year, we make a list of the problems we carry along. Here are some of our domestic issues that we bring along unresolved from the year that ended: the minimum wage, immigration, police conduct, Obama care. These are not our only problems but they are important once.
You notice immediately the common element in all of these difficulties: racial conflict is important in each case. Many Americans imagine all poor people as persons of color. The minimum wage conflict affects poor people the most. Immigrants are largely nonwhite. Conflict about police conduct centers on the treatment of black people by white policeman. Obama care has to do with Obama and the opposition to his programs is racially tinged.
As we begin 2015, we encounter the old nightmare of the United States – the conflict between whites and persons of color, more specifically of African-Americans.
It is tempting to respond with some good advice to ourselves and our fellow citizens. We may admonish ourselves not to be prejudiced, not to believe stories that whites tell about Blacks that have no foundation in fact. We may remind ourselves of the signal contributions to our national culture may by African-Americans.
That sort of advice has often been repeated but it has proven useless. We are as deeply divided by racial animosity as we ever were. These common bits of advice completely misunderstand the powerful and dark forces that keep racial conflict alive.
There is nothing the matter with pre-judging persons. We cannot avoid pre-judging. When you need help clearing the leaves in your yard in the fall, and some young fellow offers to do the work for you at a reasonable price, you need to decide whether to trust him to do a decent job even though you don't know him at all. You look him over, you listen to how he talks and you decide that he is trustworthy. But that is, of course a prejudice because you don't know this person and you just go on the little bit of information you have about him, how he looks, how he talks. Perhaps you consider his clothes or the vehicle he came in. But you still prejudge him.
It is not useful, either, to admonish people not to judge others on the basis of poorly documented stories. It is totally astonishing what bizarre stories people believe when they defend their prejudice, say, against welfare recipients. The fact that some of those accounts are complete fabrications makes no difference to people who believe that every welfare recipient is a lazy cheat. No mountains of evidence will change their mind.
In racial and other conflicts, truth is not really at issue.
Racial prejudice is fueled by emotion, for instance by fear or anger. It does not have a lot to do with the facts and statistics and real histories of African-American families. It does not have a lot to do with who did what to whom. Discussing real history is pretty irrelevant to moderating racial animosities.
We need to face up to these often very deep-seated emotions. That is a difficult and large project.
Here I want to just look at two of these emotions, our fears and the anger those fears arouse.
I try to understand this better by making up a story. I imagine that a black family buys the house next to mine. My first reaction is panic. I feel threatened, I am afraid the value of my house will go down. Then I feel thoroughly ashamed of myself. I remind myself that all I know about my new neighbors is that their skin is a lot darker than mine.
I try to imagine their feelings. Are they frightened? Are they afraid for their children, remembering Emmett Till or the four young girls killed in the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church?
When I meet them, I am civil and welcoming. I try not to be excessively friendly, thereby showing how acutely I am aware of the difference in skin color between myself and them, while I'm pretending not to notice it at all, as white anti-racists, like myself, often do. Relations are uncomfortable until my new neighbors cease being the black couple next door and become the unique individuals that I know and like as my neighbors. I may also not like them very much but now they are known to me and the emotion of the first encounters subsides.
One strand in racial conflict is the fear of people we do not know. Racial conflict is fueled not by the relations between races but by my, and your unease in the world. It is easy for us to be afraid not of known threats, but of unknown persons who, we fear, are a danger to us. One source of racial conflict is our perception that the world is extremely dangerous and we are barely able, if at all, to survive in it.
Why does our world seem so precarious and threatening? White people may well feel guilty for their treatment of the descendants of African slaves. But we too have been badly treated. We have been bullied and made fun off as children. We have been neglected and abused. We have been victims of many different forms of violence. We grow up excessively aware of possible threats to our well-being, always expected to be harmed by strangers as well as by people we are close to.
The violence in our world leaves us and our children prepared to be fearful. That pervasive fearfulness fuels racial tension.
Racial conflict will remain an important part of our lives until we manage to construct a less violent society.