The Buffalo News (May 1, 2015)
It would be unfair to say that Americans do not think about racism. We do. But we do not think about it deeply, and we stop thinking about it fairly quickly. Then, days or weeks later, to our surprise, we find that we have to think about it again.
Only weeks ago, the news media obsessed over instances of hate-speech on college campuses. The deplorable racist chant sung by SAE fraternity members at Oklahoma University and the horrific nooses found on statues and in trees at the University of Mississippi and Duke University, respectively, created brief moments of outrage, which quickly passed. OU attempted to save its institutional reputation by quickly shutting down the SAE fraternity house and expelling the students involved, while Duke (and the media) fell into an eerie silence.
Before these stories aired, of course, Americans watched Ferguson, Missouri erupt into violence, and, since then, more American cities, from New York City to Baltimore have seen protests turn violent in the wake of the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers. Of course, before Ferguson, there was Los Angeles,and before that, Harlem, and so on. In light of these on-going tragedies, police departments have advocated various forms of “re-training,” while public officials, citizens, and protesters have urged genuine, constructive dialogue.
Sadly, none of these approaches, not expulsion or silence, not retraining nor protest nor dialogue, really reaches to the heart of the matter of racial violence.
The psychiatrist James Gilligan once noted that all violence is essentially about justice, which means not that all violence is just, but that perpetrators of violence act in order to rectify what they perceive to be an injustice. And violence and hatred, whether physical or psychological, can not be simply expelled, talked away, or trained out of us, so long as we, as individuals and as members of institutions, hold onto what we believe (rightly or wrongly) we deserve.
Because violence reflects a deeper psychological constellation of self-hatred, shame,and rage surrounding perceived injustices, racial violence can not be resolved by dialogue about race, or even by protests concerning race. That is, because powerful emotions are at work, the injustice being addressed often has little to do with the race or other characteristics of the victim and everything to do with the mindset of the perpetrator.
And this is perhaps the hardest lesson to swallow, for it runs counter to everything we are taught about racism and how to confront it: Racial hatred and violence are not truly functions of race. Racists hate things in themselves and in others much more deeply than they hate the color of someone’s skin. And violent individuals and organizations address themselves to perceived fears and threats much more terrifying than any stereotype applied to any particular racial or ethnic group. We can be re-educated not to hate a specific group. But if we stop hating one group, without addressing the underlying problems that generate our hatred,we will simply have to find another group to hate.
To have a meaningful dialogue about violence, racial or otherwise, we have to have a dialogue about human lives, childhoods, organizations, and generations. We have to have a dialogue about the types of violence all people are exposed to, not only those who become victims, but those who become victimizers. We have to think about the symbolic role of racial hatred in the psychological make-ups of people and organizations, and not just treat it as a thing-in-itself. When we treat racial hatred as a thing-in-itself that can be removed or talked away,then we are most likely engaged in denying that we are all at least partly hateful and potentially violent, pretending, instead, that, by taking some relatively simple measures, we can become innocent of violence and free of hate.