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What Racism does to White People

By       Message David Weiner     Permalink
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Racism in the United States no longer involves fat sheriffs spewing prejudice at young black people trying to enter college, black maids sitting in the wrong places on buses, or black workers attempting to eat at white-only lunch counters. Today, it goes about its business quietly and in the shadows. Racism continues to damage communities of color but it damages the dominant white community as well. It renders our society more vulnerable to fascism


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Since Gordon Allport's ground breaking 1954 study, The Nature of Prejudice, psychologists acknowledge that racism harms those who benefit from it as surely as those it disenfranchises. White people receive unearned and undeserved benefits at the expense of their peers of color. They are not asked if they want these benefits and lack the power to reject them. Some white people welcome a game rigged on their behalf but most, surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center tell us, do not. People crave security but they also prefer to earn their status in society. Few people, of any color, wish to see themselves as Cinderella's sisters. In 2002, Alvin F. Poussaint, Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry, noted that while the "American Psychiatric Association has never officially recognized extreme racism (as opposed to ordinary prejudice) as a mental health problem, although the issue was raised more than 30 years ago...". This issue remains on the table and consistently comes up for discussion at meetings. He is among a growing contingent who views extreme racism-as-pathology, akin to a delusional disorder, to be a strong hypothesis.

If so, how deep and widespread might this pathology be? Does it still prevail? Or, like a disease that once ravaged a population, has it mostly run its course, leaving devastation in its wake? Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson's impressive body of empirical research suggests this to be the case. Job market changes combined with the effects of discrimination in the past, and "benign neglect" in the present, has created a deep well that people cannot climb out of. The forces that fought for civil rights in the past assume their efforts resulting in programs such as Head Start and Affirmative Action to have been sufficient, and now turn their attention to other matters.

Critical Race Theorists disagree. This group, established in the 1970s by Derrick Bell, another Harvard scholar, conclude that little has changed since Oliver Cox and WEB DuBois critiqued early 1900s racism. They perceived it to be a Machiavellian device employed by the nation's Power Elite -- a segment of that class of U.S. citizens possessing great wealth and traditional elite status -- to divide the nation's masses. Their goal being to set ordinary citizens in conflict with one another, undermining efforts to build organization juxtaposed to the Ruling Class. Marginalized at the time, the works of these and other scholars skeptical of the benevolence of American capitalism, now rank among the most valued in the field.

In Silent Covenants, Bell's recently published analysis of the context and consequences of the famous civil rights case, Brown vs the Board of Education, he notes that "from the nation's beginnings, policymakers have been willing to sacrifice even blacks' basic entitlements of freedom and justice as a kind of political catalyst that enables whites to reach compromises that resolve differing and potentially damaging economic and political differences. " In fact, "policymakers recognize and act to remedy racial injustices when, and only when, they perceive that such action will benefit the nation's interests without significantly diminishing whites' sense of entitlement." Landmark twentieth century works as Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, Lawrence Goodwyn's The Populist Moment, C. Van Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow, and David Roediger' 2005 study, Working Toward Whiteness, support this argument.

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Simply stated, it would appear that white people have been offered supremacy among peasants in exchange for their passivity. Since briefly during late 1800s Populism, no social movement has truly challenged this trend. Wilson agrees with Bell et. al. that the political right continues to support racism, and the Left ignores it. This writer's ten year survey of articles in several journals on the left, including the prestigious Z Magazine, turned up little focus upon racial disenfranchisement. Whites feeling the need to act more selfishly on their own behalf received more attention. Prominent progressive and radical activists inform me that their efforts to recruit economically threatened whites might well be compromised should the Left adopt racism as a cutting edge issue.


People's awareness of damaging racial stratification begins early. In 1939 and 1940 psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark found that little girls of all colors preferred to play with white dolls. In 2005, Kiri Davis replicated these studies, with the same results. In her documentary A Girl Like Me, black dolls were universally perceived to be ugly; white dolls, pretty. My daughter, trained in social work, has worked with racially and economically diverse urban children for nearly two decades. She and her co-workers consistently find that children from a very young perceive color to be very relevant in determining people's status in society. Some take this perception in stride, but most feel baffled by it, and often anxious regardless of their color. In his classic study, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, John Dollard described how during the 1940s young white males were not merely invited, they were required to participate in the color stratification of their community. Risking ostracism and worse if they refused. Over the last half century my own work with schools, communities and businesses around issues of discrimination has lead me to conclude that less change has occurred than the media reflect. In many cases, expressions of white solidarity in racism have become more subtle and more sophisticated, but no less committed than in the past...

David Roediger and others (see Richard Delgado's 1997 book, Critical White Studies) describe how whiteness is sold in America. Whites are encouraged to ignore real indicators of their status and to view their color-class membership as of paramount importance. Growing up I learned from my peers and teachers that as a white person I owned the right to limitless social mobility. If I fared better than dark skinned neighbors and classmates it was because I deserved to. Unlike most of my peers, I had parents who pointed out that this was a two-pronged lie. First, white people were highly differentiated as regarded their access to social mobility. Second, white people were allowed to bully people of color under controlled conditions, which had nothing to do with anything deserved. When I mentioned the confusion I was feeling to my best friends, they refused to discuss it. They let me know, in fact, that I was skating on very thin ice by even bringing up the topic.

Looking back, I realize that my peers and I were invited by community leaders, both sacred and secular, to exercise a simple "sleight of mind,:" to believe, without regard to evidence, that those downgraded and placed below us in the pecking order fully deserved this fate. No injustice was involved, hence we were not complicit in anything disreputable. If black people, or brown for that matter, did poorly it was because of bad attitude, poor parenting, and cultural degeneracy. Evidence that whites with bad attitudes, poor parenting and terrible cultural role models tended to do just fine, was irrelevant.

Not so long ago, a group of white peers, many proud to be called "liberal," to a man refused to acknowledge my proposition that prison violence is less likely orchestrated by powerless black prisoners than by the powerful officials who run prisons: white wardens, obedient to white mayors and governors, controlled by white elites. Nor would they consider that crime infested black communities might well be ruled by thugs kept in business by police and FBI. I assumed this to be mainly a function of their lack of exposure to sources illuminating how white forces act to insure black inadequacy: popular movies such as the film Boys in the Hood, or documentaries such as Mario Van Peebles 1995 Panther, or surveys such as Tara Herivel and Paul Wright's 2003 collection of studies and essays, Prison Nation, or the archives of journals such as the Black Agenda Report and Black Commentator Imagine my surprise at how their perceptions shifted dramatically as the evening wore on. As alcohol flowed, one after another indicated at length how well and how long they had perceived exactly what these sources reveal.

When sober, facts have little relevance for people whose need to believe in the inadequacy of others is rooted in their own insecurity. This was certainly the case regarding my teenage peer group. We desperately clung to our "right" to see ourselves as society's potential movers and shakers rather than small-fry allowed to act as bullies backed by people with real power. We blotted out awareness of ourselves as parties to, if not designers of a system of cruel repression. To have done otherwise would have placed us at odds with principles of morality and ethics we wanted to believe defined us. Some of us have broken this pattern, but many, including some who consider themselves to be politically progressive, have not. This fact always baffled me, but finally its root cause seems clear.

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Relinquishing racism requires acknowledging one's failure to declare independence of a process that denigrates oneself as an individual. In Escape From Freedom, social-psychiatrist Erich Fromm, a colleague of Allport, built upon Theodore Adorno's studies of authoritarianism to provide the insight that this may be the most damaging effect of all. The "main theme of this book" Fromm states, is that man, "the more he becomes an 'individual,' has no choice but to unite himself with the world in the spontaneity of love and productive work or else to seek a kind of security by such ties with the world as destroy his freedom and the integrity of his individual self." Kicking racism, in short, is no less difficult than kicking any addiction. And like any other addiction, Fromm implies, racism should be regarded as a form of illness.

Adorno and Fromm found the pathology of authoritarianism, with racism one of its core components, to be powerful and complex. It renders its proletarian benefactors passive and weak, ready to coalesce into angry or obedient mobs but unable to pursue the goals of a self-actualized citizenry. "The loss of the self has increased the necessity to conform," Fromm tells us , "for it results in a profound doubt of one's own identity." This terrible alienation from self he calls the "despair of the human automaton," which he finds to be "fertile soil of the political purposes of Fascism".

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Since receiving his doctorate in sociology in 1968, David Weiner has worked as an educator, community organizer, corporate recruiter and trainer and management consultant. The first two of these pursuits have paid the least and been the most (more...)

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