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Deeper into Racism

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Barack Obama’s great speech on racism this week could have gone deeper into the American psyche. But he did begin to plumb the further reaches of this social dysfunction that continues to plague us.


Obama’s speech examined America’s continuing struggle to rise above racial hostility. He denounced racial bitterness and encouraged us to move forward in harmony. He also tried to help us understand the anger from the past that his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has expressed in his sermons.


If we go deeper into the source of racism, we can make faster progress in alleviating it. Racism is a form of self-defeat and national sabotage, and it is caused by unresolved conflicts and negative emotions in the human psyche. In one respect, a racist is a person who is desperate to feel superior to others in order to cover up his emotional entanglement in the conviction of his own inferiority. That conviction of inferiority is an aspect of the racist’s dark side that typically he or she declines to understand or even to acknowledge.


This kind of an entanglement in the dark side has many variations. The power-hungry politician compulsively seeks the emotional validation that comes from feeling powerful because he or she feels unworthy or insignificant without it. In the same way, a greedy businessman can seek wealth in order to feel superior to others, just as a person who pursues sexual conquest does so for a surge of personal validation.


In the same vein, a person who can’t stomach the idea of a black man or a woman as president is someone who, because of inner entanglement in the dark side, would feel personally reduced by the experience. Similarly, a pseudo-patriot is a person who feels compelled to identify with the greatness of his nation in order to compensate for how small or insignificant he feels without this emotional connection.


Politicians can’t speak to us so frankly about our human failings because too many of us would be offended and reject their words with defensive hostility. (People disliked it when Jimmy Carter, in a much less threatening way, tried to tell us what was good for us.) However, Obama alluded to the dark side when in his speech he shined a light, as Maureen Dowd put it in The New York Times, “on that clannish place where grudges and grievances flourish.”


Racism is a negative, primitive way to bolster one’s self-image. As a psychological cover-up, it doesn’t work as well as it did in the Jim Crow era because the racist no longer has widespread social acceptance for his form of dysfunctional acting out. Racism has now become more subtle.


People hide their racism even from themselves. For instance, many people will vote against Obama for racist reasons, while doing so in “good conscience” because they have deluded themselves into believing in the objectivity of the political attacks against him. This is why Obama is particularly vulnerable to negative campaigning. It explains, for instance, why so many are willing to go on believing that Obama is a Muslim.


Disqualifying a candidate on the basis of race or gender is a symptom of our dark side. Even though this negativity or dark side can be unconscious, we are ultimately responsible for it if we want to consider ourselves full-fledged human beings. When we acknowledge our dark side through honest or humble contemplation, we can put it aside, thereby enabling us to perceive the political candidates more objectively and to act in the spirit of what’s good for America.


These impulses that radiate from our dark side are just as strong as our sex drive and just as able to screw up our lives. To sense the power of these impulses, read The March of Folly, a history of national self-defeat by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Barbara Tuchman. More awareness of our dark side would help us to avoid acting out the ultimate self-defeat of denying global warming.

The dark side is a kind of inner tyranny and we need to rebel against it. The greatest freedom is freedom from our dark side.

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Peter Michaelson is an author, blogger, and psychotherapist in Plymouth, MI. He believes that better understanding of depth psychology reduces the fear, passivity, and denial of citizens, making us more capable of maintaining and growing our (more...)
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