Wednesday, April 08, 2015
Is racism a treatable mental illness?
With little doubt, our city and community are in crisis. The unfortunate police officer killing of an unarmed African-American young man has challenged our basic identity and how we view ourselves. Well-intentioned and well-meaning white people are now confronting what people of color have realized and experienced for a very long time; liberal and progressive institutional racism that is almost unequal to anywhere in this country. The community’s report card on how discrepant people of color are treated by the justice and educational system has been out and available for quite some time. We are failing miserably. How can liberal confront such incredible cognitive dissonance?
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Officer-involved shooting
Allow me to offer a perspective My perspective is influenced by a very deliberate practice of empathy and compassion that challenges me as to understand all whom I encounter. The practice of radical compassion is the most important underpinning of healing to those who worked with me. That said, I cannot deny the enormous social privilege that I have as a white privileged male.
As a pre – psychologist, I recognized very early that oppression and depression are a similar phenomenon. The opposite of oppression and depression is freedom. The insidious effect of racism is the poverty of hope. When beautiful and intelligent African-American youth whom I work with cannot generate ideas for a future, something is terribly wrong. When a pregnant African-American young woman cries to me at the end of work, because she learned that she will be giving birth to a boy and all of the risks that entails, I weep, too. Or when a brilliant African-American young woman student of mine feels she has no chance for success because she talks, “ghetto,” I believe there is an inherent wrong with the country I live in. If talking “white” is the only ticket for success in the United States, something is terribly wrong.
Working with those who are depressed and those who are oppressed and self-oppressed, requires recognition that you are imprisoned. I first learned that reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. Oppressed and depressed people mistakenly blame themselves for their plight in life. Self-anger must turn outward in order to dismantle this self-hate.
While everybody in the United States was patting each other on the back because we elected an African-American, more enlightened people recognized that as long as you have a justice system that imprisons and dismantles families of color, we have done little to change the horrific effects of racism. Our educational system is a prime example; numbers do not lie. The discrepancy in achievement is painful to look at.
Oppressors and beneficiaries of an inequitable system can never bestow freedom to the oppressed. Even if they could, the “generosity” of the oppressors still have the power to be “generous” or not. That would be like a husband giving permission to his wife to go out and be with friends. That is not egalitarian.
I wondered when people would see through the fog. The police shootings of African-American young people have become the galvanizing issue that has awakened us. The fact that we do not even have a systematic way of counting those of color who were killed by law enforcement tells me that as a society, we might not really want to know. The police shootings are the tip of the proverbial iceberg and most tangible pieces of evidence that people of color knew for a long time; Blacks suffer greatly from a justice system that does not seem just. The pain is tangible. We can see the blood and the tears. The community understandably wants accountability and justice. But does anyone truly believe that justice would be served by an indictment of this police officer? Did enlightened people really think that the election of probably one of the most intelligent and thoughtful African-American men was going to change anything?
The justice system can only judge what this police officer did in the very few seconds that he thought and perceived that his life was in danger. What is not on trial is our society that perpetrates a culture of fear of African-American men. I cannot possibly answer what this individual cop would have done if Tony were white. Statistics indicate that his chances of survival might have been greater. If that is true, does it mean that this particular white police officer is a racist? Or does it mean that the “reptilian” part of his central nervous system hijacked the more reasonable part of his brain?
Are there other examples of this phenomenon? How is it that elementary school teachers, who are well-vetted to make sure that they do not have racist attitudes or thoughts, are more likely to suspend young children of color from school? How is it that for the same criminal offenses, African-American children are more likely to end up in the justice system than Caucasian children? In other words, how is it that we believe we are not racist, yet our individual and collective behaviors indicate something else?
This is the “Paradox.”
We all chuckle and roll our eyes when someone says, “I don’t have any prejudices!” I suspect we are mostly amused by their lack of self-awareness. No one goes through life not having pre-judgments. One might argue that our survival depends on it. If you see one saber tooth tiger eat your brother, it might be to your advantage to assume similar behavior from another tiger. But this thinking is rooted in the most primitive and primal part of our brain. It is the proverbial “scared little kid” inside all of us. More enlightened and self-aware human beings know this and choose not to become a servant to this irrational fear. I think this is the crux of our unconscious racist behaviors and choices. Unfortunately, it is very conceivable that Tony became a victim.
Here is what I know as a pre – psychologist and researcher of the brain: If you are unaware of what frightens you, you are more likely to act on it. Cultural diversity training explores attitudes and thoughts. What often goes unexplored are irrational fears. The inability to recognize one’s fears and allow oneself to feel vulnerable is often associated with mental health difficulties. Most human beings avoid confronting fears and the consequences can be fatal to relationships, mental and physical health. But, which demographic population seems to have the most difficulty confronting their fears and insecurities? I would suggest that older white males are the most vulnerable. My evidence? This is the demographic population that is more likely to commit suicide. Almost all killings that occur outside the home towards African-American men in the perverted and distorted defense of the “Castle Doctrine” are committed by older white men, not women. Are women culturally more aware and less frightened by their fears?
So what is the endgame? If society were indicted for the murder of Tony, as a juror, I would vote guilty. That would go a long way in confronting the real perpetrators. Who are the real perpetrators? Unfortunately, we consciously and unconsciously share the guilt of maintaining the ravages of racism.
Maybe, just maybe, we should consider the idea that racism is a mental illness. We know that racism affects our brain wiring and chemistry, causes delusional, psychotic thinking and aberrant behaviors and is rooted in pathological anxiety. Like other illnesses, we must acknowledge that it exists before we can treat it. And while we should never excuse racist behaviors and continue to hold perpetrators accountable similar to the way we hold alcoholics accountable for what they do while intoxicated, a paradigm shift might allow for a bit more hope, compassion and less fear. Conscious or unconscious irrational fears are treatable.
Imagine what life would look like if we were more aware of our fears and were less victimized by it? Who was it that said, “We have found the enemy and the enemy is us!”