Racism is not a simple concept


(re: “White people are victims of racism, too,” Nov. 25)

Alvin Gordon raises the question of the murder of Black children by their peers, although he seems mainly interested in using this to attack Black organizations while ignoring the myriad groups that work to prevent such violence.

Their relative absence, due to the coronavirus pandemic — and the stress of being cooped up during it — play a large role in recent upsurges in crime.

I have had my tussles with Alvin Gordon in these pages. However, rather than contest his attacks on all things Black, I would like to address — from a very different perspective — the serious question of Black-on-Black crime that he raises.

We on the left have tended to shy away from looking at the emotional toll racism takes on the lives of Black people for fear that we will be “blaming the victim,” a rather strange conclusion, which implies Blacks have not been psychically wounded by traumatic experiences like the rest of us are.

The issue is not one of blame. It is about the painful consequences of painful realities. This denial of psychic wounds leaves most white people who are aware of the reality of Black-on-Black violence with no explanation as to why this is happening. Therefore, the only conclusion left is that there must be something innately wrong with “those people,” ironically increasing white racism.

As I see it, there are three pillars that maintain American racism:

• Institutional or systemic factors, built up over 400 years and continuing in health, education, wealth accumulation, political capital, and criminal justice.

• Ongoing white prejudice and bias — conscious and unconscious/implicit — telling Black people they are “lesser” in a wide variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

• The trans-generational emotional impact of the first two factors.

Given limited space, I will focus on the last point as it most immediately impacts issues of Black violence, but it can only be understood against that background of the first two factors.

Racism has taken a heavy toll on the psyche of Black people, with wounds being passed on via what psychoanalyst Maurice Apprey called “trans-generational haunting.” Messages that “you” are bad, inferior, and less-than-fully human — coming from the past and the present — are internalized. They are then — unconsciously and tragically — often projected by parents on the very children they love.

This parental impact on the developing child mixes with that child’s ongoing daily dehumanizing experiences, about which whites are often oblivious. Working as a psychologist with Black parents regarding their children, I often heard phrases like “he’s hard-headed” (i.e., bad), “he thinks he’s special” (aren’t our children special?), “she wants to do what she wants to do” (obedience trumps autonomy, an adaptation to generations of white domination and Black fear).

Given these realities, Black children growing up frequently have to deal with their own anger over those many affronts to dignity and self-respect — a normal human response. It is not surprising that this, at times, spills over into destructive acts. Thus, the higher percentage of Black-on-Black murder than white-on-white murder.

(For the record, a higher percentage of whites are killed by their fellow whites than by Blacks, even when correcting for the size of the respective populations.)

While the psychic pain of growing up Black is often ignored — even by my fellow progressives — there are exceptions. Two Black psychiatrists — Dr. William Grier and Dr. Price Cobbs — wrote an insightful book, “Black Rage,” first published in 1968.

James Baldwin, in his novel of essays, lays bare the pain of growing up Black in this country. In a 1961 interview, he said “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time — and in one’s work. And part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you, and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference — indifference of most white people in this country and their ignorance.”

(In other contexts, Baldwin spoke of the need to deal with that anger in order to not be destroyed by it, via what he called “radical love.” A will to see the human in all of us.)

Cornell West, in 1991, wrote an essay you can find online — “Nihilism in Black America,” in which he speaks of the “despair and dread that now flood the streets of America.” Yes, things have improved since the ‘90s — crime and violence is down — but the underlying despair still festers.

But what more directly leads to pulling the trigger — literally as well as metaphorically? It revolves simply around the need for respect: The need to feel a sense of one’s dignity, and to avoid feelings of humiliation. Most murders in Black communities stem from feelings of being disrespected — usually by peers — which, perversely, can be momentarily assuaged by shooting a gun — readily available thanks to our Second Amendment crowd.

In my opinion, the need to feel a sense of one’s own dignity — often mixed in with maintaining or retaining social status — is the most ignored of human needs. This need, when unmet, can lead to terrible things. For example, the rise of Hitler after the “humility” of reparations in depression-ravaged Germany following defeat in World War I.

It is a major factor in the support for Donald Trump amongst non-college, working-class whites who feel disrespected — rightly or wrongly — by educated so-called “coastal elites,” and who then compensate by looking down on others — Blacks, immigrants, Muslims, etc. — in a perverse attempt to restore a sense of dignity. As Nelson Mandela put it, “There is nothing more dangerous than one who has been humiliated.”

Until Black Americans feel they are as respected as much as white Americans — by the law, by institutions, and by their fellow Americans — there will be destructive actions to compensate. That doesn’t mean we should accept or excuse violence, “defund” the police, think of all whites as racist, or ignore Black crime (or the need for safety in Black communities). But it does mean we need to address the fruits of what began more than 400 years ago.

How we deal with that will play a large role in how we evolve as a country.

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Peter Wolf,