Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Recentering White Racism in How We Discuss 'The Psychology of Hate'

How do individuals and groups rationalize discrimination and hatred? 

Salon's new essay "The Psychology of Hate"--which is actually an excerpt from the brilliant Nicholas Epley's book Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want--offers some preliminary sketches of how those processes take place.

To point. The following example details how American law constructed various categories and types of human beings, where some had legal rights, and others were denied them:
Carrying his son’s bones in a bag clutched to his chest, Standing Bear and twenty-seven others began their return in the dead of winter. Word spread of the group’s travel as they approached the Omaha Indian reservation, midway through their journey. The Omahas welcomed them with open arms, but U.S. officials welcomed them with open handcuffs. General George Crook was ordered by government officials to return the beleaguered Poncas to the Indian Territory.

Crook couldn’t bear the thought. “I’ve been forced many times by orders from Washington to do most inhuman things in dealings with the Indians,” he said, “but now I’m ordered to do a more cruel thing than ever before.” Crook was an honorable man who could no more disobey direct orders than he could fly, so instead he stalled, encouraging a newspaper editor from Omaha to enlist lawyers who would then sue General Crook (as the U.S. government’s representative) on Standing Bear’s behalf. The suit? To have the U.S. government recognize Standing Bear as a person, as a human being...

Standing Bear was a man intelligent enough to lead his tribe along a six-hundred-mile journey in the dead of winter and back again, a man who felt love so deeply that he carried his son’s bones around his neck to fulfill a promise. Yet he found himself pleading with people from far-off places who had failed almost completely to see his mind and instead viewed him as a piece of mindless property. Facing those unable to recognize a sentient mind before their eyes, Standing Bear had been forced to show his to them.
Salon's feature on Mindwise has accomplished its goal: I want to buy the book because it appears to be a compelling and important text that offers readers some keen insights on the worst aspects of human nature. 

However, the Psychology of Hate does not contain any of the following words: racism, race, ethnocentrism, whiteness, or white supremacy. 

Racism is a modern invention which legitimated Colonialism and Imperialism while providing the philosophical, ethical, moral, religious, economic, political, and social framework for the various types of "othering" which Nicholas Epley's excerpted piece describes with such skill. 

Thus, Psychology of Hate's omission of such a basic concept as "racism" is glaring and odd.

Many things change from the draft to the final work. And the final book most likely contains a thorough working through of how race and racism are central to how arbitrary categories of human difference based on skin color or other perceived differences are made salient and real by society and individuals. 

Nevertheless, we are left to engage the work as offered on Salon for what it is.

One of the major challenges in talking about race in the post civil rights era is how many white folks, and some people of color, have internalized a color blind racial frame that limits and blinds our ability to deal with white supremacy as one of the dominant social facts in American life. We talk around race but do not explicitly engage it. In the most absurd examples, identifying and challenging white racism and white supremacy is taken to be more offensive than the moral and ethically unjust outcomes and processes that such ideologies sustain.

Psychology of Hate contains several moments where the omission of race is distracting. 

But perhaps that is a function which results from the particular challenge of writing about the psychology of hate in a post racial age, a moment when the consensus bargain is one where all human beings must be equally implicated--as opposed to risking how a mention of white racism as a specific and real fact may cause upset for some white readers.

Some examples from Psychology of Hate.

On pain:
Even doctors—those whose business is to treat others humanely— can remain disengaged from the minds of their patients, particularly when those patients are easily seen as different from the doctors themselves. Until the early 1990s, for instance, it was routine practice for infants to undergo surgery without anesthesia. Why? Because at the time, doctors did not believe that infants were able to experience pain, a fundamental capacity of the human mind. “How often we used to be reassured by more senior physicians that newborn infants cannot feel pain,” Dr. Mary Ellen Avery writes in the opening of “Pain in Neonates".
Research has demonstrated that doctors and other caregivers consistently under-estimate how blacks feel and experience pain. Research has also documented how blacks and Latinos are given less pain medication than whites. African-American children are made to suffer by doctors who are either unable or unwilling to sense the former's pain. 

American medicine has quite accurately been described as a type of "Medical Apartheid" in which people of color (and the poor) have been subjected to experiments, wanton cruelty under the guise of "helping", and receive consistently worse quality medical care than whites.

Of people "like us and them":
Some videos showed people getting poked in the foot, others in the hand, and others in the lips. These are painful to watch, I promise, at least if you’re not a physician. Nonphysicians who watched these videos had the same reaction I do, with the neural regions that are active when actually experiencing physical pain first-hand also being active when watching other people experiencing pain. It quite literally hurts to watch someone else being hurt. The physicians, however, showed virtually no response in these physical pain regions at all. Instead, the physicians showed activity in a very different part of the brain, most notably a relatively small spot in their medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). This spot is located about one inch above and behind the inside part of your eyebrows, on each side of your brain. For the good of your social life, try not to get injured there.
This neural activity is important because it tells us something critical about how people think about one another. Those who are close to us are considered mindful human beings, “like me.” As people become more and more different from us, or more distant from our immediate social networks, they become less and less likely to engage our MPFC. When we don’t engage this region, others appear relatively mindless, something less than fully human.
Research has demonstrated that people feel more sympathy for in-group members suffering pain than out-group members. Other work has found that African-Americans show more empathy for members of their own racial group who are in distress than do whites in a parallel situation.

In one of the most disturbing experiments for what it suggests about inter-group empathy and hate, there is evidence that white people's brains, especially those who measure high in "subtle racism", quite literally do not "see" non-whites.

Regarding how an empathy gap can impact public policy:
You don’t need to look deep into a person’s brain to see the consequences of failing to engage your MPFC. You can hear it in the impressions people share about the minds of others. In calling for welfare reform in 2010, for instance, South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, André Bauer, likened the poor to “stray animals” whose government assistance should be curtailed. “You know why?” he said. “Because they breed. . . . They will reproduce, especially ones who don’t think much further than that. . . . They don’t know any better.” Bauer’s sixth sense appears to have been disengaged, as is true for many people when they think about the poor, the homeless, the most disadvantaged and distant of social groups. Distance—a sense of dissimilarity, of difference, of otherness—can keep your MPFC uninvolved, leaving you to think about other human beings as something less than fully human.
Race and gender are central to how the poverty discourse in the post civil rights era has been framed by conservatives and the mainstream news media. In the present, the Right-wing's effort to enlist the support of the white working class to kill the "useless eaters" is almost wholly dependent on White identity politics and a belief--contrary to the facts--that people of color are siphoning off the "(white) American community's resources."

The most disadvantaged and distant of social groups is not an empty category. It has a history which is dominated by the color line.

Racism and white supremacy are central to Epley's claims in the Psychology of Hate. One of the biggest white lies in post racial America--and its accompanying Age of Austerity--is that we no longer need to discuss how racism and white supremacy structure life chances. This limits the public discourse for fear of hurting white folks' feelings and providing an easy target for protest and upset by the white conservatives.

Racism, hate, bigotry, and prejudice are acts committed by one group of people towards another where individuals are impacted--often lethally--by their perceived membership in, or distance from, a given community. 

In the United States and the West hate was not universal. Nor, were the crimes legitimated by it. 

White on black and brown racial violence has been the norm for the modern age. 

True progress will come from owning that fact as opposed to hiding from it because of some facile logic which suggests that "racism" is a universal human sin.


Myshkin the Idiot said...

Wow, what a post. Thanks for sharing more about those studies, I have read bits of them, but didn't realize how deep that stuff is. Incredible.

More about Standing Bear, the Ponca, and what that trial meant:

Standing Bear's trial was for Standing Bear alone. He wanted permission to bury his sons bones in a place off the reservation and basically needed permission to leave. When the case came back and he was granted that permission, most of the other Ponca felt they were perhaps granted that same right.

Big Snake, brother of Standing Bear, decided to test this new court case by going to a neighboring Cheyenne reservation against the wishes of his peers. The agents of the Ponca reservation did not like this development. Indians could not be trusted to just come and go as they pleased, especially communicating with other nations.

Hairy Bear was in the agents office with Big Snake when he was being arrested, he recounts what happened:

"The officer told Big Snake to come along, to get up and come. Big Snake would not get up and told the officer he wanted him to tell him what he had done. He said he had killed no one, stolen no horses, and that he had done nothing wrong. After Big Snake spoke, the officer spoke to the agent, and then told Big Snake he had tried to kill two men, and he had been pretty mean.

"Big Snake denied it.

"The agent then told him he had better go, and would learn about it down there. Big Snake said he did nothing wrong and that he would die before he would go. I then went up to Big Snake and told him this man was not going to arrest him for nothing, and that he had better go along, and that perhaps he could come back alright; I coaxed him all I could to get him to go; told him that he had a wife and children and to remember them and not get killed. Big Snake then got up and told me that he did not want to go, and that if they wanted to kill him, they could do it, right there. Big Snake was very cool.

"Then the officer told Big Snake to get up and told him that if he did not go, there might something happen. He said there was no use talking; I came to arrest you, and want you to go. The officer went for the handcuffs, which a soldier had, and brought them in. The officer and a soldier then tried to put them on, but Big Snake pushed them both away. Then the officer spoke to the soldiers and four of them tried to put them on, but Big Snake pushed them all off. One soldier, who had stripes on his arms, also tried to put them on, but Big Snake pushed them all off. They tried several times, all of them, to get hold of Big Snake and hold him. Big Snake was sitting down, when six soldiers got a hold of him. He raised up and threw them all off.

"Just then, one of the soldiers who was in front of him, struck Big Snake in the face with his gun, another struck him alongside the head with the barrel of his gun. It knocked him back to the wall. He straightened up again. The blood was running down his face.

"I saw the gun was pointed at him and was scare, and did not want to see him killed. So I turned away. Then the gun was fired, and Big Snake fell down dead on the floor."

weird beard said...

I get the feeling at times that we are conditioned to be "walking on eggshells" when it comes to discussing racism. It is like an abusive family member is in the household and everyone has to be so careful not to upset their delicate sensibilities and draw their ire. Perhaps sometimes we carefully engage in dialog in an attempt to avoid triggering white guilt. People seem to respond differently to white guilt. 1. some get small, have a pity party and make the conversation all about them, effectively de-railing the opportunity for continued racial dialog. 2. some get defensive and start deflecting the blame around with "everyone's a racist" tropes and pointing fingers to get their fragile psyche out of the spotlight for a moment, effectively derailing the opportunity for continued racial dialog. 3. some engage in trying to "own their privilege" in order to assuage their white guilt. After they say the magic words that they own and acknowledge their white privilege they are effectively done in their work as a social justice advocate because their only true motivator is to make their white self feel better. They will never do a damn thing for people of color, because they don't care about people of color, only patting themselves on the back for being so progressive minded. In all of these cases, when someone is motivated by white guilt it doesn't turn out well. So we avoid saying provocative things in an attempt to avoid triggering white guilt, because its a dead end. The minute you begin a frank, straightforward, honest dialog is the minute you get labeled the "angry black man/woman" and get dismissed because the white racial framework thinks you need to go "deal with your own deep seated anger issues" before being allowed to be considered legit in their eyes. (aka you will never be considered legit until you molly coddle them and tell them what they want to hear; aka become a black conservative).The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. So then you come across articles like this that are milk toast and tip toe around provocation. Is this an effective strategy to get the message across without the dead-end of white guilt? Slather the message in mayonnaise so it slides easy down the white throat? I don't like it, but I support the continued effort.

chauncey devega said...

You know my feelings about liberal racism. There are some sincere folks who have been there since the beginning in terms of seeing anti-racism as a human rights issue. But, when the public norm shifts to colorblindness and then in the post civil rights moment a bargain is made that "anyone can be racist" then reality is turned on its head.

As you smartly suggested white guilt is just a deflection to maintain privilege and recenter whiteness in the conversation. The privileged off all types do this. Race is just the most obvious and in many ways noxious.

chauncey devega said...

I want to learn more about him. I am always surprised by how willfully ignorant most people are of the crimes committed against First Nations peoples. I am also surprised by how students' eyes often glaze over with denial and shock when I tell them that America is a white man's country by law and they are living in a moment that is an aberration.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

American Indian history is amazing.. it really is quite a lesson. The Ponca lost their lands in the aftermath of the Sioux Wars of the Great Plains. They were not war parties for either side, rather trade partners with the United States, however their homelands were written off in the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the peace treaty between the US and the Sioux. Some bureaucratic fiat destined them for ruin.

The land set aside for them was unusable so they refused to move, the US used force to move them from Nebraska to Oklahoma. That's where Standing Bear's story begins with his march to bury his son back in Nebraska.

RPM said...

I unfortunately have to agree with everything weird beard posted. Depressing as it is, pretty much every white person I ever spoke to falls into one of the categories they listed. More so with the second. The "everyone is a racist" bullshit is the lamest defense. It's probably why it's always the default one. After spending 7 years in a very conservative religious school I was quite happy to be going to a "liberal" high school in the suburbs. I learned very quickly that when it comes to having money no one is liberal, just center right. Discussions of race made them uncomfortable and none more so than when you brought up Native Americans. It was always "I didn't do that to them so why should have to pay!" Or "They have casinos now. And they don't even pay taxes!"
Systematic genocide and impoverishment and the best you could hope for was an acknowledgment of white guilt. Still they didn't want to do anything about their environment or poverty and alcoholism issues Natives faced now. Typical don't really give a damn but want you to think I do response. Europeans aren't any better, I learned years later. Always quick to point out American racism and never see their own even though the incommon factor was the perpetrators race.
I have cleared rooms taking to people in other countries about colonialism and slavery. They will always try to make excuses for their ancestors rape, murder and enslavement. Apologists for the indefensible always disgust me. The wealth of Europe, Oceania, and North America came from slavery, genocide and oppression. And they continue those actions to this day. I find that people who don't care about the crimes of the past, honestly couldn't care less about the crimes of the present either. The everyone is a racist argument would hold more weight if Africans and Ingenious Americans sailed oceans to enslave Europeans or even greet them in fear and disgust when they first laid eyes on them. We know from history that wasn't the case. Even in mass murdering, pedophile Christopher Columbus's diary he wrote how the Natives he encountered were generous, unafraid and compassionate to complete strangers. And yet white people nowadays can't even be that to the people they fucked over. They take all of their fears, ugliness, and savagery and project it continuously on the people they oppress whether they believe they are or not. If you want to deal with white guilt than do something about it. Admit your complacency in oppression and work your ass off to change it. I'm sick of the "that's the way it is and will always be" crap people spout. Apathy isn't a solution to guilt.
I have been reading you for a year or so Chauncey and this is my first time commenting. Just wanted to say keep up the good work. Always an insightful time reading your work.

chauncey devega said...

How kind of you to comment. Tom's Dispatch had a great piece about slavery as the center of modern economic development. I am going to share some of it next week. Worth tracking down if can find it.

I have a question. Why do you think some folks can own their privilege and the randomness of birth and others get so upset and defensive over it. I am no Saint or social justice warrior type. I have many flaws. I continue to struggle against my own misogynistic tendencies for example. I am privileged in this society because I am heterosexual and a man. I don't feel guilty or defensive because of that however. We have to own our group position, opportunities, and unfair advantages. When I talk to students about privilege and power I tell them that by the definition I live by and apply that I am a "sexist" to the degree I am complicit with sexism. I am homophobic to the degree I am complicit with the unequal treatment of gays and lesbians and transgender as well as trans folks.

Some folks are in enthusiastic agreement and feel liberated to hear someone tell them that. Others are pissed, angry, embarrassed, rageful. Why is that?

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I definitely agree with both you and weird beard about the many ways white people deflect and absolve themselves of the responsibility of engaging in and supporting positive conversations on race in America.

Chauncey had mentioned the false empathy many people use to absolve themselves from getting deeper into the conversation and supporting the movements of today.

I have never, well, maybe once, but I'm not sure if they were a white person or a person of color, have never been told to check myself personally. I do try to give people of color space in places they have clearly said are solely for them to work in, but no one has ever told me that I need to leave an online chat room. I think there are two reasons for this, first because I do intentionally stay away from commenting in places that I don't think it is necessary. Second, I think because as a white man it would just be a futile effort on their part to challenge me, so I am ignored or there is a blanket statement made reminding people whether a certain space is for POC only.

I've always thought white guilt was a useless canard. If all you get from thinking about race in America and across the globe is some phony guilt, then what are you doing. I have felt guilty about personal prejudices I have internalized and acted upon, those are real and it is definitely my place to understand and work toward not committing the same mistakes.

As for moving beyond the 'owning' of my white male hetero cis privileges, as an unemployed disabled person I am at a loss of how to go about it. I learn a lot from Chauncey and many other blogs from people of color, but beyond that, engaging with white people in my life is generally futile, just being an aware white man isn't really enough. I thank Chauncey for welcoming my voice to his space, but from what I have read, people of color are far better at expressing their experiences and dreams for the future than I am at interpreting and expressing them myself.

kokanee said...

CDV— This was a hell of an article. I've gone through all the linked articles too. It's taken me some time. It was shocking but not surprising to read that white people don't "see" POC. That has to be a pathology in itself.

As MLK said:
"It may be true that the law
cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I
think that's pretty important."

Stephen Kearse said...

I'm definitely going to check out this book.