Well-Meaning Blacks and Whites Continue to Talk Past Each Other About Race

In dysfunctional families, one common attribute that mostpeople have makes it difficult for them to resolve their differences in aconstructive way in order to solve family problems. Each family member becomesso convinced, and can give a lot of evidence for, their own ideas about what isgoing on that they do not seem to listen at all to the other person’s point ofview.  

When the other person gives his orher point of view, family members tend to invalidate the other by merelyrestating their own point of view, as if the other person had not said anythingat all.  And rare is the dyad in a familythat considers the idea that they may bothbe right and that their views are not really incompatible at all.

Another one of the major points in my ideas about dysfunctionalfamilies is that the problems commonly seen in these families often represent a sort of microcosmof the very same conflicts seen in larger groups within their particular society.

I saw an interesting exampleof this that stems from the discussions of racism that were triggered by the recent murderof Treyvon Martin.

There was an interesting posting of two “dueling” op-ed piecesin the Memphis newspaper on March 28, 2012: one by a Black columnist, Walter E. Williams, andone by a White columnist, Frank Cerabino. Strangely, the Black columnist took the position that I have seenusually taken by Whites, and vice versa.

Frank Cerabino
The main point of Cerabino’s column was that if the roleswere reversed – if a White man was killed by a Black person who was serving on a Neighborhood Watch, then the shooter would have been arrested immediately.  The columnist even had a real life example to give that illustrated his point.  Cerabino also thoughtthat if the shooter Zimmerman had been Black and Martin White, that the shooterwould have been held without bail. The obvious implication is that society is stillfar more racist than it often claims to be.

Walter E. Williams
Williams, taking the traditionally White argument, pointsout why in our society “Black and young” has become synonymous with “crime andsuspicion.”  Furthermore, he believes that this equatingthese two is not always based on racism, but more often on our universal tendency toprofile strangers on the bases of categories that represent higher versus lowerrisks to ourselves.  EvenAfrican-American cab drivers and pizza delivery men avoid certain Blackneighborhoods, he points out, because of concerns about their safety. 

Most people are familiar with the statistics about young Blackmales that show that they represent a disproportionate share of all the peoplewho commit violent crimes, and therefore such determinations are not actuallyracist but more statistical or something like that.  And parenthetically, most of their victimsare other Black people, not Whites. “We humans are not Gods,” Williams says, “therefore, wemust often base our decisions on guesses and hunches…based on easily observedphysical characteristics…”

The justaposition of these two articles reminded me of asegment of the now defunct news magazine show Primetime Live that was broadcast twentyyears ago.  It seems like the argumentshave changed very little over that period of time.

PrimeTime Live
The segment was entitled “True Colors” and was broadcast onABC on September 26, 1991.  Documentaryfilmmakers had two men of the same age, one Black and one White, go out tosociety and apply for jobs, try to rent an apartment, and browse the aisles ofdifferent stores.  The two men had beentrained to present themselves in an identical manner.  Both were equipped with similar histories(education, employment histories, credit scores, and so forth), and bothappeared to be upper middle class.  They weredressed as one might expect the White man to be dressed, and both spoke Englishin the standard White dialect.

In some instances, they were reportedly treated the same by society,but many times this was not the case. Jobs that were “open” to the White applicant suddenly became “filled”when the Black applicant showed up just a short time later.  The Black guy was followed around by the helpin a variety of stores as if he might shoplift something at any moment – but thisdid not happen to the White guy when he came to the same store.  Potential landlords would lecture the Blackman about such things as paying the rent on time, and did not appearparticularly welcoming to him.  Again,the White man got a royal welcome and no lectures.

After the film was shown, members of a discussion group organized bythe TV show began to express very similar points to those expressed by the twocolumnists in the Memphis newspaper.  

Tellingly, neither side (and the Whites and Blacks in this case took the expectedsides) was willing to concede that the other side’s point had anyvalidity at all.  Instead of a engagingin problem-solving about what to do about this dreadful state of affairs, the discussionjust degenerated into an argument.

Now, in all of these cases, I believe that the discussants and writers involved were not overt racists, white supremacists, or black supremacists – rememberthe newspaper writers actually took the opposite positions from their televisioncounterparts.  Even Jessie Jackson once saidthat if a young black male stranger were walking behind him in somecircumstances, he would feel somewhat threatened.

So which side is right in this debate? 

Duh!! Both are.  

Subliminal andnot-so-subliminal racism is far more prevalent in White society than one sidecares to admit.  And young Black malesare on average more likely to be a significantly higher risk to a stranger than a young White counterpart.  On Primetime, the sidearguing for the former proposition (and arguing as if the other side's argument could not possibly also be true) argued that the Black man in thefilm was nicely dressed, not speaking in Black slang, and very polite – and yethe was still treated as if he might be a member of the Crips or something.  

Quite true!

In fact, considering American history, it might seem that Blacks should be more threatened by Whites than the other wayaround.  In my lifetime, TV productioncodes prohibited the depiction of financially successful and well adjusted Black people.  

And then there was theterrifying documentary on PBS recently about the “felon leasing program” thattook place in the South after Reconstruction and continued well into thetwentieth century.  Black men wereroutinely arrested on trivial or flimsy charges, convicted by all-white jurors,and then leased out as slave labor for various businesses.  Victims were treated even worse than slavesbecause, in this situation, they did not represent valuable “property.”

Even today, being African American can lead you to get a longer sentence than for a White when being convicted of the same crime.  Until very recently, sentences for crack cocaine (used more often by Blacks) were far longer than sentences for powdered cocaine (used more often by Whites).

On the other hand, as I argued in my blog post The N-Word, a significant proportion of Blacks often do,in fact, act in accordance with old White stereotypes of Black people.  The reason is that doing so had survivalvalue in more racist times – times that were not at all that long ago. Forexample, the Black comedian Chris Rock jokes about a Black motorist in the OldSouth who was shot to death at a stop sign by a White policeman - because hecould read the sign.  Unfortunately, when Blacks of today act as ifthey do not want to be educated, it reinforces the Black stereotype for Whites.

In order to solve the problems of racism for both Blacks and Whites, we all need to start trying to be empathic to all of these points of view, and validate each other whenever we can.  We need to stop being so defensive and actually listen to each other.  Stop arguing and start putting our heads together!


The information provided on the PsyWeb.com is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and his/her health professional. This information is solely for informational and educational purposes. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Neither the owners or employees of PsyWeb.com nor the author(s) of site content take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading this site. Always speak with your primary health care provider before engaging in any form of self treatment. Please see our Legal Statement for further information.

PsyWeb Poll

Are you currently taking or have you ever been prescribed anti-depressants?
Total votes: 3979