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My exploration of Jona Olsson's essay, about our ways of avoiding a discussion of race in America, demonstrates some very important psychological issues that help define the circumstances we're trying to examine.

Let's admit this. Everyone is living life, dealing with the problems on their own plates, probably feeling a bit like they aren't getting what they truly deserve and likely dealing with their circumstances as best they can, with a minimum of complaint or reaction. Hunker down and get'er done.

When it comes to the topic of racism, white people really don't know anything about it. I mean, they have *some* idea - they know it's about inequality and about slavery and about how black people aren't winning enough Oscars. But they also know that white people aren't allowed to win the Miss Black America pageant, so maybe everything is a little bit unfair for everyone?

Think about this. No white person has ever actually had a racist act committed against them in the USA. And, of course, there will be a number of white people who will immediately refute that statement because they suffered an attack from a black person or persons in school or at work or at the ball game or at a bar. The attack was, we're generally told, unprovoked and focused on the fact that they, the attacked person, is white, and it was harmful and hurtful, and that kind of racism proves that this really is a two way street of hate.

And so, we are perpetually dealing with one of the most common problems of racism: not knowing the definition of racism.

Perhaps we can get a bit closer to understanding what that word means with today's topic:

11) Due Process

“Lady Justice is [color] blind.” White parents who tell their children, “The police are here to protect you. If they ever stop you, just be polite and tell the truth.” Then when a Black teen is beaten or killed by police, those same parents say, “He must have been doing something wrong, to provoke that kind of police response.”


Reality Check and Consequence

Many white people believe that the police, courts, the legal system and social services work without bias; that due process, fair trials, juries, judges, police officers and case workers have everyone’s best interest at heart, including people of color. Or at least, no less than they do for white people. This belief clouds reality. We tend to look at isolated incidents rather than the patterns of institutionalized oppression.

The legacy of institutionalized racism has left its indelible mark on the U. S. legal system. Even when individual police officers, judges or juries strive to be fair and unbiased, the system itself has been corrupted by centuries of racism. “Innocent until proven guilty” may be turned to “guilty until proven innocent” for too many people of color who enter the legal system.


Herein lies one of the clearest pieces of evidence of the "institutionalized" elements of racism that exist in our country. What are we talking about when we use the phrase "institutionalized racism?" It's the way institutions like the government, federal, state and local, police forces, college and school systems, even retail sales outlets, restaurants and other places of business treat people of different skin color differently.

The problem, as Ms. Olsson states, is that the assumption on the part of white people that police always behave exactly the same way with every citizen that crosses their path and that any time there is a deviation from that normalcy, it was created, caused or forced to happen by whatever the minority person must have done during their interaction.

Even when we have videotape proof of what happened, a "believe your own eyes" moment, when a white officer has done something that violates a minority person's Constitutional rights, there is still a strong sense coming from the white community that the police were justified in their behavior and the minority citizen did, in fact, get what was deserved for their actions.

And just as the assumption of minority citizens' actions tilts the scales of justice toward "guilty until proven innocent," so does every police officer have the advantage of a system that will do everything to prevent them from even standing trial, much less getting convicted for breach of protocol. But that's how institutionalized racism works: the agency has to be right and the minority person is clearly wrong.

Here's something important to consider. Police officers aren't drafted into the job. They voluntarily sign up to join the force. As they do, they, we presume, are aware of the benefits and dangers of the job. Then, when they pass their physical, strength and psychological tests, they go to Police Academy, where they are thoroughly trained in how to deal with all of the situations one might expect to occur on their beat, and even receive training for situations that are not likely to happen.

As they are trained and tested on their training before they can wear a badge and be officers of the law, they have a higher responsibility to act within those laws. After all, they have received training that the general public has not. They are permitted to carry a firearm so we presume their training has helped them know and understand the appropriate time to use it and when it is not correct to use it. Yet, time and again, we hear officers stating that they "emptied their revolvers" because "they felt threatened."

We understand that shooting first and finding out the facts later is not proper protocol. Yet, in cases where the victim is an unarmed black person, that is never questioned, those elements are taken at face value and the police, who have a very tough job to do, are permitted this judgment call because, well, it was a judgment call.

You see how difficult this is to explain to the family of the person killed?

The trouble with racism lies in that earlier point I made: no white person has ever actually experienced it. Yes white people have dealt with "bias attacks" and have been the victims of prejudice. But no white person has been oppressed specifically because of what color skin they have. This is a problem because there is no context, on the part of white people, to have experienced what many minorities go through on a weekly, daily, or even hourly basis.

It's because of this lack of context that white people imagine that they personally have no privilege, that they believe black people are overstepping their bounds when they protest, that they cannot fathom why, after Barack Obama had been elected President of the United States, we are still talking about racism.

In a system that criminalizes young black boys before they even get the chance to grow up (commonly referred to as the "School to Prison Pipeline"), a system which bends over backwards to find any excuse to justify a cop's devastating actions, even if it's clear the officer did the wrong thing and knew it before they acted, in a system that places more value on a white person's livelihood than on a black person's life, we have a problem.

But it returns to that point that if you have never been a victim of racism, you have no concept of what that feels like, of how that impacts you psychologically, emotionally, physically. You simply don't know how that changes your perception of the world, how it limits what you can and cannot do, how it forces you to reduce your options and squelch your dreams. If you are a white person you can't be nearly as understanding about this, as it is something you have never experienced and you will never experience. This is a language you don't speak.

And, when it comes to translation, it's difficult to find the words that could help make racism understandable for white people. Even metaphors fall short when we talk about a brilliant young job applicant who dreamed of working for a company, who showed up for an interview and was left sitting in the waiting room for hours, only to be told that the person who was supposed to discuss the position, somehow wasn't there.

A white person might state, that wasn't "racism," that was bad timing, or an unfortunate circumstance, or a coincidence. But a white person, never having experienced racism empirically, doesn't realize that when you have had a lifetime of situations similar to that, you learn to recognize it for what it actually is. That's another element of white privilege in action: the fact that white people do not fully comprehend what racism is and that they do not believe that black people experience it because white people have no template for it.

It's within that gap between hearing black people complain about racism and knowing that white people have never experienced racism that we have the Mount Everest of issues when grasping the attempt to simply have a conversation about it. How do we get over that?

Well, we need Sherpas: people who can help guide us along, pointing out the pitfalls and potential hazards we face and can warn us away from actions that might slow our climb, possibly create serious problems or potentially cause an avalanche which could kill other people also on our path or us. That's the gauntlet that Ms. Olsson, and the previously mentioned Tim Wise and Jane Elliott have chosen to take up. But, sherpas aren't going to help us if we pay them no heed. And our ascent of this mountain has been going on for a very long while.

To continue the metaphor, the end of slavery was like our arrival at the base of the mountain. The passage of the Civil Rights Act, effectively bringing an end to segregation and finally stopping Jim Crow Laws was like reaching the first base camp, but white people presumed we had made it to the top and that the climb had ended. And that different perception persists through every step we have taken up this mountain. White people assume we have finished the job when we still have so very far to go to reach the summit.

I want to take a separate moment to talk about Jane Elliott, because she does an exercise that can potentially give white people a hint at what racism is and how it feels. Ms. Elliott's "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" Experiment was first created shortly after Martin Luther King's assassination, as a way of helping her grade school students understand the underpinning of why King was an important figure, why he was killed, the concept of bias and racism, why it is wrong and how it has an impact for people on both sides, not just those we perceive as the victims of it.

The workshop runs just a few hours of time but it is a way of letting people that have no experience in being discriminated against, based solely on how they look, the blessing of having that happen for them. Through that event, white people have the opportunity to acquire some sense of what minorities in this country experience on a regular basis. Many, through this glimpse into a life experience they never had before, begin to understand the impact of racism and maybe even acquire some empathy for those that have lived underneath it all of their lives.

Due Process, just to bring it back to today's discussion, cannot happen if we always believe that a police officer can never do wrong and that a minority citizen always must have done something to deserve their fate. We are human beings. We make mistakes. We have been conditioned to believe certain things as fact. That changes how we view a situation and the people in it. It's within those biases we are viewing these issues. And if we can't even understand how those perceptions distort how we see these circumstances, our ascent to the mountaintop will be just that much more delayed.


Previous thinkposts in this series:

1. Day One - I'm Colorblind
2. Day Two - Bootstrap Theory
3. Day Three - Reverse Racism
4. Day Four - Blame The Victim
5. Day Five - The White Knight
6. Day Six - Lighten Up
7. Day Seven - Don't Blame Me
8. Day Eight - BWAME
9. Day Nine - We Have Overcome
10. Day Ten - The End Run

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