Today is MLK or Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Today we honor the Baptist minister who became one of the most visible leaders of the American Civil Rights movement. Dr. King was a powerful speaker and believer in organized, nonviolent protest to draw attention to the harmful practice of segregation caused by the Jim Crow laws in the south. He was very well known for his hopeful speeches like “I have a dream” and he could also call out the hypocrisy of White moderate ministers who were content to live with an unjust system that degraded and harmed their Black brothers and sisters.
In talking about Dr. King and what he stood for, what he hoped for, it is very easy to misunderstand each other when we use terms that we each have our own meaning for. One of the things that impresses me over and over again as I teach psychology and look at the world around me is that clear definitions are CRUCIAL for conversations about important and emotional matters to happen. So, I am here to do what I do: teach.
First, let’s start with race. The word Race refers to a group of people who have similar physical or social qualities. Physical things like texture and color of hair, skin color, and social things like religion, or social patterns like when do you move out of your parents’ house?
An important thing to note here is that race is defined by social groups. That means that as society changes, our conceptions of what makes a particular racial group will also change, even if the physical characteristics of that group of people haven’t changed. Race is not inherent to a person’s DNA. In other words, race is a completely made up thing.
Next, I want to define stereotypes: A stereotype is a set of characteristics that you believe members of a group share. We make stereotypes based on our experiences in the world (the media we consume, the experiences we have, the messages we listen to), and they help us get along without expending a lot of mental effort. For example, my stereotype of Doctors might include “plays golf.” So the next time I talk to Hale, I access my stereotype of doctors and ask him what his handicap is these days – I don’t have to spend time and effort thinking about “oh boy, what am I going to say to Hale? I don’t know him that well…what would he like to talk about?” – I simply use the stereotype to quickly and easily choose a topic of conversation. Stereotypes are not always bad.
BUT when a stereotype is full of negative character traits and ugly assumptions about a group of people, when we apply them to every member of a group, it becomes something that social psychologists call Prejudice. “A strong, unreasonable dislike of a group and its members, often coinciding with negative stereotypes.” Prejudice can be based on age, sexual orientation, religion, country of origin, job, SES, ability level, and race. When prejudice is based on a person’s perceived race, it is Racism. When we act on our Prejudice and mistreat all members of a group that is what we call discrimination.
Discrimination can be overt, such as separate water fountains and bathrooms for African Americans as in our nation’s history, harsher sentencing for people of color than for Caucasians in the legal system as in our nation’s present, laws that endorse different housing and lending regulations for White and Black people, different hiring practices, etc.
Discrimination can also be much subtler - situations we call microaggressions – such as saying things like “where are you from?” and not liking when the answer is “Rhode Island.”
“No, but where are you FROM?” - it implies that the person you are speaking to does not belong in the USA, that they are other.
“You are a credit to your race.” Is another good one. The message there is that the speaker has a prejudice toward the person’s people group and is surprised to find competence and skill in this person. ‘you’re not like them, you’re good.’
Being the recipient of frequent microaggressions has been likened to “death by a thousand tiny cuts” – microaggressions cause stress and eventually, premature aging.
Empirical research by social psychologists, sociologists, and other scientists has confirmed for us that these horrible things are alive and well in the USA today.
Many deaths of unarmed African Americans in recent years have gotten the attention of modern activists and resulted in the Black Lives Matter movement. The goal of BLM is to “intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” This movement is a response to the systemic racism and bias that leads to the disproportionate number of deaths of Black people over White people. This movement is NOT claiming, as I have seen misrepresented online, that other lives don’t matter. BLM is drawing attention to bias, prejudice, injustice and inequality that devalue Black people and standing up to them by saying, “No, actually, Black lives DO matter, and I demand justice for them.” BLM is drawing attention to a house that is on fire and asking for help putting out the flames and saving those inside. It is at best, tone deaf, and at worst, prejudice to respond by saying “but all these other houses matter too!”
If some of this news to you, it might be because of your white privilege. Peggy McIntosh, in her excellent essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” defines it as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day.” White privilege includes being given the benefit of the doubt and getting off with a warning in a routine traffic stop, but Philando Castile is shot seven times just for admitting that he had a (permitted) gun. White privilege is at work when Laura Loomer jumps a fence, marches around on private property, tries to get into someone else’s house, but then gets into a peaceful conversation with police and is let off with a warning. Trayvon Martin, however, was shot by a vigilante just for walking while wearing a hoodie. White Privilege is white people actively challenging and demanding answers from police about why there needs to be city curfew while being all but ignored by them, while a Black man in another part of town actively trying to get home to respect the curfew gets punched in the head and arrested by police.
It all fills me with such impotent rage that I pump my fist when I read Isaiah saying,
1 Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression,
2 to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!
3 What will you do on the day of punishment, in the ruin that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth?
4 Nothing remains but to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain. For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still.
Makes me say, “come quickly, Lord Jesus.” When I want to give up, and humbly get back to educating myself and doing what I can when I read this quote from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”