Race in the Mind of America: Breaking the Vicious Circle Between Blacks and Whitesby Paul L. Wachtel, L. Wachtel Paul
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Internationally recognized psychologist Paul L. Wachtel sheds new light on the psychological foundations of our nation's racial impasse and applies his pathbreaking "vicious circle" approach to help resolve it. This timely and fascinating analysis shows how the ways we attempt to cope with racial tensions and inequalities often lead to the perpetuation of our difficulties rather than their resolution. Understanding the ironies that characterize contemporary race relations is the first step toward extricating our nation from the vicious circle.
Both controversial and healing, Race in the Mind of America challenges the orthodoxies that shape black and white opinion and liberal and conservative policies while sensitively exploring the way the world looks to both sides and why it looks that way. Wachtel probes the daily experiences of blacks and whites, shedding new light on how individual experiences and larger social, historical and economic forces continually re-create each other. In illustrating how blacks and whites get caught in vicious circles that sustain the very behaviors and attitudes they wish would change, Wachtel also points toward the concrete solutions to our seemingly enduring dilemmas and shows how to move beyond the adversarial rhetoric that divides us.
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The Ironic Dynamics of Race
Blacks and whites in America are partners in a complex and fateful dance. It is a dance that can boast little grace and brings little pleasure, but it is performed with such perverse and practiced regularity that it is, by now, almost impossible to say who leads and who follows. Mostly without awareness, we each issue the cues that lead our partners across the racial divide to perform their roles and in turn to transmit to us the cues that again elicit ours. In reproducing the same tragic pas de deux over and over, we are caught in a vicious circle of vast proportions. A crucial element in that circle is our very failure to recognize that it is a circle, that we are all implicated in perpetuating it.
The visions that blacks and whites hold of each other are befogged with stereotypes, and the explanations offered for the persisting inequalities and racial tensions that plague us are soaked in "either-or" and "us-them" thinking. In one prevalent view, we are a racist society in which African Americans are systematically prevented from succeeding and even those who seemingly have made it continue to encounter prejudice, suspicion, and a host of obstacles to their full and free participation in the life of our society. In another, that first view is seen as an "excuse," as a crippling attitude that prevents African Americans from taking advantage of the many opportunities that have become available in recent decades. In this view, it is largely their own behavior and attitudes that now prevent blacks fromadvancing as successive waves of poor and disadvantaged immigrant groups have done throughout our history.
To be sure, there are moderate and nuanced versions of both positions, which at least potentially open the door to greater understanding and cooperation. Many who see continuing racism as the chief obstacle to black advancement do acknowledge the progress we have made in recent decades. They dissent from those who view our society as "irredeemably" racist and who can see whites only as oppressors, but nonetheless feel a barely contained rage at what they experience as almost daily affronts to their dignity and at the inability of most whites to appreciate their pain or acknowledge the degree to which racism, in subtle and not so subtle forms, persists in our society.
Correspondingly, many who take the position that blacks' own behavior and attitudes are now the chief obstacle to their advancement acknowledge that racism and discrimination have been facts of life for most of the history of this country and even that racism endures in a variety of forms today. Unlike those who, in a harsher and more benighted variant of their position, characterize blacks and other minorities as simply lazy, complaining, or lacking in responsibility or other so-called middle-class virtues, they recognize the difficulties blacks still face. At the same time, they feel great frustration and irritation at what they experience as an enormous hypersensitivity by blacks that perceives slights where none are intended, as well as a readiness to blame virtually every failure or frustration they encounter on racism. White holders of this view, moreover, resent the resentment that they encounter, the ready assumption that they are oppressors and blacks are victims.
There are, of course, still other understandings of the unequal status of blacks and whites that do not fit readily into either of the two broad positions I have described, even in their more subtle or moderate versions. Moreover, counter to stereotype, there are whites who hold to the view that our society is fundamentally racist and blacks who believe that excessive claims of racism are being used as a crippling excuse. But by and large, with many variations, these two broad perspectives capture a vast portion of the political and moral landscape in our country, and they do largely tend to correlate with the race of the perceiver. The stark truth is that to a great degree blacks and whites in America see each other as the problem, and blame each other for the tensions and divisions that so stubbornly persist.
In this book I aim to offer an alternative to this dead-end approach. Examining in detail how blacks and whites have responded to each other and to the inequalities that continue to divide us, I will show how the vicious circles in which we are caught have emerged and tightened--and what is required for us to begin to extricate ourselves from them.
My analysis draws very largely on psychological research and theory and on my experience as a practicing psychotherapist, researcher, and teacher and supervisor of doctoral students in clinical psychology. Based on this experience and perspective, the book highlights aspects of our dilemma that are largely absent from the sociological and political accounts that are more common in this area. I am centrally concerned with the ways people's interpretations of events are mediated by residues of earlier experiences and by the need to protect self-esteem; with the selective perceptions, misperceptions, and self-deceptions that arise as a consequence; with issues of identity and threats to identity; with the deeper sources of rage, guilt, prejudice, and self-doubt and with their parallel roots in everyday experience; with the pervasive role of conflict in our psychological makeup and with the ways in which blacks and whites alike tend to overlook that conflict (in themselves and in the other) in the polarized and simplifying rhetoric that presently dominates our discourse on race.
Put differently, I am concerned with how we have constructed our worldviews about race, how the world looks to us and how we feel about the events we experience or hear about on the nightly news. A key element in breaking the entangling patterns I will examine in this book lies in reconstructing our dialogue, changing the ways we think about our problems and each other and the ways we talk to each other. Our dialogue--such as it has been--has been accusatory and linear: Who is the cause of our problems? You are. I aim to point us toward a different kind of discourse, one that recognizes the circularity of our problems and frames our task as extricating ourselves from an impasse to which all sides have by now contributed.
I am not, however, attempting to offer myself as a "therapist" to our troubled society. I am, after all, one of the patients in the asylum. An important thread in contemporary social criticism involves critique of the overly "therapeutic" orientation of our society and the naively reductionistic nature of psychological analyses of social issues. Although psychological understanding is central to what I believe is fresh and useful about the analysis offered here, I hope it will be apparent that the psychology that grounds this analysis is not a psychology divorced from the realities of race, class, history, or politics. Psychological accounts that ignore the powerful impact of large-scale social forces are not only needlessly chauvinistic; they are poor psychology.
I will draw upon psychoanalytic insights in my account, as well as on research in social, cognitive, and developmental psychology. But the reader will not find our complex social reality reduced to Oedipal preoccupations, anal complexes, or responses to personality inventories. Most centrally, I will emphasize four closely related themes throughout the book:
* First, the ubiquitous and largely unappreciated role of vicious circles in our racial impasse.
* Second, the critical role played in those circles by the impact of years of injustice on African Americans' confidence, attitudes, and opportunities to develop educational and occupational skills, and the difficulties both blacks and whites have had in finding constructive ways to acknowledge and address that impact.
* Third, the ways in which defensive operations by both whites and blacks, arising from the need to ward off guilt, shame, or other threatening feelings, have made it difficult for us to recognize the roles we reciprocally play in maintaining these circular patterns and have impeded our efforts to come to grips with the complex sources of our persisting inequalities.
* Fourth, the ironic nature of much of what we confront, the ways in which our difficulties are marked by unwittingly self-fulfilling prophecies and by efforts to prevent or ward off untoward developments and experiences that end up bringing about precisely the consequence we hope to avert.
There are concrete policy recommendations that flow from the account I offer in this book, and some of them are spelled out in Part Three. But the primary focus of the analysis offered here is to explicate the substructures of thought and feeling that have silently shaped the way we have approached our racial divisions thus far and to point us toward an understanding that can elicit more creative and effective initiatives in the future.
Moving beyond Deadlock: Understanding the Tangle in Which We Are Caught
The first step in developing a more productive approach to the gulf that exists between us is to recognize that we will not overcome our difficulties by the victory of one side's views over the other. Neither side is going to convince the other that they are wrong or that their perceptions are invalid. Rather, we must begin by understanding how the world looks through each lens and by acknowledging the core elements of validity in each view.
Such an effort to understand the experiential basis of each side's position should not be confused with a bland ecumenicism, a shallow avoidance of conflict by piously declaring that each side's views must be respected. Of course, no one group of people is likely to hold a monopoly on truth or insight; but such a platitude, no matter how widely acknowledged, is likely to have little impact on the attitudes that really direct people's behavior and organize their lives. Rather, what we require is a dynamic understanding of why these differing views continue to be compelling to different segments of our society. That dynamic understanding, I believe, can be achieved by attending to the pervasive influence of vicious circles in human affairs. The opposing views about our racial impasse described at the beginning of this chapter are part of a larger pattern in which, in countless ways, blacks and whites seem to "confirm" each other's fears and resentments--and in which each side is largely oblivious to its role in the perpetuation of the pattern and sees our persisting difficulties preponderantly in terms of the actions of the other.
I have spent most of my professional life studying such patterns and how to break them. In exploring the many ways in which vicious circles operate to perpetuate human misery, I have been struck not only by how regularly these ironic patterns can be discerned by the attentive observer, but also by how difficult it can be for those caught in the circle to appreciate its structure. The general idea of the vicious circle is a regular part of our vocabulary, but it is rare for the participants in such a circle to really see and understand what they are caught in.
The tendency to fix blame seems quite regularly to lead us to be satisfied with partial explanations that offer some cathartic relief but contribute little to real resolution of our difficulties. In attempting to apply the analysis of vicious circles to the persisting tensions between the races in our country, I hope to provide a point of departure for transcending the adversarial accounts that are themselves a part of the problem they seek to explain.
Vicious Circles in the Psychological Dynamics of Individuals
Vicious circles operate in many ways and at many levels in human affairs, but they are often insufficiently appreciated, even by professional students of human behavior. The problematic patterns that bring people to psychotherapists, for example, are often attributed to very early experiences, which are repressed and then exert a continuing influence on adult life as an unassimilated piece of childhood buried in the psyche. Early in the history of psychoanalysis, these hypothesized fragments from childhood were understood as repressed memories of actual traumatic events, later as unacceptable wishes or fantasies, and now frequently as "primitive" or "archaic" images of the self in relation to fantasized others. But the basic explanatory structure at all three stages is very similar. Something from childhood is directly preserved, and exerts a continuing influence of the past upon the present.
In contrast, a vicious circle account of how early experiences shape our later life points to a myriad of daily events that, in an almost infinite series of actions and reactions, keep aspects of our thoughts or behavior looking much the same as they did when we were small. In such accounts, it is not really the original experience or psychic formation that causes today's problems, but its heirs; and it is not the direct impact of the early experience that is crucial but the ironic further reactions that are likely to follow.
Thus, if a child learns rather early that expressions of anger or disagreement are dangerous or unacceptable, she may repress the anger and institute a "reaction-formation," an exaggerated opposite attitude that keeps the threatening anger far from consciousness. Years later, her dreams, fantasies, and occasionally anomalous behavior may reveal that behind her unusually meek and overly cooperative behavior lies a struggle with anger so intense and unmodulated that it can seem to merit the labels "primitive" or "infantile." But the anger against which she struggles is not anger from childhood. It is anger that is, ironically, generated by the very efforts she makes to ban anger altogether from her experience.
This happens because her fear of anger or of being seen as taking advantage of others leads her to be excessively nice, to the point where she fails to get her fair share in interactions. She is so agreeable that what she wants is continually shunted aside, and the result ultimately is considerable frustration and smoldering resentment. But since angry feelings are unacceptable to her, this new anger must also be buried, and so still further defensive behavior is necessary. In turn, these new efforts to be so nice that nothing angry shows lead to still further frustrations and still further buildup of anger. In effect, the anger is generated by the very effort to defend against it, and the anger defended against today is the product of trying to ward off the anger similarly generated yesterday.
One may represent such a circular pattern visually as follows:
There are, of course, many further complexities in the process that maintains the person's fear of anger and the continual fueling of anger that ironically results. But in their basic outline, such circular patterns may be seen with regard to the entire range of feelings and motivations that human beings can experience. They may arise as well in the ways that African Americans attempt to cope with the stress of pervasive stereotyping. The impact of stereotyping and myths about intellectual inferiority can lead to withdrawal from intellectual pursuits, which in turn leads to failure to develop the skills that would contradict the stereotype. Here again, we may represent that circular pattern graphically:
Vicious Circles on the Interpersonal Level: The Question of "Punctuation"
A second type of vicious circle occurs in the interactions between two or more individuals. Consider, for example, a frequently observed relationship pattern in which, to use a terminology common among couples therapists, one participant is a "pursuer" and one is a "distancer." The pursuer keeps trying to pull a response from the distancer, keeps inquiring into what he is feeling or complaining that he is too unrelated and uninvolved. From her point of view she does so because he is so distant; if only he would be a bit more forthcoming, she would forebear. But from the distancer's experience, he holds back to preserve his privacy and integrity from the relentless intrusiveness of the pursuer; he would be more communicative and emotionally available if only she would be a bit less engulfing and demanding. From the viewpoint of the vicious circle, it is most of all the pattern between them that is at issue. The question of who "really" is responsible for the pattern is fruitless. What must be understood is the circle itself, how each brings out in the other precisely the behavior he or she wishes would stop.
After such circular patterns have operated for any period of time, it becomes almost impossible to establish where the sequence begins and where it ends. The pattern has taken on a life of its own, and one can as readily take the pursuer's behavior or the distancer's as the starting point for analysis. Each is likely to contend that his or her behavior is a reaction to the provocation of the other's behavior, and the vying to establish where the sequence begins and where it ends constitutes much of the struggle in which the pair is engaged. Family therapists refer to the question of where the pattern started as one of "punctuation."
In grammar, punctuation is used to indicate where a sequence begins and ends. A capital letter, for example, may indicate a beginning and a period an end. In the metaphorical extension of the concept to the analysis of circular patterns between people, much the same is implied: What is the starting point for the sequence and what is the end? Punctuation of interpersonal sequences tends to be rather subjective and arbitrary; each participant implicitly punctuates the sequence in a way that justifies his or her own behavior, usually by viewing the sequence as having begun with the offensive behavior of the other.
Vicious Circles in the Sphere of Race: The Question of Responsibility
Something similar happens in the vicious circles that constitute the interactions between blacks and whites in our society. Here too, both sides tend to hold to a linear view in which they are simply reacting to the behavior or perceived provocation of the other. Yet here too, as I will show throughout this book, the pattern has taken on a life of its own, such that the punctuation of the sequence is by now often arbitrary and self-justifying and serves to obscure the active role of the party doing the punctuating.
The question may arise, however, whether an account that emphasizes vicious circles, by showing how both sides contribute to the impasse, obscures crucial differences between the roles of whites and blacks. Do history and moral accountability melt away in a specious crucible in which all bear equal responsibility?
It is thus important to remind ourselves that when it comes to the pattern between blacks and whites in America, there is a stark and clear starting point: blacks were brought here in chains and enslaved. Virtually all of the patterns described in this book, including those in which the pattern has by now indeed assumed a life of its own, can be traced back to an actual origin in which there were unambiguously innocent and guilty parties. I do agree strongly that whites living today cannot be held responsible for the events of prior centuries; the concept of collective responsibility, especially collective racial responsibility for sins committed before one was born, has been the source of some of the most terrible atrocities in human history and cannot be the foundation for constructing a more just society. Nonetheless, in applying the analysis of vicious circles to our contemporary racial difficulties, we will not get far unless we acknowledge that these circles virtually reek of their origins.
Slavery, moreover, is not the only brutally direct point of origin for the circular patterns in which contemporary race relations are ensnared. Officially sanctioned segregation in a huge swath of Southern states is an obvious further example. But equally causal, and often scarcely less disguised, was a degree of discrimination throughout the entire nation that made it virtually impossible for blacks to enter society's mainstream. More subtle, but a powerful source nonetheless of the painfully impacted circumstances we face today, was the way in which the accelerating European immigration that coincided with the decades after the abolition of slavery created a need in new Americans to distinguish sharply and invidiously between blacks and whites. Even the lowliest European immigrant, though often despised and mistreated by other whites whose families had been here longer, could experience at least a modicum of status simply by virtue of having white skin in a society that had reserved its lowest depths for those of a different hue. As the eminent black psychologist Kenneth Clark put it, "the blacks were always there: down below.... Being white in America made [immigrants and lower class whites] feel equal to all other whites, as long as the black man was down below."
Finally, from a more contemporary vantage point, there is still another asymmetry of responsibility, notwithstanding the circular nature of the patterns we confront. This asymmetry is particularly crucial to understand, both because it provides a potential point of leverage for change and because it is so readily swept under the rug. I have said that whites living today are not responsible for what was done to blacks by their forebears. But that does not mean that whites do not bear a special responsibility for the conditions that exist today. It is primarily whites who control the purse strings and the political levers that make our society run. A president is expected to take responsibility for what happens "on his watch," even for decisions not made directly by him but by those to whom he has delegated authority. By virtue of numbers and wealth, it is white America's "watch," and white America must accept the commensurate responsibility.
Stereotypes and Their Parasitic Connection to Reality
There has existed for some time a highly problematic social compact in which people of good will have been constrained in discussing the behavior and attitudes of those who have been disadvantaged in our society for fear of being accused of "blaming the victim." As a consequence, understanding of how the disadvantaged's own behavior contributes to the circles in which they are caught has been hampered, and the vacuum has been filled by those whose inclination truly is to blame. In some simplistic accounts of our contemporary racial impasse, such as Dinesh D'Souza's The End of Racism, the part of the process that includes African Americans' own behavior becomes virtually the entire story, and discrimination against blacks is portrayed as "rational." The injustices that generated, and still maintain, the problematic behaviors are blithely swept aside.
It will be readily apparent to the reader that my views are radically different from D'Souza's. If we are to ground our efforts at change in a full and realistic assessment of the difficulties we confront, and yet do so without becoming complicitous in the mentality of blame, we will need both frankness and empathy. On the one hand, we must be prepared to acknowledge that fears of black street criminals or perceptions of high rates of teenage pregancy and welfare dependency among blacks have some foundation in fact. Such behaviors are in fact disproportionately evident among the black residents of our inner cities, and while it is crucial that we understand the reasons why this is the case, it is a grave error simply to dismiss white reactions to these behaviors as racist. As selective and complexly motivated as those white reactions might be, and however much they too are a crucial part of the vicious circle in which we are caught, they are also reactions to a reality. They are likely to diminish if that reality diminishes or to persist to the degree that it persists.
However, if achieving greater progress toward solution of our social problems requires that we feel freer to acknowledge the harsh and troubling realities of inner-city life, this brings with it a greater responsibility to be clear about the stereotypic ways of perceiving that channel and distort our judgments. Stereotypes tend to be maintained not by completely ignoring reality or making something up out of whole cloth, but by forms of selective perception that fixate on partial truths in such a way that the fuller truth is obscured. The capacity to hold together in consciousness elements of reality that are in tension with one another--and to recognize when, despite the superficial appearance of contradiction, they are in fact different facets of a more complex and encompassing truth--is among the most priceless components of intelligence. The adversarial mindset that so pervasively characterizes both blacks' and whites' discussions of racial issues tends to sacrifice this more subtle and capacious intelligence for the narrower aim of attempting to win an argument by compiling and organizing the evidence tendentiously.
Mastering our troubles requires more of us. It requires us to transcend the simple antinomies of "black" or "white" perspectives, of liberal or conservative viewpoints, and to address instead the variegated reality that confounds the seductively single-minded truths of those who prefer debate to dialogue and advocacy to analysis. We must be able, for example, to acknowledge the substantially higher rates of street crime among blacks and to be clear that the large majority of blacks are not criminals but hardworking (and, all too often, underpaid) taxpayers and citizens. Similarly, although attempts to distract us from the overrepresentation of blacks on welfare by citing the fact that millions of welfare clients are white are specious--more whites are on welfare because there are so many more whites in the country, but the rate of participation in programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) is almost five times higher for blacks than for whites--what is crucial is that we see clearly both that blacks are overrepresented in these categories and that crime or welfare dependency are by no means exclusive to blacks but are amply evident in the white population as well.
In truth, the evidence indicates clearly that the crucial element in generating a wide range of behaviors that are stereotypically associated with blacks is not race but poverty. In white neighborhoods characterized by low income, the crime rate is quite comparable to the rate in poor black neighborhoods, and it is considerably higher in poor white neighborhoods than in black neighborhoods where income is more substantial.
Blacks rightly complain that much contemporary discussion of American society, even when it is sympathetic, treats them as the problem. The behaviors of whites that contribute to our "social problems" tend to be airbrushed out. Addressing whites' role in what many perceive to be an accelerating breakdown in the social covenant means not only being clear that whites too commit crimes and go on welfare, but also attending to those antisocial behaviors that are more prevalent among whites. It is well known and widely acknowledged, for example, that whites commit more white collar crimes--a differential attributed by almost all observers to the fact that whites tend to have more opportunity to commit this sort of crime. Less widely known is that whites have a higher rate of arrests and convictions for drunk driving, a crime that accounts for considerably more loss of innocent life each year than muggings, but tends to be viewed with considerably less alarm in our cataloguing of social ills. It is also, we may note, an antisocial act that signifies impulsiveness of a sort that if exhibited by blacks would surely be gravely overinterpreted.
Even more germane to this book's focus on vicious circles are those white behaviors that are a direct link in the circles I will trace. These include refusing to sell or rent homes to blacks or to hire them for responsible positions, making "innocent" jokes and comments that perpetuate stereotypes, joining country clubs that discriminate, or engaging in a host of other behaviors that are central to the "race problem" in this country. White participation further includes the failure of moral imagination that leads many whites to forget how unlikely it would have been that they or their children would have succeeded under the circumstances in which many African Americans grow up.
Here too, however, we must guard against stereotypes and over-generalizations. It is as crucial to be attentive to the complexities and variations in white behavior as in black. In interracial dialogue groups I have conducted, participants were asked, among other questions, what stereotypes of their group seemed to them most prevalent and most wrong. Black participants often referred to images of blacks as criminals, as lazy, and as stupid. Whites consistently referred to images of whites as racist.
I will discuss in the next chapter the frequently voiced claim that in a society such as ours every white must be assumed to be racist, as well as the complexities and confusions in the way the words "racist" and "racism" have come to be used. But quite apart from that discussion, it should be clear that white attitudes and behavior toward blacks vary enormously from individual to individual and that error is introduced when whites are perceived through the distorting lens of a stereotype, just as it is when blacks are similarly misperceived.
Even more, perhaps, it is essential to recognize that most people are in conflict regarding the highly charged and multifaceted issues associated with race in our society. Competing inclinations and attitudes vie with each other and are evoked and shaped by a myriad of experiences. Fears, frustrations, ideals, images of justice and fairness, naked and disguised self-interest, rationalizations, group pressures, media messages, identifications with one's own group and with one's children, changing trends and political climates, images of one's better self, and a host of other constituting elements combine in a way that, even when yielding a manifestly stable equilibrium, is nonetheless a potentially volatile composite. The underlying forces whose resultant seems so stable may in fact be in such delicate balance that, as with a plate that comes crashing to the ground after hanging on the wall for years, a slight shift in the forces which have been silently groaning in opposition can yield a dramatic change in the overall picture. Much opportunity is lost if this dynamic tension, which so often underlies apparently stable and implacable attitudes, is not recognized or acknowledged. When the element of conflict is overlooked or denied, when, for example, whites are simply written off as racist, the prospects for change are obscured by a miasma of pessimism that impedes effective action and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Essential Indivisibility of Psyche, Society, and History
Much of this book will be about the conflicting feelings and attitudes that complicate the task of resolving our nation's persisting racial divisions. I will be exploring the psychological sources of racial prejudice and examining the differing implications of conceiving of those prejudices as the product of fundamental and deeply rooted needs or as deriving from the ways that human cognition, in the process of simplifying the vast array of stimuli we encounter at every moment, introduces distortions that in certain circumstances can become institutionalized and toxic. I will consider as well how the impact of false stereotypic expectations can end up eliciting behaviors and emotional reactions from their target that seem to "confirm" those false expectations.
Beyond this, I will consider the complex psychological impact on African Americans of the injustices and affronts they have encountered on these shores. My concerns will include both the resourcefulness and creativity with which African Americans have at times transformed duress into strength, and the more painfully ironic ways that adaptations that have been necessary and useful in coping with privations and discrimination have at times contributed to the dynamics that keep African Americans outside of the American mainstream. I will also (in Part Three) examine a number of specific realms (such as crime, housing, jobs, and schooling) in which vicious circles complicate the problems we face, and I will consider how understanding of these circular patterns and their complex interconnections can guide us in formulating more effective strategies for resolving our racial divisions and conflicts.
But before addressing the intersecting social and psychological dynamics that are the central concern of this book, it will be necessary to confront a number of tendencies that have created obstacles to their untrammeled exploration and have contributed to the perception, noted in the Preface, that it requires "courage" even to take up the topic. Part One of this book is therefore largely devoted to creating the space for the formulations and analyses that follow in Parts Two and Three. A formulation that emphasizes the role we all play in perpetuating the vicious circles that entrap us is likely to encounter powerful countervailing presuppositions from both the right and the left. Part One therefore addresses some of the key impediments to open dialogue and real listening. These include, from different directions, the accusation that discussion of certain topics is racist or constitutes blaming the victim, the intellectually suspect and socially poisonous arguments of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve, and the difficulties encountered in finding a language for discussing the harm that injustice has wrought in many African American communities.
While this book is primarily addressed to the contemporary conflicts and passions that maintain us in a state of tense division, I will consider as well (especially in some of the early chapters) the origins of our constricted dialogue in a number of debates and reactions that dominated a crucial turning point in the civil rights struggle in the 1960s and 1970s. In so doing, I have in a sense followed the course pursued by many psychotherapists--understanding the inhibitions and lacunae of the present by examining the state of affairs at a point before repression (in the psychological sense) rendered invisible some of the psychological forces at play beneath the surface.
There is a long history behind the dilemmas we face today, and one of the crucial issues of contention is just what role that history plays in the problems we currently face. Here again, adversarial, either-or positions are seductive, but will not get us very far. In truth, we are both the objects and the subjects of history, both its victims and its propogators. In matters concerning race, each of us, black or white, is the unfortunate inheritor of shameful acts and terrible suffering inflicted by people who lived long before we were born. Each of us bears a burden that, at least in part, we do not deserve. But most of us, in the way we take on that burden, become at least somewhat complicitous in perpetuating it and in bequeathing it in turn to still another generation. Centuries of slavery, segregation, and racial oppression and violence form the quicksand foundation of our present way of life. And myriad daily choices and actions--by both blacks and whites--contribute to our being drawn into the mire.
We cannot escape our history, but we must not submit to it. Without an appreciation of the cumulative and reverberating impact of the injustices and injuries inflicted over the centuries, any analysis of race relations in this country will be shallow and evasive. Yet it is essential as well to recognize how our contemporary difficulties have been shaped by the changes, both positive and negative, of the past few decades and by the ways blacks and whites have responded to those changes. We ignore our history at our peril. We ignore our own behavior at perhaps even greater risk.
Who is Qualified to Write about Race?
This introductory chapter would be incomplete without addressing a subject that is in certain respects a matter of personal justification but which is essential to address for reasons that are emblematic of the very issues this book is about. The question will undoubtedly arise in the minds of some readers--it has already been broached to me on a number of occasions: What is a white person doing writing a book on race?
Most often, the import of the question really turns out to be: What is a white person doing writing a book about blacks? At one level, the question can be answered by pointing out that this is not a book about blacks; it is a book about blacks and whites, about the tangles the two get into in relation to each other. In that sense, I am as much a part of what I am writing about as a black author would be, and am both qualified and constrained by that fact to the same degree.
But I do not wish to rest with this argument alone. The idea that one can only understand one's own group is prevalent today; and it is an idea I believe to be both specious and destructive. First, just what is one's own group? Does a particular black author have special insight into all blacks? Only, if she is a woman, into black women? Middle-class black women? Middle-class black women who grew up in a poor single-parent household?
Similarly, what is the group about which I am granted a license to write with authority? All whites? White men? Urban white men? Urban white male intellectuals? Should I be presumed to have a better intuitive grasp of the experience of a white cowboy in Wyoming or a white pipe fitter in Alaska than of the experiences of my black colleagues at City College, who share so much more of my lifestyle and values?
Certainly in the aggregate I have greater access to white experience (whatever such a global term might mean) than to black. But I have had numerous opportunities to build experiential bridges over the gulf that is so widely believed to exist: I have taught for more than twenty years at a college that has a very large minority enrollment and in a doctoral program that is widely recognized for its efforts to recruit minority students and, however imperfectly, to address minority concerns. In my years at City College I have had considerably more opportunity than most white people to work with black and Latino students and colleagues and thereby both to understand their concerns and know their talents. Moreover, I teach and supervise in a psychological clinic where the patients tend to be black and Latino as well. I thus have had the opportunity to hear the more intimate stories of minority group members to a degree unusual for a white person.
More recently, as part of the research for this book, I have taught courses on issues of race to undergraduates and graduate students in which self-study and open discussion of feelings and attitudes about this topic was a primary medium of exploration, and I have run a variety of interracial dialogue groups that further probed the passions and beliefs that underlie the interactions between the races in our society. I will draw upon these experiences and observations throughout this book.
A Final Note: Why Black and White?
The account of vicious circles in this book has obvious relevance to ethnic conflicts in many parts of the world. It is particularly pertinent to the situation facing other minorities in the United States, especially the Latino minority that faces many of the same circumstances and is trapped in many of the same vicious circles. But the psychological dynamics I will discuss here must be understood not only in terms of the psychological processes that perpetuate the circle but also in the context of the social and historical influences that set them in motion and that continue to exert a powerful influence upon them. In the case of relations between blacks and whites in America, the continuing ramifications of our history of slavery and legally sanctioned segregation create unique dynamics that are not quite paralleled by other groups in this country. Identifications, traditions, and shared meanings arise out of specific historical circumstances. The difficulties are substantial even for generalizing about the black experience in the face of the enormous diversity within the black community. To attempt to extend the generalization still further to other groups who have encountered discrimination in America or to ethnic conflicts in other parts of the world would place a burden upon the analysis that is difficult to assess.
I have thus chosen to devote this book specifically to the dynamics between blacks and whites in America. Nonetheless, it is my hope that the analysis presented here will be helpful in efforts to break the cycle of despair in these other communities as well.
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Meet the Author
Paul L. Wachtel is CUNY Distinguished Professor and Acting Director of the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at the City College of New York. He is author of several books including The Poverty of Affluence (1983) and Psychoanalysis, Behavior Therapy, and the Relational World (1997). He lives in New York City, where he is also a practicing psychotherapist.
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