By Matthew H. Bowker
It would be unfair to say that Americans do not think about racism. We do. But we do not think about it deeply, and we stop thinking about it fairly quickly. Then, days or weeks later, to our surprise, we find that we have to think about it again.
Only weeks ago, the news media obsessed over instances of hate speech on college campuses. The deplorable racist chant by SAE fraternity members at Oklahoma University and the horrific nooses found on statues and in trees at the University of Mississippi and Duke University, respectively, created brief moments of outrage, which quickly passed.
Before these stories aired, of course, Americans watched Ferguson, Mo., erupt into violence, and, since then, more American cities, from New York City to Baltimore, have seen protests turn violent in the wake of the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers.
In light of these ongoing tragedies, police departments have advocated various forms of “retraining,” while public officials, citizens and protesters have urged genuine, constructive dialogue. Sadly, none of these approaches, not expulsion nor silence, not retraining nor protest nor dialogue, really reaches to the heart of the matter of racial violence.
Psychiatrist James Gilligan once noted that all violence is essentially about justice, which means not that all violence is just, but that perpetrators of violence act in order to rectify what they perceive to be an injustice. And violence and hatred, whether physical or psychological, cannot be simply expelled, talked away or trained out of us, so long as we, as individuals and as members of institutions, hold onto what we believe (rightly or wrongly) we deserve.
Because violence reflects a deeper psychological constellation of self-hatred, shame and rage surrounding perceived injustices, racial violence cannot be resolved by dialogue about race, or even by protests concerning race.
To have a meaningful dialogue about violence, racial or otherwise, we have to have a dialogue about human lives, childhoods, organizations and generations. We have to have a dialogue about the types of violence all people are exposed to, not only those who become victims, but those who become victimizers. We have to think about the symbolic role of racial hatred in the psychological makeups of people and organizations, and not just treat it as a thing in itself.
When we treat racial hatred as a thing in itself that can be removed or talked away, then we are most likely engaged in denying that we are all at least partly hateful and potentially violent, pretending, instead, that by taking some relatively simple measures, we can become innocent of violence and free of hate.
Matthew H. Bowker, Ph.D., is a political theorist and visiting assistant professor at Medaille College in Buffalo.