Why Ferguson Still Matters

There’s a commercial that consists of videos of different species of animals frolicking together. These are an Internet staple. Cats with birds, dogs with fish, lions with gazelles, and countless other unusual pairings from YouTube fill up our inboxes. The cuteness factor of these GIFs is beyond question, but why? Animal babies are cute, and we are hardwired to respond to baby like features. But many of these animals are not babies. So why the “awww” factor? Is it because it shows pleasant things that we don’t expect to see, like a dog licking a fawn instead of trying to eat it? It reminds me of a print ad campaign many years ago that featured a large former NFL player holding a baby on his chest. Both were African American.  The man was naked from the waist up and the baby wore only a diaper. The love between father and child was vividly expressed, and the depth of my positive response surprised me.

After much soul searching, I concluded my feelings were rooted in racism. The public narrative at the time was that black men abandoned their fatherhood duties. As a father myself, seeing a positive affirmation of fatherhood affected me greatly, especially since it broke a stereotype. Racism is an important issue in this country. Exhibit A is that all too many white people think racism isn’t an issue in America anymore while a significant portion of black people do. Amid this racial disconnect, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans don’t even get invited to the table. The good news on the racism front is that very few white people think racism is okay compared to how many openly embraced it in the past. The bad news is that racism clouds their judgment, and they not only fail to recognize it, they also the refuse to admit its existence.

I realize that many people do not respect the findings of scientists, but really, what else do we have to understand Ferguson, the NYPD, and Trevon Martin? To think that black people are delusional or incorrect about the occurrence of racism in their daily lives is a lie that cannot be sustained when carefully scrutinized. Whites cannot continue to deny the validity of the black experience of race in America forever. Brain research is giving us better and deeper insights into how we think, as well as how we fail to think. There are too many MRIs, surveys, and psychological experiments that demonstrate that racism is alive and well in the world. If we are serious about putting racism in our rear-view mirror, then the first thing people need to understand is that racism is a combination of genetics and environment. Genetically, we are hardwired to accept our tribe as “normal” while instinctively assuming that all other tribes are different and therefore inferior. Secondly, our tribe is the people we are first exposed to. And they usually look like us. In summary, to be racist is to be human, which is why racists come in all colors.

But racism is bad for any society, particularly the merit-based society that America strives to be. Judging anyone by a standard other than competency deprives groups large and small of the talent they need to be successful. One of the great ironies of history is that many of the builders of the atomic bomb that Hitler needed to conquer the world were the same Jewish scientists the Nazis had driven out of Germany. Hitler had the missiles and jets to deliver devastating blows to the Allies. What he lacked were powerful enough warheads and bombs to do the job. And lest we get too arrogant about Germany, who knows how many scientific breakthroughs, inventions, and ideas we lost because of slavery and Jim Crow? Racism and sexism are major roadblocks to successful societies. We deny their existence at our peril.

Fortunately, early exposure to inclusion and inclusive attitudes can mitigate our racial preferences and our behavior. But we first have to acknowledge the problem. When Bill O’Reilly claimed on the Daily Show that there is no such thing as white privilege, it was clear he had not read Peggy McIntosh’s essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Reading this article or listening to artists like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock makes it clear that most whites have no idea of the extent that racism plays a role in their daily decisions and how they affect others. This is the major stumbling block to relegating racism to the trash heap of history.

White people can and do point to the incredible strides this country has made when it comes to racial equality. And it’s true. Besides the election of Obama, the fact that O.J. Simpson was not only allowed but encouraged to play on Florida golf courses shows tremendous progress. Just sixty or seventy years earlier, he might have been lynched from a Cyprus tree like thousands of black men before him. My own sons grew up playing with Levar Burton dolls. Which is remarkable not just because of Mr. Burton’s race, but because nobody made of fun of my boys FOR PLAYING WITH DOLLS!

But just because we’ve made progress does not mean we have arrived in the Promised Land where all men and women are created equal. In fact, we can never truly be there. There will always be demagogues and their followers who will try to return us to our sordid past of slave auctions and colored drinking fountains. Fear, especially unconscious fear, is a powerful tool for those who seek political success. When people rightly condemned the brutality of ISIS in burning a Jordanian pilot to death, many of them forgot that less than 100 years ago, burning and lynching black men were commonplace events in certain parts of America. In fact, it was considered a civic duty of whites to participate in such barbarism.

Recognizing the flaws in ourselves and in our past does not diminish us. Instead, it allows us to grow and progress. Ultimately, though, it takes more than condemning racism in others for it to cease to be an impediment to our progress as a society and as a species. We must search our own thoughts, feelings, and actions for the racial bias that science tells us is there. Only then can we be free from the moral swamp that is racism.