Facing Realities of Race

Many white Americans think that racism is a problem of the past and that troubling realities like mass incarceration and murder rates for black and brown men as well as inferior government services in racially diverse communities have other explanations. But recent events have shaken that certainty, as Tony Jenkins explains.

By Tony Jenkins

The U.S. justice system’s non-indictment of the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner has illuminated the structural racism inherent in our culture and institutions.  This racism has been with us all along, but the string of obvious injustices very publicly revealed and discussed in the wake of the deaths of two young black men in America by police officers has jump-started a movement that demands a new model of justice and wholesale social and cultural transformation.

To say a nerve has been touched is an understatement.  There has been a swelling of intense pain and frustration in black America for a long time. Emotions can be turbulent when triggering events reveal to the oppressed that their very life has been an experience of daily injustice and the heightened conversation confirms the intuition that something has been wrong all along.

In these moments talking doesn’t feel like action and the urge to be civil is tempered by observations of an uncivil system. U.S. political culture models a very ill-mannered form of discourse in which politicians talk past one another making it impossible to work toward the common good.

“Speaking truth to power” accomplishes little or nothing when nobody is listening including those who are speaking. I believe that activists engaged in this movement aren’t so much tired of talking; they are skeptical with just cause.  However, truth-telling and dialogue still have very real promise in shaping a more preferred future and healing some of these wounds.

Developing faith in public reason and the mechanisms of dialogue takes time, but it may be the most effective way of bringing about social change and changing the fabric of race relations in America.

One of the reasons for our new found consciousness around race is that structural racism is insidious and for the most part invisible. From the end of the Civil Rights era until the present moment it has not remained elevated in our cultural narrative. That’s the nature of structural racism and structural violence: they are so deeply codified into the norms of our culture and the tenets of our legal system that they seem innate.

Those in privileged positions don’t even notice it as they biases of the culture have no bearing on their day-to-day lives. This is privilege blindness. This isn’t the case for young black men in America who have a very real and reasonable fear of the police. This is supported by the oft cited ProPublica report that finds young black men are shot dead by police at a rate 21 times greater than that of young white men and the Pew Research Center’s finding that black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

The NAACP has a fact sheet on racial disparities in incarceration rates that sheds light on the systemic nature of the problem. Amongst the facts they highlight is an analysis provided by Unlocking America suggesting that if “African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%.”

How Transformation Begins

These invisible patterns of injustice, accompanied by the very visible shooting death of Michael Brown and the choking death of Eric Garner, bring awareness to a social problem that has laid dormant or otherwise ignored by the privileged that define the parameters of mainstream culture.

In transformative learning theory these are the catalysts or trigger events that shock and shake up our worldview and cause us to question our reality. As pioneered in theory and practice by the recently deceased Jack Mezirow, transformative learning with adults seeks to bring about changes in perspective that will guide future action.  Mezirow described ten phases of transformative learning that is distilled into four more basic stages: a triggering event, critical reflection, rational discourse, and action.

The trigger event, described by Mezirow as a disorienting dilemma, is not transformative in and of itself. Trigger events can lead to many outcomes, even reinforcing past attitudes. Transformative outcomes generally depend upon the quality of opportunities to process or to engage in critical reflection on the experience. This is a critical step in questioning our assumptions about how the world is and operates.

The protest stage of a movement, generally emerging quickly after the trigger event, can provide a collective space for transitioning to critical reflection. While protests on their own rarely produce lasting change, they are a vital part of the change process. The general media perception of protests is that they serve only as a space for elevating an issue, the collective expression of shared anger, and in some instances the non-violent disruption of the status quo.

Yes protests can lead to violence; such is always the possibility when emotions run high and participants encounter the threat of a highly militarized police force. However, as David Ragland, a leader of a truth-telling campaign in Ferguson, reflects, protests play a role in building community and for collectively helping make sense of the triggering experience.

Ragland suggests, “Protest in general is important for dramatization of issues. It’s important for solidarity, networking, understanding the issues and making yourself part of a public forum.”

While a well-organized protest can provide a space for critical reflection this is rarely enough. Intentional opportunities for internal and community reflection on the issues need to be provided. Further, critical reflection must also have an internal and external component.

The external dimension requires observation and analysis of the systems of which we are a part. In the context of justice, it requires questioning how the rules of society were created, by whom, and for whom. The internal dimension is more challenging, demanding us to confront and challenge our assumptions about our role in the problem and to be open to changing our self. This is a step that is difficult to reach without the support of an intentional community of practice.

Critical reflection can also build empathy and help us to consider the context of the other. The reflections of NFL player Benjamin Watson in response to Ferguson, posted and virally spread on Facebook, are a great demonstration of empathic critical reflection. I encourage you to read his reflections in their entirety.

Here is one of Watson’s most poignant introspections: “I’M INTROSPECTIVE, because sometimes I want to take ‘our’ side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it’s us against them. Sometimes I’m just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. And that’s not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That’s not right.”

Acknowledging our biases and their origins aids in perspective taking and in framing the issue with reason. This is a humanizing process that moves us past positionality and opens us to the possibility of actually hearing one another. Getting to this state of reciprocity demonstrated in Watson’s reflections is a necessary prerequisite for engaging in rational discourse, the next phase in Mezirow’s architecture of transformative learning.

This is particularly relevant in the context of the political relationships that are inherent in a public forum.  Parties engaged in public discourse need to agree to present and listen to reasonable arguments.

Dialogue is a particularly transformative form of discourse.  Harold Saunders, President of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, describes its transformative nature:  “Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take others’ concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up her or his identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other.”

It is easy to see how critical reflection and rational discourse are necessary prerequisites to engaging in this form of transformative dialogue. To be able to listen, to truly hear and learn from one another requires this preparatory reflection and thought work. This form of dialogue is very distinct from the polarizing culture of political discourse. It is oriented toward the common good; emphasizes healing and building the relationship rather than solving the issue; and encourages participants to listen and not speak past one another.

Truth-telling and Dialogue in Action

How might truth-telling and dialogue, as transformative processes for healing the wounds of structural racism appear in action? In the past few weeks there have been some public calls for the establishment of a truth-and-reconciliation commission on race in the United States. Truth-and-reconciliation commissions have had success around the world, most notably in addressing apartheid in South Africa.

A coalition of groups on the ground, led by the Center for Educational Equity and the Peace and Justice Studies Association, is establishing a “National Community Institute for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation in Ferguson & Beyond.”  A truth-telling project will kick off soon to collect personal stories of people of color victimized by police violence and other forms of institutionalized racism and injustice.

Speaking truth is important. At a political level it’s a way of documenting injustices and making them public. Truth-telling is essentially a form of critically reflective storytelling, and as personal narrative it humanizes the social dilemma by rooting it in human experience.

The International Institute for Sustained Dialogue (IISD) incorporates story telling as a critical and transformative dimension of its approach. Through assessment of several of IISD’s sustained dialogue efforts, Philip Stewart and Nissa Shamsi observe how story telling can build empathy:

“In Sustained Dialogue, [as seen in examples cited in their research], when differences or conflict are seen as identity-based, participants are encouraged to relate their personal stories. Often these involve various kinds of traumatic experiences with people like others in the dialogue. These stories often invoke cognitive (I understand where you are coming from) and then emotional (I feel what you are feeling) empathy for the story teller, resulting, over time, in a broadened sense of identity capable of accepting, at one end of response, and of embracing at the other.”

With this understanding, truth-telling/story-telling can be viewed as a necessary bridging process, transforming parties in a dialogue from adversaries to fellow humans connected in a complex, interrelated web of experience that each has interpreted differently based upon relative positions of power and privilege, culture and worldview.

The dialogue that follows truth-telling can be transformational if the conditions of openness, empathy and public reason are present and agreed upon. Getting to this stage can be the hardest part. There are many modes and practices of dialogue, each suitable to different contexts and requiring various levels of preparation, skills, and experience.

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation offers a beginners guide to dialogue work and provides details for over 180 tools and methods for public participation. Restorative justice (RJ) is a particularly relevant dialogue model for the exploration of structural racism and justice. Based on indigenous circle processes, RJ emphasizes a conception of justice that holds community wholeness and integrity at its core. If the proper conditions are met and principles adhered to, most dialogue models have the potential to be transformative.

Inching Toward Social Healing

Action, the final stage in Mezirow’s transformative learning model, actualizes the transformative process. For the individual, action equates with behavioral and attitudinal change and the development of transformative capacities rooted in empathy, perspective taking, and listening skills.

At the social and political level, transformative action requires relationship building supporting cultural change; the modeling and testing of new social institutions and democratic practices; and experimentation with new processes of justice that have human dignity at their core.

From an emotional vantage, such as that experienced at early stages of the transformative process, this may seem like an inconceivable level of action and change. History, however, reminds us that fostering the long view is essential. The preferred order may not emerge entirely in our lifetime, but we may cultivate the conditions and cultural qualities for enduring change for future generations.

Healing the wounds of structural racism in a post-Ferguson American through truth-telling and transformational dialogue is a challenge we must accept. The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have triggered an awakening of consciousness, which through intentional opportunities such as the “National Community Institute for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation in Ferguson & Beyond” may lead to the critical reflection essential for perspective taking and new meaning making.

Through dialogue new ideas and perspectives on racial justice can be confirmed, in and by community, and just relationships can be built that may lead to action for sustaining change through ongoing engagement and fostering new ways of being together.

Tony Jenkins writes for PeaceVoice, is the Director of the Peace Education Initiative at The University of Toledo and is a board member of the Peace and Justice Studies Association.

2 comments for “Facing Realities of Race

  1. Fel
    December 11, 2014 at 19:16

    Excellent article. I am working on an effort to promote exactly the kind of dialogue discussed here. I really appreciate these insights and the great resources linked above. Thanks.

  2. JWalters
    December 10, 2014 at 18:47

    “The dialogue that follows truth-telling can be transformational if the conditions of openness, empathy and public reason are present and agreed upon. Getting to this stage can be the hardest part.”

    Only fifty years ago racial oppression was legal in the U.S. The attitudes behind that became politically incorrect and submerged. Obama’s election brought them back into the open, where they have been fanned by the GOP.

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