No time in American history is untouched by our nation’s struggle with racial bigotry. But this time, it’s personal.

“That’s just how it is.” “That’s just the way things work.” “It’s just the way things are.”

In the past, during the time I was growing up in the Jim Crow south of legal racial segregation, white Americans could be consoled by the fact that bigotry was supported by laws. Even well-meaning whites could and did say, “What can I do? It’s not up to me. It’s just the way things are.”

No one should try to deny the role of the law. Indeed, about that social reality, editorial writer for the Fayetteville Observer, Gene Smith, pointed out that:

“The culprit was the law. The Klan didn’t make it all but impossible for 20th-century blacks to vote in Mississippi or bar nonwhites from public universities. The law did that.” (1)

After the revolution that was the modern Civil Rights Movement, after the elimination of the immoral, unjust laws of racial discrimination through the court system, no one can now point to laws of racial bigotry and say “It’s just the way things are.” Today, when a Charlottesville happens, when the KKK, neo-Nazis’ gather in public to rally for white supremacy, it’s personal because no one can blame the situation. Whether a person participates or simply observes such a rally, it is clear that what is at work is personal intergroup hate. No one can blame the laws of the land.

Without the support of the law, interpersonal-intergroup conflict does to individuals what any interpersonal conflict does to people; it pushes us to confront the personal questions raised by the conflict (2). Who am I and who do I want to be? Without the support of the law, seeing racial bigotry pushes individuals to ask “who am I in this moment of American history? Where do I stand? What are my values? What do I believe?”

Race prejudice as a sense of group position”; I remember being startled when, years ago, I read the sociological paper with that title. Writing in 1958, with me reading it around 1977, Professor Herbert Blumer (3) made these important points:

  • "Race prejudice exists basically in a sense of group position rather than in a set of feelings which members of one racial group have toward the members of another racial group.”
  • “To characterize another racial group is, by opposition, to define one's own group. This is equivalent to placing the two groups in relation to each other, or defining their positions vis-d-vis each other. It is the sense of social position emerging from this collective process of characterization which provides the basis of race prejudice.”

In America, the intergroup relation between blacks and whites was built through a collective process that included (actual and implied) Jim-Crow laws of segregation whereby whites were superior and blacks inferior. That set up the group prejudice that began to live on its own in the feelings children developed about their group membership.

But 21st-century American children have been led to believe that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Just this past October, I gave a series of talks at Yavapai College (Prescott, AZ) as part of their school intervention against on-campus intergroup hostilities, “Respect Starts Here” (4). In my talks, I used my experience of growing up in the Jim Crow south to frame social change in America.

Dr. Mark Shelley continues to let me know the impact I had during my visit to Yavapai College, by sending me quotes from student reflections. One student wrote: 

"I also agree with Nacoste that racism is not ancient history. I know that when I was young, I used to think that racism was so long ago that people living during that time were now dead. This presentation made me realize how recent this all was. (Nacoste still looks young.)"

Although I am not yet dead, and that is flattering, it makes the more important broader point that young people have been mis-educated about the history of racial struggle in America, so much so that too many think it was all “…so long ago that people living during that time were now dead.” Turns out it wasn’t that long ago, which is why we must ask, what happens to individual-psychology while we are still in the midst of changes in our nation’s sense of group positions?

What happens to an individual’s social psychology in the face of the failure and collapse of the institutional and organizational support for their superior sense of group position? What happens, psychologically, when the removal of obvious forms of structural racism, sexism, heterosexism, means that what used to be taken for granted can’t be?

I am asking you to think about what happens psychologically when black and LatinX people, now less hindered, show high achievement in all kinds of domains (not just sports)? What happens, psychologically, when standards of woman-beauty broaden to more realistically include women of color (Miss USA); hijab-wearing Muslim women (cover of Vogue); curvy women TV weather reporters; (former) First Lady Michelle Obama? (5)

Really, the question I am asking you to ponder is what happens when the superior sense of group position is shown to have been built on a house of cards? Well, the answer is intergroup anxiety.

You see, in the past, the fundamental intergroup relation was about black-white interactions, and that relation was negative with everything designed to show and to keep blacks as inferior. But the negative intergroup relation of black-white interactions in America was built on false categories.

For those who have wondered why it has been so hard for Americans to leave behind (get over) the group prejudices of (actual and imagined) Jim Crow legal segregation, the truth is we have not directly addressed the social psychology of the leftover sense of superior group position. True, the house of cards has been knocked down. But people are still trying to hold on to the image of that house and the major adjoining rooms in that house. 

Adjoining rooms where the sense of male superiority to women lived in comfort without challenge; another where the sense of superiority of heterosexuals lounged at ease in simple relief, and yet another adjoining room in which the sense of superiority of Christianity prayed in contentment and to an adjoining room where the sense of superiority of having an unhindered body stretched out in safety and walked with boldness up the stairs, with no hand holds.

But then the house of legal racial segregation was declared to have been constructed faulty materials. Part of the house had to be taken down. When that deconstruction work began, workers found that much of the construction of the house (walls and floors) was built on a shoddy design and that taking down one part meant other load bearing walls were now unsupportable.

After taking down Jim Crow and after starting to rebuild with a Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act blueprint, it became clear that, of course, women must have equal rights in this new open-air building (Title IX). What made that clear was the neo-diversity of the workers. Brown workers, gay workers, women workers, Muslim workers, American Indian workers, transgender workers; that neo-diversity of people as workers were not buying into living in separate rooms, let alone separate neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, movie theaters, public bathrooms. That neo-diversity of workers was also and certainly not going to accept even having to live with separate shopping.

Faulty construction was found in those old, superior group-positon buildings and those who had been living in them were now in need of healing. Yes, healing and recovery from living in those constructions that had been fuming with invisible, poisonous gases attached to the shabby construction materials. Now torn down, those who had been taught to rely on that poorly built construction were now left exposed, bereft and anxious because now the intergroup relation is vague.

A negative intergroup relation activates a superior-group-position of prejudice and ethnocentrism. A vague intergroup relation activates individual uncertainty and interaction-anxiety; “…oh no, what are the rules for social interaction with ‘...one of them.’”

With a vague intergroup situation that does not give us a structural excuse for our intergroup behavior or the intergroup behavior of others, what we just did (or said), the way we have seen others interacting, exaggerates an individual’ self-concern. That self-concern about how this makes me look is itself exaggerated and sets off psychological strategies of self-defense; cognitive shortcuts. In other words, we are pushed toward oversimplified ways of thinking. Those simplified frameworks combine with sudden heightened emotions and what we say with a bang is a yell of self-defense:

A. “It was just a joke!” a white student at UNC-Charlotte who had been called out for putting up a “colored” sign over a water-fountain in a residence hall. (6)

B. “What I said was in poor taste and erroneous,” Raymond Moore, CEO of Indian Hills Tennis Club, apologizing for earlier saying, "If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have." (7)

C. “Jews will not replace us” chant white supremacists at a KKK rally on a college campus (8).

Without Jim Crow laws, without a social structure of legalized discrimination to point to, these kinds of statements are made and rooted in the panic of self-concern. Wait, what happened? Am I now going to be embarrassed in my daily social interactions with women, blacks, American Muslims, Mexican-Americans? Am I now going to be criticized? How are people in “my” group evaluating me; how are people in those other groups evaluating me?

All that self-concern is moving through the social-psychology of a person because individuals are no longer shielded from personal scrutiny because of laws of discrimination that provided an easy defense, “…what can I do, it’s just the way things are.” Now today, to defend themselves from scrutiny, individuals are turning in circles, twisting themselves in knots, saying “…the problem is political correctness.” Or worse, caught in the 65 mph whirlwind of a floorless roller coaster of intergroup emotions, the individual blurts out a defense: “There’s been no racial oppression for 100 years…” (9)

And that is the social psychology of what we are seeing moving across our nation; rallies and anti-rallies; women speaking up about sexual harassment and assaults. No one can say, “Well, that’s just the way things work.” 

Nope. Now, you see, it’s personal.

References

(1) Smith, Gene (2013, June 11). Medgar Evers: Lost in a search for the American Dream, Fayetteville Observer

(2) Rusbult, C. E., Verette, J., Whitney, G. A., Slovik, L. F., & Lipkus, I. (1991). Accommodation processes in close relationships: Theory and preliminary research evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 53–78.

(3) Blumer, H. (1958) Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position, Pacific Sociological Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1958), pp. 3-7

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