A Tipping Point Where Bigotry Awakens With A Roar

Over the last year, our nation has witnessed a terrifying intergroup dynamic.

Posted May 20, 2015

America has reached a neo-diversity tipping point. A tipping point is a moment in time during which things stand so rigid that almost anything can push the tension in the moment into either a good or bad direction.  When it comes to dealing with everyday neo-diversity interactions, we have reached this point.

I would be surprised if anyone were to strongly disagree. Having grown up in the Jim Crow South of legal racial segregation, I lived through the tremendous and violent struggle for change during the 1960s part of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet over the last year, our nation has witnessed an intergroup dynamic that has been stunning to watch, even for those in my generation.

On college campuses we have seen nooses displayed, like the one at Duke University. We have learned that an anti-woman and racially bigoted fraternity notebook was found at North Carolina State University. We have seen and listened to a videotape of a University of Oklahoma fraternity singing and chanting a racial slur and, in the same chant, using images of lynching.  Although not directly on campus, we have seen the murder of the three American Muslim students from University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University.  And to top it all off, we see again and again negative police interactions that now seem to routinely end with a fatality, sometimes with bullets in the back of the black man.

So yes, we have reached a tipping point.  What are we going to do?

Prometheus Books has just published my new book, Taking On Diversity: How We Can Move From Anxiety To Respect. One of the things I take on in my book is "hibernating bigotry.”  As I write in chapter nine:

“…changing the hearts and minds of all white people was not the goal of the movement. The goal of the movement was to force our government to recognize that the U.S. Constitution protects all of its citizens from discrimination, from bigotry at the institutional and organizational level.  That did not require that Supreme Court justices and members of congress drop their racial prejudices. What it required was that we got those officials to enforce the constitution…

Was individual racial prejudice and bigotry eradicated? Don’t be ridiculous. But because the story of the magnificent changes that have come to our multiracial, now neo-diverse society is told so bland, bad, and in a hearsay way, Americans are confused and cry out 'what a racist' when they encounter bigotry they don’t go along with.”[1]

If not eliminated, then where did the prejudice and bigotry go? It didn’t go anywhere.  And do not misunderstand me—attitudes did change; a great many people became more accepting of black people as equal citizens. But while there was some change, some prejudice and bigotry also went into hibernation. Hibernating bigotry is anti-group feelings of prejudice that people hold but do not express in behavior until the right stimulus comes along and wakes it up. 

We, as individual citizens of this nation, have been too passive in our encounters with bigotry in our everyday lives. We have been too tolerant of intolerance. In our everyday lives we encounter spoken slurs and expressions of outward hostility toward Americans from different groups, but we have failed to understand that letting others speak in the language of bigotry against any group allows hostility to live and hibernate. Then when a particular circumstance touches on that hostility, no longer hibernating, that bigotry roars to life and we act surprised (three American Muslim students murdered: oh no!).

With all of the recent stories of diversity encounters gone bad and sometimes fatal, we are indeed at a neo-diversity tipping point in American history. As a nation we have to do better at managing the (positive and negative) neo-diversity dynamics of our communities. We have to engage the hibernating bigotry in our communities before it awakens and goes public with deadly consequences. That means that each of us must take personal responsibility for the language of hostility we may allow in our social interactions. 

We also have to understand that today the issues are not just race-related, but also about neo-diversity. Neo-diversity occurs in the time we live in, in which all of us have to encounter and interact with people from different gender, religious, sexually-oriented, ethnic, mental-health-conditioned, and racial groups. And for too many Americans that creates an intergroup anxiety during social interactions that can lead to bad moments.

All those awful moments when neo-diversity interactions go badly stem from all of us.  Again, we have all been too at ease with letting others speak in the language of intergroup hate, not realizing we are letting intergroup hostility and anger grow. That is how we have come to this tipping point in neo-diverse America.

[1] Nacoste, R.W. (2015). Taking On Diversity: How We Can Move From Anxiety To Respect. (New York: Prometheus Books).