Beyond Racism

We need a negotiated peace.

Posted May 30, 2020

“Violence is the language of the unheard.” —Martin Luther King

I am 74 years old.

I live in Brooklyn.

In my lifetime, we have greeted a number of landmarks in racial relations in America, including:

  • 1954: Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court ruled school desegregation illegal
  • 1964: The Civil Rights Act
  • 1968: The Kerner Commission Report labeling institutionalized racism as the source of urban riots in the 1960s. Johnson convened the Kerner Commission because of a series of urban upheavals, including in Watts (1965), Detroit, Newark, New York City (1967), Washington, and Baltimore (1968).

Let’s jump ahead to today. In 2020, we have had rioting in Minneapolis based on the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police. Similar riots have occurred in recent years in Milwaukee (2016) over the deaths of Sylville Smith, Charlotte (2016), of Keith Lamont Scott, Baltimore (2015), of Freddie Gray, Ferguson, Missouri (2014 and 2016), of Michael Brown. (Note that these cases all occurred under the administration of an African American president, Barack Obama.)

It seems that we haven’t made much—or really any—progress in racial relations. The country is burning in the aftermath of the Floyd killing—in New York, Los Angeles, Louisville, Sacramento, Atlanta, D.C., and elsewhere. It’s as though white America has had a prison camp in its midst, and the prisoners are prepared to riot or break out.

What is this failure at racial integration due to, and what are the chances of reversing it?

The general explanation given for the current rioting, unrest, and conflict—just like the Kerner Commission’s conclusion—is white racism. To which the reaction is rage, generally suppressed, or, as it is now, activated. This has led politician after politician, commentator after commentator, to make excited, insistent renewed vows to address, eliminate, and punish racism—particularly in law enforcement.

If “racism” were a scientific theory, it would be rejected (as I argue should be done with the “brain disease” theory of addiction), based on its failure to remedy the problem it is designed to address, and a new scientific paradigm would be selected.

If we switch to viewing racism as the source of intergroup conflict, we also need to scrap it, because identifying and attacking such conflict using this trope has likewise failed. What might replace it as a kind of negotiated basis for resolving our perpetual conflict between black and white Americans?

We need to approach persistent American racial conflict as a negotiated truce using the techniques of intergroup conflict resolution:

1. Recognize that the two groups have conflicting interests. White and black economic, educational, and criminal justice outcomes are not aligned. Rather, the two groups’ standard patterns of operation are, in large part, opposed.

2. Accept that whites and blacks view the world differently, based on different experiences, values, and histories.

3. Assume that there are inherent conflicts between racial groups. These differences must be negotiated in order for peace and cooperation to prevail.

4. Use tactical negotiation techniques, like balancing rewards proportionally, creating separate spaces and reward structures—which in fact already exist through residential and educational segregation in America.

5. Once these group differences in outlooks, needs, and processes are established, mutual respect for group differences must prevail—neither group nor their values and group practices should be disparaged.

What might this “negotiated settlement” look like in America? Or, more exactly, could it be worse than the armed camps that seemingly sit in wait for one another today?

Each community and state, and the country, would have a representative racial commission comprised of respected and respectful members of each group. The commissions would consider laws, criminal procedures, rules of social conduct, etc. These negotiated products would not be labeled as favoring black or white citizens, but rather as community-based solutions to otherwise persistent social, racial, and political problems.

That white police may have different outlooks and ways of processing information from black citizens would be taken as a given, and operating procedures that respected all outlooks implemented.

And the resulting concurrence in decision-making and operating procedures would only allow greater cooperation and mutual acceptance—certainly more than currently exists.