The Great America's reckoning is taking place NOW
After the obscenely sadistic, concerted killing of George Floyd by white policemen in Minneapolis, protests against police brutality and anti-black racism sprouted around the world and, fortunately, continue. There is no turning back from this relentless wave toward a more equal American society. The pain and rage of centuries, only partially tackled by the victories of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s, have found a renewed, effective channel in the present quasi-revolutionary times.
Anti-blackness is a complex and social phenomena with economic, political and psychological roots. I will address here just one of its foundations, namely, the unconscious psychodynamics of racial prejudice.
Blackness: the shadow of ourselves
Carl Jung, a pioneer psychoanalyst, called the unconsciously unwanted and disavowed parts of an individual’s or a group’s, their shadow. Anti-blackness is the shadow of the White American society (that part of themselves that they reject or foreclose.) James Baldwin eloquently described this disavowal when he said, “Most of the white Americans I’ve ever encountered truly never have nothing against negros. That’s really not the question. Really it’s about apathy and ignorance. You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall because you don’t want to know.”* While 78% of black people say that not enough has been done to address black and white racial inequality, only 37% of white people agree. Despite declining overtly racist attitudes, implicit biases against blacks persist. The shadow is there – in the implicit biases of white groups perpetuating racial inequality. Racial inequality will persist for as long as anti-black biases remain having the function of the shadow of white America.
Projecting our Dark Side onto the Other(s)
Psychological projection, a defense mechanism studied by psychoanalysis, occurs when an individual or group attribute undesirable aspects of themselves to another person or group. The projection can be direct, such as when an egotistical individual believes anyone around him is equally self-involved. It explains also how a hostile, paranoid person assumes that others are out to get them, and hence he has to attack first and most lethally (white supremacists offer splendid examples of this mechanism.) The result is the action of Othering, that is, the projection of contents of an in-group’s shadow (negative, disallowed aspects of ourselves expelled from consciousness) onto an out-group, making it the domain of the “other” group.
How does this othering influence racial inequality in America? Some argue that “much of the dominant white community alleviates itself of anxiety or shame about the history of slavery and the oppression of blacks by projecting certain self-perceptions onto the African-American community,” particularly through narratives of black people being dangerous and criminals. This othering helps some white Americans avoid avowing their own shadows through blaming black people for their allegedly band nature and disadvantaged social status. James Baldwin described this process with his characteristic eloquence*: "... if Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would have never become so dependent on what they call 'the N*.. problem'. This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and is is destroying them."
Through this mechanism of projective othering, the determinant impact of a legacy of racism in the social disadvantages of blacks – such as institutionalized discrimination in educational or financial opportunities, i.e., lending practices— is obscured, allowing for a hallow attribution of cause to black people’s alleged primitive “essence.”
A Way Forward
Where do we go from here? What is to come of America?
I am cautiously optimistic about this wave of revolt against institutionalized discrimination. There is great momentum – desire for racial equality is the zeitgeist of our days. There are many indicators of a gradual increased understanding of anti-blackness and the plight of the underprivileged not just among Americans at large, but also among leadership groups and centers of power, which are the essential actors in the institutionalization of change (politicians, justices, scholars, corporations.). Measures against discriminatory practices are slowly but surely being taken. This process, if slow and protracted, is distinctively on the way.
What is any individual to do?
Again, James Baldwin’s voice speaks to us:
“The question you’ve got to ask yourself, the white population of this country has got to ask itself, is why it was necessary to have a n..* in the first place. I am not a n..* I am a man. But if you think I’m a n..*, it means you need it. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”*
It is the onus of all of us, particularly the white, the privileged and the powerful, to be mindful of inadvertent racism creeping in overt or covert manners, and work to relinquish it through action: in our private and public lives, in small and large ways, in the immediacy of our neighborhoods and the large stages of political action. It behooves all of us to be in constant vigilance of our motives, judgments and actions in regards to those individuals who have been burden by racism, and to take action, in small and large ways, to end the last vestiges of slavering culture.