Thoughts on Ending Racial Alienation
Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
© 2015 High Conflict Institute
Right now I'm on vacation in France before I speak in Vienna in July. Perhaps because of the distance, I've been thinking about America's race problem (after the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans in Charleston, North Carolina) in terms of an alienation problem. Here's some random thoughts and suggestions.
DYNAMICS OF ALIENATION
It may seem strange to use the term "alienation" with racism or racial prejudice. However, before a hate crime - or any act based on racial hostility - is committed, hatred for the target group must be developed - a general sense of alienation from that group. After working with the dynamics of alienated children in high-conflict divorces for over twenty years, I have noticed strong similarities between the development of racial prejudice and the development of alienated children (which I now also call "parent prejudice").
Parent prejudice/alienation occurs when a child grows to fear and hate a parent, and resists or refuses to spend time with that parent for no good reason - usually related to an angry separation or divorce.
The dynamics include lots of all-or-nothing thinking; disparaging remarks; intense emotions (which can include crying as well as anger) about the hated parent; by the favored parent, often including his or her angry family members as well; on an almost daily basis; with little direct contact with the hated parent; and ambivalence about or acceptance of the child's negativity toward the hated parent by people in positions of authority, such as therapists, evaluators and judges.
The way this alienation is most commonly overcome is for the child to have substantial exposure to the hated parent, and significant behavior change or reduced contact with the alienating messages of the favored parent. (For more about this analysis of child alienation, see my book: Don't Alienate the Kids.)
IT’S NOT MUCH ABOUT HISTORY
Some say that our problem today is our racial history. However, my theory is that racial alienation has little to do with history and more to do with present behavior. This fits with the alienation dynamics above, because with child alienation there was usually a positive, loving history with the now-hated parent before the separation or intense conflict of the parents began. History doesn't cause alienation - its present day behavior.
If you think about groups of people who have been discriminated against and hated in the past, there are many. In the United States, there was significant prejudice against Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans and other groups a hundred years ago when they were immigrating to the U.S. in large numbers. Yet now few people even think about that and census forms don't ask about those groups.
Jews have been discriminated against for hundreds of years, yet since World War II official barriers have disappeared, anti-Semitism has significantly reduced and even conservatives now embrace Israel.
Gays have also been discriminated against for hundreds of years, but currently in America the tide is turning in support of total equality, including gay marriage - as approved just last month by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even conservatives talk respectfully about the gay people they know (although many still oppose gay marriage).
On the other hand, historically we have every reason to hate the Germans and the Japanese - who killed millions of our relatives and friends in World War II, less than 80 years ago. Yet Germany and Japan are close allies of ours today, and German-Americans and Japanese-Americans have been considered ordinary citizens for decades.
So why do we still have an alienation problem in regard to African-Americans?
THE DOMINANCE HIERARCHY
All mammals have dominance hierarchies, including humans. These help groups work together and are necessary for group survival. This generally includes deferring to those at the top and accepting where you are down the line - for a while. Of course, those at the top get more resources and protection, while those at the bottom get the least. So part of the dynamics of a dominance hierarchy is to fight for a higher position and to resist losing one's position to those below. In America's drive for greater equality and democracy, many groups have moved up to a more equal position - such as disabled people, Jewish people and gays - who now have legally equal status. For lower middle class people (especially relatively-unskilled young white men, such as the Charleston shooter), this loss of people "below" them may feel like a blow to their status in society.
For example, there has never been a logical threat to any heterosexual marriage by allowing gay marriage. The only "threat" has been a loss of status "over" gay people by allowing them to be equal now. The fight against it appears to have been driven more by this fear of loss of status than by religion. Many religious people support gay marriage and it's even legal now in Spain and supported by a majority in polls in Italy, both traditionally catholic countries.
But what about equality for African-Americans? Even though national political, legal and personal efforts have diminished racial discrimination over the past 60 years, we are seeing an apparent resurgence more recently. Why is this? Is it still possible to discriminate against them and not the others? Or did something change over the past decade?
The Presidential election of Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 appears to have been surprisingly threatening to Republican leaders for political reasons - they became concerned about their shrinking future role in American politics and agreed that their best strategy was to stay united in blocking any of his initiatives. However, this overlapped with the sense of loss of status and fear for many young white men after the financial crash, who easily transferred those fears onto what an African-American President would do to them. These fears ripened into a belief that Obama would have the federal government somehow take over their lives, so their only hope was to buy guns - lots of guns. Keep in mind that gun buying was on the decline for decades prior to his candidacy, but has become a huge issue since then - both in terms of making an African-American president the scapegoat for our nation's problems and in terms of shooting African-Americans.
DAILY REMARKS AND EMOTIONS
Since Obama's election came immediately after the financial crash, it wasn't hard for political leaders to associate the crash with him. Many middle class people lost their homes, their jobs and their sense of identity and security in today's America. While the national economy has improved, most of the benefits have gone to the top 1% while the lowest income families are still significantly struggling.
At the same time, since the crash, our nation's news reporting has focused more than ever on the "bad behavior" of isolated individuals: child-kidnappers (yet there's been no increase in 50 years); repeated images of young black men in hoodies; images of young black men rioting. During the last Presidential election there was a lot of talk about: "those people" on food stamps; those teenage mothers; and those irresponsible people who took out mortgages they couldn't pay. Each of these comments strongly implies African-Americans. For example, programs like food stamps are seen by the public as primarily used by black families, when in fact the majority are white.
Also, since the crash, the political news quickly shifted focus to disparaging discourse about "ObamaCare" - as though it was worse than a ruined economy, the loss of homes and loss of jobs. It appears that ObamaCare became the new "N" word. For the past six years, people could publicly say they hated Obama as long as they said ObamaCare.
Remember, with alienation, there is all-or-nothing thinking and intense emotions on an almost daily basis. This fits with ObamaCare, as the battle cry became: "it's got to be totally thrown out." Despite the recent Supreme Court decision upholding its constitutionality, the battle cry seems to have remained the same. Alienation isn't based on logic - it's based on intense emotions which are repeated endlessly. This accurately describes today's daily cable, Internet and mainstream news - constant repetition of emotional statements, rather than rational analysis of important subjects.
Further, alienation is more powerful when it comes from important official people. In terms of disparaging remarks about our African-American President, some of the worst offenders are our other political leaders such as the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Leader and at least one Supreme Court Justice known for his vitriolic speech. It's hard to recall any President in our lifetimes who has been treated so disrespectfully.
Does race have anything to do with this? It's hard to imagine anyone missing that message - especially a young man with easy access to a gun looking for someone to blame for his problems in life.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
First, as individuals, we can act as examples by watching our own comments about anyone, so that we are not promoting disparaging, all-or-nothing thinking - even about those we strongly dislike. We can and should make more racially inclusive decisions in our work lives and personal lives.
Second, we can speak up about the inappropriateness of intensely disparaging remarks of others - including the news media - and insist that we won't watch those who allow and encourage such alienating public comments.
Third, we shouldn't be intimidated by the loud negativity of many in politics today. Positions that are maintained by loud, emotional and all-or-nothing thinking are not sustained by logic and will generally be overcome by the larger rational population.
For example, despite loud and absolute opposition to gay marriage, to the affordable healthcare act, to legalization of marijuana and to tobacco restrictions (years ago), official policies were suddenly reversed after enough time in the spotlight. This will become true of other issues, such as restrictions on assault weapons, after enough political pressure comes from the 90% of the public which supports these efforts, and renewed efforts are made to protect and assist African-Americans more specifically.
Fourth, of course, people need to elect representatives who truly represent the American public, not just well-funded candidates who are indebted to the wealthy 1%. This includes candidates who speak up about racial prejudice and for gun control.
Fifth, we must be aware that now is a dangerous time. When high-conflict people feel that they have lost status and power, they attack back. After the approval of the Affordable Care Act and Gay Marriage by the Supreme Court, be prepared for some new extreme behavior and don't gloat. We need to form alliances with those who are struggling and have been manipulated to blame the wrong people.
Can America overcome this problem of racial alienation? I think we can. As John Lennon said: "You may say that I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one. Perhaps someday you'll join us. And the world can live as one."
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist and mediator. He is the President of High Conflict Institute, which provides training and consultation for dealing with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books on high-conflict personalities and has developed the following methods for managing high-conflict people in any situation: New Ways for Families®, New Ways for Mediation℠, New Ways for Work℠, The CARS Method℠ and BIFF Response®. To learn more about our training, coaching, consultation and videos, visit us at www.HighConflictInstitute.com.