This is a week in which it feels hard to think of something positive and uplifting to write. Since I often aim to write with an eye toward illuminating some facet of psychology, even when talking about culture, I’m thinking about how our media representation of stories involving people of color (particularly Black Americans in this post) reveals so much about our own cultural shadows.
Last year in Ferguson and this year in Baltimore, the media and many social media conversations focused on the acts of rioting and violence committed by a fraction of the total people who were out in the communities protesting police violence. Now this fear of uprising has led to martial law and the eradication of civil liberties in Baltimore. As with Ferguson, one of the most noticeable reactions by Whites has been to fixate and condemn the rioting, either through the straight-up racist language of calling Black people “thugs” and “animals” or through the kinder racism of concern that they should be nonviolently resisting, because “violence never solves anything.” Those White people condemning violence are hopefully giving the same amount if not more energy toward condemning the police and government for employing violence against its citizens. Instead, the victims are expected to be somehow more than human, able to tolerate abuse and oppression and rise to nonviolent resistance. And even when the majority of people are resisting nonviolently, somehow these people get blamed for the minority that acts out violently.
As I was thinking about this tendency to fixate on the violence and downplay or ignore the people who did actually practice nonviolent protest, I remembered the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Remember all the stories that made it sound like the place had fallen into an apocalyptic world in which random violence broke out everywhere and people were turning on each other, even shooting rescue helicopters? Did you know those were mostly wrong, or grossly exaggerated?
There is a deep shadow of the collective unconsciousness of the United States, which we project onto those who are socially and politically vulnerable in our society. Popular mythology (the media and politics) ascribes to poor people of color all these qualities of lawlessness and inhumanity and deny their humanity, then we in the dominant culture support systems and organizations that penalize and control these people with violence and economic degradation. So the dominant culture accuses welfare recipients of being lazy drug addicts and create policies that are huge wastes of money, testing welfare recipients only to learn that a fraction of recipients actually tested positive for anything. The dominant culture thinks that the anger and grief in the wake of a senseless murder somehow justifies the system that perpetuated the murder.
Those of us who benefit from the status quo and participate in this projection do not see our own monstrous faces looming over the crowds, laughing at the misery of the poor and people of color, saying they deserve it while the policies we support place burden after burden upon them.
I’m not saying everyone on one side is evil and guilty and everyone on the other side is blameless. That’s exactly the opposite of what I mean. Some people commit acts of evil, acts that harm and degrade others, make their lives smaller and meaner and emptier of hope. Sometimes, the evil comes from the acts or inaction of many, a broader system that depersonalizes evil by making it routine and without accountability. The individual cop who kills unarmed citizens is only an extension of a deeper history, a larger shadow, a system that endorses the betrayal of the basic values of life and liberty.
I’ve nothing profound to say but I fear by saying nothing that I am endorsing mass incarceration, martial law, and police brutality. I’d rather listen to the people who are working to make change, who are putting themselves on the line or directly living this unrest and oppression.
“Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking. But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights. There are thus elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act. This may explain why most cities in which riots have occurred have not had a repetition, even though the causative conditions remain. It is also noteworthy that the amount of physical harm done to white people other than police is infinitesimal and in Detroit whites and Negroes looted in unity.
A profound judgment of today’s riots was expressed by Victor Hugo a century ago. He said, ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’
The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967
APA’s Annual Convention in Washington, D.C.