(Editor’s comment: This piece was written June 20, 2015 shortly following the murder of nine black churchgoers by Dylann Roof in an act of racially motivated violence. Originally submitted as an op-ed in a national publication, it was turned away because of “tone.” We refused to edit the piece because the piece justly asks difficult questions and challenges the reader to think about systems in relation to data-driven psychology and social science.)
The solution for racial violence does not lie in friendship, holding hands, humming “we shall overcome,” or by quietly wishing racism will just go away. Solutions also do not lie in the angry shouts, tears, activism among Blacks fighting against racism alone. The solution for racism lies within Whites themselves. The solution for racism will be realized when Whites, en masse, understand their privilege as a system of highly complex and dynamic—historically bound, but contemporarily relevant—factors.
Unlike South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s resigned claim that “we’ll never understand what motivates” people to commit acts of violence such as the slaying of nine churchgoers, we know exactly what leads to heinous acts of racial violence, and it’s not the isolated mental state of one young man. The massacre in Charleston is fundamentally based in a system of White privilege and supremacy in the United States, and Dylann Roof is emblematic of that system. Roof’s self-expressed rationale for his act of terrorism, namely that “they are taking over our country,” was based in an assumption that the United States belongs to him and people like him, a blatant manifestation of White privilege.
As has been discussed by others, mental illness, an indiscriminate assault on Christianity, and gun control are meaningful but peripheral factors contributing to the terrorism that occurred on June 17th in Charleston. And quite frankly, mainstream media’s tendency to deny the structural and systemic nature of White privilege and hatred is infuriating because it removes free will from the equation. The mental illness and other media frames that fail to acknowledge the system of racism in the United States absolves White perpetrators of responsibility, and is an irresponsible application of psychology to social problems. Reducing Roof’s acts of terrorism to mental illness fails to recognize the pathology of racism, allowing it to fester and spread.
The act of a White man violently murdering Black parishioners in a historically significant Black church in the South has no other lineage than racism. Before the next act of racial violence undoubtedly falls upon us, we must stop and place an honest and radical lens on the systemic and contextual factors that have plunged our nation into discord. This type of national and international discourse is particularly important because the discomfort in talking about racism among those in positions of power does not outweigh the trauma and pain of the many who suffer the realities of racism each day.
And what are the realities of racism? Being called a derogatory name, being followed in a store or treated as less competent are all very real manifestations of racism that threaten quality of life and health. But in this current social environment, these harmful and more subtle slights that take a psychological and physical toll on their targets (Lewis, Cogburn & Williams, 2015) pale in comparison to the harm of seeing yet another incident of violence against Blacks. As if the actual acts of violence were not enough, Blacks must also contend with having these chronic instances of domestic terrorism misrepresented, manipulated and diminished in traditional news outlets—all with the confederate flag waving in the distance.
Roof was not called a thug. His culture was not questioned. He was not labeled a terrorist. Once apprehended, police did not slam him to the ground and dig a knee into his back, or shoot him in the back while he was running away, or place him in a choke hold while listening to him wheeze and declare “I can’t breathe.” Traditional media did not investigate where he was radicalized. A system of White privilege.
Furthermore, reducing the murders of Clementa, Cynthia, Sharonda, Tywanza, Ethel, Susie, DePayne, Myra, and Daniel to a single crazed gunman overcome by mental illness, not only trivializes the experiences of those who successfully manage mental illness everyday, but also ignores persistent and systemic patterns of violence against Blacks and other racial/ethnic minorities in the United States. While mass media seems to make every effort to excuse White terrorists like Dylann Roof, their accounts do not allow us make sense of the violent murders in the context of history, oppression, gender-based violence, poverty, education, health, and criminal justice within the community of Charleston, South Carolina and in United States at large. These patterns in our public dialogues around racism continues to scapegoat those with privilege from investigating the roles of systemic and structural forces that work in unison to produce the type of racial violence that occurred on June 17th, and the type of racial violence that is likely to occur again.
The overly reductionist, “White men who do bad things must be mentally ill” narrative fails to provide space for the very real and historically rooted group pathology that is likely at play when acts of racial hatred are perpetrated. Research has shown, for instance, that U.S. citizens cognitively associate Blacks with animals and that the media consistently represents Blacks in a dehumanizing manner (Lester & Ross, 2003). Mass media is a major force in shaping American culture and identity (Williams, 1996) and if used to as a tool to entrench perceptions that Blacks are sub-human, how then do we combat racial hatred? This is how psychology and other social sciences should be applied to the discourse on racial violence in the United States, not in ways that leave many communities wondering, ‘why are Blacks thugs, Muslims terrorists, but Whites mentally ill?’
Tiffany Griffin, PhD, Sr. Advisor, International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD) and Social Psychologist & Courtney Cogburn, PhD, Sr. Advisor, International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD) and Assistant Professor
Tiffany M. Griffin, PhD is a social psychologist with expertise in inter and intra-group dynamics, linkages between psychological processes and structural discrimination, as well as the implications of identity and discrimination for educational, mental health, and physical health disparities. Dr. Griffin has a wide range of public policy experience including legislative experience in the US Senate, international development experience at USAID, and advocacy experience with the American Psychological Association.
Courtney Cogburn received her Ph.D. in Education and Psychology from the University of Michigan. Currently, Assistant Professor of Social Work at Columbia University. Courtney’s research integrates principles and methodologies across psychology, stress physiology and social epidemiology to investigate relationships between stress and racial health disparities across the life course. As a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at Harvard University, she focused on: 1) developing a multidimensional measure of racial stress and 2) the role of racial stress and other structural and psychosocial stressors in producing biological vulnerabilities in racial/ethnic minority populations. Courtney contends that “race” does not cause or influence anything but rather there are social, psychological, and physiological phenomena associated with race that are important in considering health within and disparities across racial groups. Accordingly, an overarching goal of her research is to inform theoretical, empirical and measurement issues surrounding the study of “race” in health.
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