INTRO: Until the 1990’s, theologians from West Michigan were defending apartheid in Dutch South Africa. Holland Michigan had historic ties to the renegade nation. West Michigan has had its own racist history. And to face it, the region is getting advice from scholars. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.
For 150 years, Hope College symbolized the conservative part of the Dutch reformed movement. But last week, Hope teamed up with the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance to focus on race and inclusion. This is in addition to the work they’ve been doing to help migrant workers, mainly latinos, who, for decades, have been coming to pick fruit on this side of the state.
Racism is not dead in America or Michigan. But what happens when someone tells a white guy like me: “you’re racist. Don’t try to deny it. You are.”
I’ll say “I’m not racist. I don’t see race. I’m colorblind.”
john a. powell grew up in Detroit. He’s 67 now. He comes from America’s most prestigious universities including California Berkeley. He teaches law there. His new book is called Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build and Inclusive Society.
Powell wandered around the lectern of Hope College chapel. 700 people were inside. He said having bias doesn’t make you bad.
“You’re not a bad person. I’m not a bad person. But bad things are happening. Kids are getting shot. People are being segregated in schools. How do we change that? We’re not saying you’re bad. But bad stuff is happening.”
Professor powell says police who shoot innocent blacks are not necessarily racist. Many are black themselves. Here’s an exercise he does with the audience. It proves there’s a lot we can’t control.
“I’m going to ask you to shout out the colors as soon as you see them. You will some letters as well. I want you to ignore the letters. All I want you to do is say the colors.”
Powell showed words on a big screen one at a time. The word red was in red ink. The word black was in black ink. Then green appeared in red ink. Black in blue ink. Powell had asked the audience to say the colors not read the words. People got tripped up because the words were not written in the color of the word.
“I know it’s early in the morning. (laughs from the audience) So let me just talk to you about what just happened. I told you to ignore the letters. You can’t ignore the letters. Your unconscious is always on line. When you go to sleep at night you can’t turn it off.”
Implicit means any thing we are not conscious of. We are loaded with implicit bias.
Humans process 40 bits of information per second consciously. But 11 million bits per second unconsciously. Our unconscious doesn’t like blanks. So it fills them in.
Powells’s word/color exercise shows the clash between the conscious and unconscious. It feels like our brains aren’t working right. Powell calls it cognitive depletion. The unconscious is social. It builds up associations through movies, literature, the internet and people you’ve had contact with since you were born. The unconscious affects everyone.
“When we find out we have these tensions it doesn’t make us racist or sexist. It means we’re reflecting the larger environment.”
So white guys like me feel we’re off the hook. But powell says we have a responsibility.
“When two things happen over and over again we build a neuro network over them. They become connected in the brain.”
For example, you see a mugshot of a black man. Conclusion? Black men are criminals. The connections we make are mainly social. They are unconscious.
“We may think that our goal here in Western Michigan and in our society is to treat everybody the same. But I would suggest to you that is not our goal. Our goal is to treat people fair. Our goal is to be inclusive. People are not situated the same within structures.”
A student in East Grand Rapids or West Bloomfield is unlikely to have witnessed violence or felt hunger like city a city student has. In the last U.S. Census, whites had 22 times more wealth than blacks. $110,000 compared to $5,000. Professor john powell might say start there.
“We need to pay attention to that difference. If we want to get people to the same outcome we can’t treat them all the same.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, one out of every three black men will go to prison in their lifetime. Perhaps millions will go because of unconscious bias.