America the Beautiful, America the Violent

Antoinette Tuff performed miracles on that crucial day at an Atlanta area charter school. Talking an obviously distressed and irrational young man down from what would most assuredly be another catastrophe of America’s young children at the hands of a man with mass casualty weapons. Listening to the 9-1-1 recording and her interview with Anderson Cooper, the nation saw just how close these school officials and students escaped tragedy. And even more astounding is that neither Antoinette herself nor the intended shooter lost their lives. It was indeed a miracle. But what touched many of us through this ordeal was exactly how Ms. Tuff handled the situation. She did not use special operations 101 or psychological training in crisis management, nor did she fight violence with more violence to defuse the situation. She used the principle of love to save lives. Tuff was able to connect in that brief moment with the shooter, conveying to the young man that he mattered in the world and was loved. Where others had likely failed to convince him otherwise, Tuff got through. She penetrated the man’s soul, and by that, the plan was averted and the nation was spared.

We are in the midst of a national crisis—a fight to recover the souls of young men lost, caught in the throws of a self-deprecating patriarchy and its stratified emphasis on race, class and gender. These particular interlocking social constructions of a manufactured reality have not served the emotional well-being of our young men especially well. If you are a young man in our society and you are black, mentally ill, poor, homosexual, or emotionally traumatized from early childhood experiences (whether it be from a fractured home or abuse)—you are among those at greatest risk of killing or being killed. We care very little about those who are outside the norm of white, middle-class, mentally/emotionally healthy, heterosexual males. And yet we emphasize that their masculinity is of utmost importance.

Our society places emphasis on masculinizing male children by withholding affection (in comparison to females), consigning to them gender-appropriate toys, and communicating calculated signs of “appropriate” forms and displays of affection. This image of masculinity is only hastened by the over-exposure of violence to our culture (and young men), which reaffirms their image-conscious masculine identities. In other words, what it means to be a man is further manufactured by media outlets including Hollywood films, sports broadcasting, hunting & fishing shows, and video games—all which commodify maleness, branding it for profit.

Interestingly, we expect our children to decipher and understand the difference between “good” violence (hunting, defending the country in times of war, sport shooting, etc.) from that of “bad” violence. This task is difficult enough by loving, informed and concerned caregivers . Without positive and influential role models, these young men not only lack the ability to categorize violence, but they also lack effective coping strategies.

These same young males who emerge with little guidance, are the same ones who believe in their mind that (whether real or imagined) they matter very little in the world and often feel left out and left behind, particularly young men of color (our most vulnerable resource). This can evoke the deepest sense of pain, driving many young people to make life-altering decisions with dire consequences. Enveloped within our nation’s narcissism, we pretend that human conflict found in the popular saying “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” cannot hurt as bad as physical pain. We now know this could not be further from the truth. It matters greatly that we humans feel loved, affirmed and empowered in ways that allow us to flourish in productive ways rather than destructive ones.

These “random” acts of violence are not entirely individualistic actions and maybe not so random after all; they were created and maintained due to our unapologetically and grossly unequal society, predicated on the status hierarchy of white over black, male over female, Christian over non-Christian, and wealth over poverty. The inequality in our country serves to make these men feel emasculated as they often relate manhood to material objects like cars, ostentatious jewelry, neighborhoods, shoes and women, which may explain why disrespect, humiliation and shame are often triggers of violent acts.

When men of all stripes do not have an equal voice, they have few options. Between our emphasis on patriarchy and our skewed definition of masculinity combined with our lack of direction for these souls, it is no wonder they turned to destructively violent means when they feel unheard or threatened. Many turn to affirming themselves by “being a man” and resorting to violence, chaos and self-destruction. Others who feel unheard, make the world see them through a horrific and monumental event. Either way, the lack of positive, self-worth-promoting entities in a patriarchal society make the affirmation of self through violence all the more likely.

Antoinette Tuff accomplished something that few others could have done. She was able to divert another potential Sandy Hook and national tragedy by showing genuine concern and love for the shooter. (That is not to say that anyone could have reasoned with the other mentally ill individuals who have killed our children and loved ones in other mass shootings. I wonder if the strong souls who lost their lives were even given a chance to do so. But in this case, one person was given a chance—and it was the right person.) She practiced the convictions of her faith in Jesus who taught his followers to love our enemies; she was able to affirm to Brandon Hill that he mattered in the world. She let him know that he was loved. And she meant every word.

Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.

The Many Costs of Racism

We have all heard the story that America is a nation of active citizens and joiners (Alexis de Tocqueville, 1840) — resulting in a citizenry that joins together for the common good. However, according to Harvard professor Robert Putnam, social capital—which is about connections, reciprocity, and trust—is on the decline and consequently, American civil society is on the decline. Putnam lists many reasons for this decline in our modern lifestyles, but I believe that nothing decreases connections and trust among Americans more than racist public policies such as Arizona’s SB 1070 law.

We need to consider the costs that this policy will have on the overall American story of connectedness. Not surprisingly social capital among blacks and Latinos is already significantly lower than among whites (See link here.) However, it is important to consider that Latino citizens are a huge part of the population in Arizona. Pretending that Latino citizens aren’t a huge part of the population in Arizona and that these Latino citizens won’t incur gigantic costs in terms of civil liberties violations and sense of personal security is ridiculous. Despite Governor Brewer’s assurances that there will be no racial profiling against Latino citizens, anyone who reads the bill, which, “Requires officials and agencies to reasonably attempt to determine the immigration status of a person involved in a lawful contact where reasonable suspicion exists regarding the immigration status of the person…,” knows that it is patently obvious that long-time Latino citizens are indistinguishable from undocumented Latinos. “Reasonable suspicion” amounts to being Latino in Arizona. My father, a Latino living in Tucson, now feels uncomfortable around his white friends because they disagree about SB 1070. This is beyond a political or ideological disagreement.

For a Latino, this is about acceptance, respect, equality, and yes, trust. So, there are more than civil liberties violations and personal security at stake—it is about the ending of relationships between Latinos and whites, it is about separating life-long friends, maybe for good.

The story of Latinos living in Arizona after SB 1070 now is sadness, and at best for those Latinos who are citizens an increased fear–and hiding at worst for those who aren’t documented. It is about decreased community connectedness along racial lines on all counts. I know if I was an undocumented Latina about to give birth I would risk giving birth at home rather than going to the hospital and possibly being deported. Why can’t whites see the social and personal costs of this policy? Perhaps it is because most whites are between four to ten generations removed from their immigrant parents; immigration for them is some distant thing. Maybe this is why they do not realize we are all in the same boat. Maybe that is why they don’t see the costs of this type of racism on America.

De Tocqueville had it wrong. We are not a nation of active citizens and joiners. We are a nation of exclusion by race. If strong social capital is an important component of our nation’s civic health, then America will pay a huge cost for generations to come if we keep targeting Latinos.

To Kill or Not to Kill. That is, If the Price is Too High?

The Chicago Tribune, along with other national and local news outlets, has recently published numerous articles surrounding the possible end of the death penalty.

I would like to thank state governments around the country to have the testicular fortitude to address such an imperative concern. Is it possible that they directed their attention to the issue because as of August 26, 2008, some 130 death row inmates have been exonerated in 26 states? It had to be, right?

No, the call for social justice had to come from the fact that “82% of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.” Moreover, this is evident with the number of executions that have occurred since 1976. Wrong again?

Ok, it had to be because the disproportionate rate of Black males to non-Black males on death row caused the ethical and moral bones within their bodies to ache.

In reality, the real cause for the debate over the death penalty surfacing again is not because of moral, ethical, religious, or even statistical evidence that has proven time and time again that the death penalty does not curb the rate of serious malicious crimes from occurring.

Money! Money is the motive for the dialogue. The lack of the almighty dollar within the hands of states during the current U.S. economic crisis, coupled with the millions states utilize to contest years of legal appeals, has made the nation second guess the efficiency of killing another human being.

Amnesty International states that, “a 2003 legislative audit in Kansas found that the estimated cost of a death penalty case was 70% more than the cost of a comparable non-death penalty case.” Moreover, the New York Times wrote a story in which “a judge in a small, poor Ohio county told prosecutors there this month that they could not seek the death penalty in the murder of a college student because the county’s share of the defense costs would be too great.”

I guess it is true as Henry Louis Mencken states, “Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.”

Prejudice Does Not Pay – At Least Some of the Time

Even a quick study of U.S. demography reveals that the United States is daily becoming less white and more diverse. One significant fact this demography raises is how people now deal with increasing diversity and how will they deal with it in the future. Especially those white Americans with the power and privilege. One recent social psychological study of 50 white college students by psychologists Jennifer A. Richeson and J. Nicole Shelton found that interracial interactions are especially difficult for whites who hold very prejudiced views of racial outgroups (Jennifer A. Richeson and J. Nicole Shelton, “When Prejudice Does Not Pay: Effects of Interracial Contact on Executive Function,” Psychological Science 14 (MAY 2003): 287-290). As the researchers note:

“…the results of the current study suggest that after leaving intergroup interactions, prejudiced individuals may be more likely than others to underperform on tasks that require executive control. Specifically, we found that high-prejudice White participants who engaged in an interracial interaction had impaired performance on the Stroop [color/word matching] task—a task requiring executive control—compared with both high-prejudice participants who interacted with a White person and low-prejudice participants.”

Their measure of racial bias was a relatively unconscious one. They used an Implicit Association Test (IAT) in which they assessed whether subjects associated stereotypically white and black names with either pleasant or unpleasant words by pressing marked response keys. Differences in response times were used to measure implicit favoring of one racial category over another.

Such research has significant implications for everyday life. These researchers interpret their data using an energy model, one termed a “resource model of executive function.” This suggests that engaging in an exercise involving energetic self-control, such as interacting with racial others viewed negatively, can have a temporary negative impact on one’s ability to do a second important task.

Thus, highly prejudiced people often pay a significant price for their strong racist stereotyping and framing, and can likely increase their ability to function in a diverse society by significantly reducing the strength of their prejudiced views. The researchers prefer a narrow interpretation of their findings:

“The negative effect of intergroup contact on cognitive functioning may dissipate after repeated interactions with the same stigmatized persons. Furthermore, in many cases, the motives and roles of participants during an interaction will shape their contact experiences . . . and, therefore, the effect (if any) on subsequent executive capacity.”

Nonetheless, the results do add yet another piece of evidence about how high the price of systemic racism is for whites. While the price is certainly not nearly as high as for those targeted by this such oppression, there is a very significant price to be paid by racism’s primary maintainers.