Getting ready for bears, finding butterflies, more mass shootings, and how racism affects us
by Rob Tiller
Next week I’ll be going to Klemtu, British Columbia for a photography workshop involving bears. I’m excited, but also a little daunted, since there’s a lot I don’t know about bears. This week I’ve been shopping for expedition clothing and equipment. I’d like to thank Peace Camera, my local photo shop, for their patience and good advice, and REI, Great Outdoor Provision Co., and L.L. Bean for their high quality products and friendly service.
Trying to get ready for the bears, I got outside a few times with my camera, but the only photogenic animals I saw were butterflies. Those here were in Raulston Arboretum, where they were working hard in the flowers. Though they had no interest in posing for me, they didn’t seem to mind my shooting them. Anyhow, there were many shots I didn’t get, but I did get these which I liked.
I’m generally hesitant to refer to taking pictures as shooting, because the term is ambiguous, and I’m definitely not referring to using guns. Mass shootings were once again in the news this week, causing fresh horror and renewed calls for reasonable gun control. It is sad and remarkable that our politics prevents fixing this relatively simple problem.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about racial bias and wondering how much of our gun proliferation problem relates to our racism problem. There’s a lot of evidence that white people unthinkingly and wrongly associate black people with negative qualities, including criminality. How much of the drive to own firearms comes from an irrational fear of black criminals? A goodly amount, I’d wager. To judge from the crowds at Trump rallies, the folks most enthusiastic about guns are the ones that are most supportive of Trump’s racism. They may well think they need guns to fend off black criminals.
I think it’s a mistake to blame Trump for our racism. His incitement of racist violence is revolting and scary, but the American system of white supremacy was in place long before he was born. And to fathom it requires looking well beyond the President’s outrages. I even give Trump credit for a possible silver lining: his grotesque and overt racism takes the issue out from under the covers and makes it somewhat easier to see and work on.
I used to think that the main problem with white racism was the disadvantages it created for black people. Those disadvantages, from limiting job, housing, and educational opportunities on down to emotional and physical violence, are wrong, and we need to fix them. But our traditional racism has ripple effects that are related to a host of other problems.
The meta problem is our political polarization, which makes it almost impossible to work on other major problems (like gun control, population control, deindustrialization, fair elections, the social safety net, health care, and climate change). This polarization is in large part a product of our racism.
Nixon’s “southern strategy” in 1968 was to use racist dog whistles and fearmongering to get southern Democrats to vote Republican, and succeeding generations of Republican politicians have followed the same playbook with varying degrees of subtlety. As Sahil Chinoy pointed out in the NY Times this week, race and attitudes toward race are a strong predictor of whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats.
Unless you just arrived here from outer space or Honduras, you probably know that Republicans are a mostly white party, and Democrats are a more racially mixed party. This division wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if we viewed race as merely a physical difference, like height or eye color. But we’re deeply conditioned to associate blackness with fearsome things. The political party that doesn’t much care for blacks not only disagrees with the other party; it believes it to be dangerous. It’s hard to work cooperatively with people you think are a threat to peace and order.
So a lot of our political disagreements that seem to have nothing to do with race are the progeny of racism. I should note that I’m talking here about systems and tendencies. I don’t at all mean to suggest that all Republican individuals are racists, or that all Democrats are not. On the contrary, I think a lot of us in both parties think that racism is wrong and want to end it. But not a lot of us fully appreciate how thoroughly our racist culture has conditioned us, how much our lives today are affected by that culture, and how much work we have to do, both as individuals and as a society, for real change.
By way of advancing the discussion, I’ve been reading, and hope others will read, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo’s message is particularly important and helpful for white people who consciously support racial equality but don’t realize how they too have been deeply conditioned by a racist system. She pulls no punches, and makes a convincing case that those of us who consider ourselves progressives as to racial matters still have a lot of interior work to do.
I’m also reading and recommending Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, by Jennifer Eberhardt. Eberhardt is a black social psychologist whose work involves studying racial bias. The book is part autobiography and part science. With moving and personal stories, she shows how deeply seated racism is in our culture, and how much work it will take to undo it.