cognitive dissonance (n.)- anxiety that results from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or the like, as when one likes a person but disapproves strongly of one of his or her habits or attributes.
dysconscious racism (n.)- is an uncritical form of racism where the habitual mind (including perceptions, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs) tacitly accepts dominant white norms and privileges that justify inequity and exploitation by acceding, and promoting, the existing order of things as given.
In the title of this piece, the popularly trending declarative is intentionally preceded by the parenthetically adjuvant word “do” as a means to constitutionally interrogate its premise when situated against the supra-social structure of white supremacy. Black lives do matter, as do all lives that represent the outwardly phenotypic and physiognomic traits that are customarily differentiated along the socially-constructed continuum of “race”; however, matter, in the parlance of the cognitive process is dictated and demonstrated by the imposition of value of importance to said person irrespective of their sentiency. And color, with its correlatively imputed meaning of worth, in a society saturated with conscious and obscured ideations fixed to the black skin, remind its bearer that white is assumed fair and right, and black ain’t jack.
So, when the masses throng in the streets to protest the socially-structured repression of blacks through their use of the rhetoric cliché “black lives matter,” what the hell do they mean? When a flash mob of politically astute agitators disrupt and demand of Martin O’Malley to demarcate and define his position relative to whether there’s any real estate value in black corporeality, by challenging him to admit singularly that black lives (also) matter, what the hell did they mean? At the time that that brave soul of a young black woman climbed the pole upon which was hoisted the vestigially symbolic representation of the antithesis of black life mattering, what the hell did that mean?
By all accounts, racism is still alive and kicking in America (Abdul-Khaliq, 2015; Bonilla-Silva, 2006; Feagin, Vera, & Batur, 2001; Omi & Winant, 2015; Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2001; Zinn, 1988). And, just as the heretical results that are created from a subscription to a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance in the seeming post-racial age of President Obama has evinced, that anxiety can be reified when it’s least expected. Because a thing (racism) isn’t believed to exist, and issues such a strangle-hold on those of the first part of the black-white binarism in America, doesn’t make it any less real, or consequential. For, as it should be remembered, in the sociological dictum, “[i]t is not important whether or not the interpretation is correct—if men [sic] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences (Thomas and Thomas, 1928). And the consequences of living in a smog-ridden city, where here, smog is the equivalent proxy of racism, irrespective of the breather’s ignorance of such, or not being immediately harmed by the grossly carcinogenic particulate matter, still makes one a smog breather (Tatum, 1997). Living in America, where society is still structurally saturated with the by-products of racism, especially affects those who exhibit the subjugable proclivities concomitant being mired at the bottom of a social order.
Do black lives matter? According to all of the indices that serve as a barometer for measuring social position (academic achievement; employment; healthcare; carceral relativity; housing; religious affiliation; etc.), blacks are invariably, and inexorably, associated with the least performing of all such measures—or, are hyper-segregated so as to make their positioning concentrated so as to infer maladjustment. Though religion may seem shocking here, everyone still knows that the most segregated time and hour is on Sunday, at eleven a.m. Respecting academic achievement, in relation to their white peers, black student achievement level, by the 12th grade, is only half of that registered at or above basic mastery level of fundamental skills in the core classes (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2011). That it amounts to such a deplorable mismatch should not be shock, for, by the 8th grade, average Mathematics and Reading scores have precipitously dropped beneath those of their white and Asian-American counterparts by close to a half, respectively, and an incommensurable amount of black children attending failing schools (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2011). With such glaring disparities, the academic low performance provides fodder for the disproportionality of blacks incarcerated (at a rate of 40% for blacks, compared to 34% for whites, though the former’s population composition is nearly one-fifth that of the latter), leads some to surmise that there exists a “school to prison pipeline” (Edelman, 2000).
Caste has a way of intruding into the concrete lives of black folk in America, beyond its seemingly obscured, antiquated, and otherwise denied definition as borrowed from days past. Whereas caste used to mean (and when still studied apposite to the disproportionality of justice denied, and opportunities repudiated) an abject separation of one set of peoples from another set of peoples by dictates of social position controlled by race, class, ethnicity, and or religious practices, that meaning is still material to the lives of black folk (especially black men) where the prison industry is considered. From the over-policing of black neighborhoods, to the trumped-up charges that net blacks an inverse ratio of carceral representation beyond that of their white counterparts, to the grossly over-representation of young black men languishing in jail cells and prisons for non-violent offenses, caste has not been relegated to the bygones of lexicon usage. For when Alexander (2012) describes it, “[t]he stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history” (p. 8). And one’s black skin matters most here, because “while the size of the system alone might suggest that it would touch the lives of most Americans, the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race” (p. 8). And, to make it worse, that’s if they make it to the inside of the hoosegow, for many have died on the street by way of criminal vigilantism of wayward cops, or mysteriously within the supposed safe confines of said jail cells. To name a few: Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Samuel DuBose, Sandra Bland, Chritian Taylor, no name in the street, no name in the street, no name in the street.
According to the National Urban League, in their monumental study of the state of black America, along a hosts of equity indices, “on many fronts, Black America remains in crisis—and we see justice challenged at every turn” (2015, p.9). Blacks, still being the last hired and the first fired, made a slight improvement in the economic index (55.8% that of whites; while 2 out of 5 black children reside in poverty); though the unemployment and homeownership gaps widened. And, while our health has experienced a slight uptick to what it was the previous year (79.8% to 78.2%), we still die far too earlier than whites as babies, and as we approach the geriatric stage. Social justice, or the absence thereof, remains appallingly low at only a tick above half of that justice that whites can routinely expect as members of the social polity.
It’s an indisputable fact that white privilege insulates one from the stultifying effects of racism. In the American social order, “racism is a system of oppression of African Americans and other people of color by white Europeans and white Americans” (Feagin, Vera, & Batur, 2001, p. 3). Racism does not occur in a vacuum. It is learned. “For [within] contemporary society, social context remains very important for understanding what might be called racist oppression and resistance…,” and the perpetuation of the insidiousness of racist thoughts and actions are borne out through “[s]urveys show[ing] that many white Americans admit to being racist in their thinking about African Americans” (Abdul-Khaliq, 2015; Frankenberg, 1993; Picca & Feagin, 2007; Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2001, p. 177). And that’s not the end of it, because those thoughts are deposited and inculcated within young white children who “build, or rebuild, a racialized society within their own hands with materials learned from the racial order of the adult world surrounding them” (Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2001, p. 21). But we know, in the age of the presidency of Obama, racism is an autonomous, institutionalized thing, with no mind, or hands, or intent behind it, and such racism putatively operates without racists (Bonilla-Silva, 2006).
Eliciting from the supraliminal dysconscious disorder associated with racism are those elements inherent white privilege. The privilege of ignoring, accepting, dismissing, or acknowledging the reality of racism—and its impact upon the mattering of black lives—is inextricably bound within the institutional substantiality of what bell hooks (1992) aptly describes as America’s “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchical system.” It is the invidiously risible notion devised by whites that theirs is the puerilely first and last comment on anything ontologically relative. It is the ordering of society around an axial set of capricious beliefs and practices that fix and fetishize the subaltern self of the black as “other.”
What does the materiality of white privilege appear as when applied in the social sphere? Recognizing that whites are socialized to ignore the benefits derived from the advantages associated with white skin, Peggy McIntosh (1988) enumerated some truths akin to the sociological white skin; these are a sampling representation of white privileges, and how blacks’ lives don’t matter when juxtaposed against such:
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most the time [ghettos and inner-cities excluded].
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
- Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not be work against the appearance of financial reliability.
- I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
- If a traffic cop pulls me over [and I escape with my life] or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
It is obviously clear that such a litany of rights and privileges are not afforded to those within black America.
How despondent the wearer of black skin must feel when confronted with the irregularities of life that seem unjustly affixed as an albatross around one’s neck. To feel singled out, deliberately picked on, shot at or brutalized by the police, or ignored by the teacher…what does that feel like? What does that antithesis of mattering mean to the corporeal black self? Such meaning is captured in the haunting and atrabilious song vocals—accompanied by the striking and heartfelt methodic guitar chords—of Syl Johnson’s “Is it because I’m black?” (1970). Though arising as an anthem of the seemingly intractable despair, disgust, and disenchantment with the injustices protested against by black America during the apogee of the Civil Rights Movement, the ballad remains epiphenomenally rich in apprehending and comprehending the spirit that still convulses in places like Ferguson, Missouri. Let’s close this disquisition out with the lyrics of the time-honored classic that demonstrably gives weight to whether black lives do matter:
The dark brown shades of my skin only add color to my tears. That splash against my hollow bones that rocks my soul. Looking back over my false dreams that I once knew. Wondering why my dreams never came true.
Is it because I’m black? Somebody tell me what can I do. Something is holding me back, is it because I’m black?
In this world of no pity I was raised in the ghetto of the city, Momma she worked so hard to earn every penny… Oh Lord
Something is holding me back, cause, is it because I’m black
Like a child stealing his first piece of candy, and got caught. People around life’s corner somewhere I got lost. Something is holding me back. I wonder… Is it because I’m black? Somebody tell me what can I do, will I survive or will I die?
2015 State of Black America: Save our cities: Education, jobs, & justice. A National Urban League Publication.
Abdul-Khaliq, M. (2015). Ashley’s racialized asymmetry. Sacramento, CA: I St. Press.
Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass inceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists: Colorblind racism and the persistence of racial inequity in the United States (2nd ed.). New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Edelman, M. W. (2000). The state of America’s children. Boston: Beacon
Feagin, J. R., Vera, H., & Batur, P. (2001). White racism (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge
Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
hooks, b. (1992). Black looks: Race and representation. New York: Routledge
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.
Omi, M., & Winant, H. (2015). Racial formation in the United States (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Picca, L. H., & Feagin, J. R. (2007). Two-faced racism: Whites in the backstage and frontstage. New York: Routledge.
Rothenberg, P. S. (2008). White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism (3rd ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.
Tatus, B. D. (1997). “Why are all the black kids stitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books.
Thomas, W. I., & Thomas, D. S. (1928). The child in America: Behavior problems and programs. New York: Knopf.
Von Ausdale, D., & Feagin, J. R. (2001). The first R: How children learn race and racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Zinn, H. (1990). A people’s history of the United States. New York: HarperPerennial.
U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection. (2011). Retrieved from http://ocr.data.ed.org/StateNationalEstimations.