Monday, June 1, 2020


Week 24: Institutional Racism and the Meaning of Life

With the death of George Floyd at the hands of officers of the Minneapolis Police Department, one is compelled to ask why.

Among the explanations I hear, perhaps the most common is related to institutional racism. With all due respect and at the very risk of being labeled a racist for rejecting this dogma, I believe that institutional racism is an overly simplistic, inaccurate and dangerous cop-out. I hope that you, kind reader, will read on with an open mind, trusting in the rock-solid fact that my highest desire is harmony and self-fulfillment among all people and that the greatest sorrow in my life is the tragic discord among people.

Permit me to begin with this premise: institutional racism does not exist in the United States of today; at the very least, it is the rare exception. This assertion is predicated on “institutional racism” being defined as a doctrine or political program, of or relating to an institution, based on the assumption or belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce the inherent superiority of a particular race, and that such doctrines or programs are designed to execute this principle. With the exception of doctrines or programs that are, by design, racist, such as states’ laws on slavery and segregation prior to the Thirteenth Amendment and thereafter racist Jim Crow laws prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, institutions cannot be racist. I assert this, because institutions hold no opinions, have no values, make no judgments, and so on. Only people have and do these things. When it comes to people, some are good, some are evil, some are in-between.

Laying blame at the steps of an institution is all too simple, and, I believe, all too damaging to the progress of the human spirit and all too diminishing to the dignity of each human soul. In a very real effect, claiming institutional racism permits individuals to be absolved of the wickedness in their own hearts and which is made manifest in their own actions.

With the exception of institutions that are explicitly based on wickedness, such as the former state governments of the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan and Margaret Sanger’s American Birth Control League, each of which was or is based on the evil belief in the inherent superiority of one race over another, most present-day institutions designed to execute the social contract are not established on racist dogma, nor are they monolithic in terms of the people who make up the institutions. Likewise, other groups of people, such as those based on gender, socio-economics, faith or race, are not monolithic in their beliefs.

I would suspect that there are officers in the Minneapolis Police Department who abhor the treatment of Mr. Floyd and who disavow the illegal and immoral actions of the four officers who restrained him and who were, I believe, responsible for his death. Similarly, I would suspect that there are protesters who abhor the looting and burning of private property, desecration of churches and memorials, like the Lincoln Memorial, and the throwing of rocks and urine at police officers and emergency personnel across the nation, as well as the murder of innocents, like officer Dave Underwood in Oakland, California, who was, himself, African-American.

These are the actions of individuals, not of institutions. These are the actions of hateful, decayed individuals. They are, I believe, the actions of people who fail to see the importance of each human life and who, consequently, fail to afford each life its due respect.

I should note here that I do not discount the effect of mob mentality. A mob’s actions are something different. Mob action is not, by definition, institutional racism. While the term “mob” certainly has a pejorative connotation, individuals in large groups, motivated by a common cause, can positively or negatively pressure one another to do good or to do harm. I would suggest that it was Derek Chauvin and the other three officers who acted with a sort of mob mentality, possibly based on race (although none of us can know their motivations), violating their department’s restrictions on the use of force through pressure on the neck, thereby violating Mr. Floyd’s civil and human rights. In doing so, these four men also violated our social contract.

Granted, these four men, by virtue of their employment as police officers, functioned as representatives of the Minneapolis Police Department. However, it appears that they represented the department in a manner that violated the department’s very regulations. I say “appears,” because I am reacting to video footage and reports that are presently available. I recall that there have been some incidents that, after further reporting, were confirmed and some that were not. If they were indeed acting contrary to the department’s regulations and were applying a personal and disturbingly misguided racial belief system, their actions were anything but institutional. While the video footage seems incontrovertible, time will assuredly tell.

If, kind reader, I have persuaded you that racism in America today is generally an individual transgression and not an institutional one, we remain left with the same question. Why?

In April of 1877, the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a short story that, from a peculiar perspective, addresses this present-day question. In his story, “Сон смешного человека” or “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” Dostoevsky describes a nihilistic protagonist, who is convinced of his own irrelevance and that of the world around him. Intent on ending his life, for his life is worth nothing and evokes in him no real feeling, he wanders the streets of St. Petersburg on his way home to shoot himself. A child – a little girl – begs him for help, presumably for a dying or dead mother. He angrily dismisses her and continues home to his inevitable end, but something unexpected occurs. He is filled with questions about the encounter with the little girl. It awakens in him questions about justice and the interconnectedness of humanity. In his boarding room, he sits in his armchair, with his revolver on the table next to him, and he falls asleep. In his sleep, he dreams that he shoots himself in the heart, dies and is awakened from death by an adventure to an alternate universe. He is taken to an exact duplicate of Earth, but it’s an Earth in which harmony reigns. Tragically, his explanation of this Earth, with its jealousies, wars and oppressions unleashes in those alternate Earthlings these same vices. One may interpret the protagonist to be a sort of unwitting serpent in the Garden of Eden. As the story unfolds, in all its tragic ends, he discovers the meaning of life. It’s a lesson that is likely familiar to us all, but it is the lesson that Dostoevsky declares to be life’s very meaning.

He writes, “The main thing is that you must love others as you love yourself; that’s the main thing, and that’s everything, and absolutely nothing more than that is needed; you’ll at once find a way to build paradise.”

What stands in the way of love? Hate.

Why do people hate? It is a perplexing question, because hatred produces nothing useful. It advances nothing beneficial. It devours the time and energy of the person who hates, and to what end? Search the historical record, and I believe one would be hard pressed to find any advancement in the human condition that was the result of hatred.

Etymologically, the term hatred comes from Old English and means a state or condition of spite, envy, malice or hostility. In considering this list of conditions, one seems different from the others. Out of one term in this list, the others seem to derive. I would contend that envy seems to be the root cause of spite, malice and hostility. But why is this? What is envy?

According to Merriam-Webster, envy is a painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage. Chief among the flaws of envy is that it is typically based on one’s perception of another’s advantage, and perception is quite often misperception. And how do misperceptions come about in the human mind? They are formed when one does not have adequate data, in terms of quality or quantity, to make informed opinion or decision.

I believe hatred is born out of envy and made manifest in spite, malice and hostility. Envy grows out of misperceptions, and misconceptions are rooted in ignorance.

How does one cure the ill of ignorance? I believe the antidote is knowledge and understanding – knowledge and understanding that are first and foremost firmly based in our common humanity. I believe we jump too quickly to those things that make us different.

And here I must digress. With all my heart I cherish individualism. Our individual talents, hopes, ideas and abilities bring richness to life and enable us to accomplish together a multitude of wonderful things we could never accomplish alone. Today, society’s focus seems off. We start off by focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion in terms of superficial characteristics, such as gender, age, skin color, etc. We implicitly and sometimes explicitly teach children at the earliest of ages that these differences matter. To be sure, the intentions are to call attention to these types of differences so that we may avoid errors in judgement that come from them, but I believe it tragically backfires.

Do not misunderstand me. Because very real experiences have come from what should be meaningless differences (i.e., the color of one’s skin, one’s gender, one’s age, etc.), society must acknowledge the pain of these lived experiences. I would suggest, though, that in order to move past them, we must let them go. Additionally, lived experience is not a blanket experience. As a white man, am I to be held accountable for the sins of other white men, present or past? My ancestors, including my third-great grandfather despised slavery and fought on the side of the Union to destroy this evil institution. My 12th great-grandfather, who settled in Providence, Rhode Island, in the 17th century did not own slaves. Do either of these men afford me absolution from the sins of others? While I’m grateful that neither of those men supported the violation of others’ human rights, I still maintain that I should be judged on my own merits, not those of others. Are such bona fides necessary to prove my belief in the oneness of humankind? I hope not. Nevertheless, that genealogy is an experience I share with my forefathers, and it’s a history and connection that is slandered each time I am told I cannot offer an informed opinion on racial experience because my skin is not black or brown, each time I see a colleague at work include a slide in a presentation on diversity, equity and inclusion that states “White Lies Matter,” and each time I hear the moniker “white devils” come from otherwise educated people. But more on two wrongs later.

Because I believe in the fundamental, innate goodness of every person, I believe hatred in all its forms – racism included – are learned. I have yet to find any concrete evidence to the contrary.

For decade after decade – I would say since Dr. King’s message of character over color was appropriated by purveyors of color over character – it has been one race ascribing characteristics and intents to another, always in monolithic terms and always in false terms. This is the prevailing dogma of race, as opposed to understanding and teaching that each individual is a member of the human family.

Think of Shylock’s monologue in Act III, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Shylock says, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

The majority of his monologue expresses the fact that we are the same, each and every one of us. The last two lines of his speech, though, serve as a pragmatic warning: one wrong may beget another wrong. Revenge. Is revenge not what we are witnessing now? Revenge, as a reaction to fear and hatred, born out of fear and hatred, all of which has its roots in ignorance. As Seneca reminds us, “Timendi causa est nescire,” or “ignorance is the cause of fear” and, by logical extension hatred. This is the decrepit foundation society has been laying for itself and for future generations.

I will entertain, at this point, a bit of a stretch related to institutional racism. Without further, deeper examination, I might suggest that there is correlative as opposed to causal relationship between racism and institutions, specifically educational institutions. If hatred is indeed learned, and if the educational system’s focus is on those characteristics that make us different, as opposed to those characteristics that reinforce and celebrate our common humanity, might institutional racism actually exist? I hope this philosophical stretch is utterly false. Nevertheless, it may be worthy of debate.

With Dostoevsky’s revelation in mind, contemplating America’s approach to extinguishing the smoldering embers of racism over the past six decades, and cognizant that this remains a very real issue that threatens the destruction of our social contract, might it not be time for a new approach?

Until we truly share a common humanity, with recognition and respect for each person’s individual human dignity, and until this sharing, recognition and respect are institutionalized, we will be doomed to bear witness repeatedly to the tragedies of the George Floyds of the world, along with the grievous backlashes toward the Dave Underwoods of the world.

Never in history have two wrongs made a right. I am a realist. I cannot expect the wronged to always turn the other cheek. The human spirit can endure only so much. Let us apply our effort, then, in eliminating the initial wrong. In doing so, the wrong of revenge is unnecessary.

How can we wrong another if we love them as we love ourselves? We cannot. That depth of love, though, demands a profound understanding that we are of the same flesh and blood, the same ashes and star dust, the same immortal spirit.

Be assured, I love you, regardless of your color, creed, gender, age, or any other characteristic you may express. In this time of crisis, I beg you to pass along that same unconditional love to others. It is the meaning of life, and it is the only thing that will save us.

As we look to November and to the people who will represent us for the next two, four or six years, examine the words and records of each person. Who has and who will bring national and global attention to our common humanity, not to superficial and meaningless differences? Who will foster love?

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