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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

What Is Race And Why Does It Matter So Much?

Dr. Benjamin Johnson
Dr. Benjamin Johnson

By Dr. Benjamin Johnson

Clinical psychologist

Dr. Benjamin Johnson is a clinical psychologist who has worked with individuals across a variety of venues and in diverse service delivery systems. Whether engaged in working with children and youth or with adults or seniors for over 30 years his experience now offers a unique perspective through which to examine the impact of many issues and the concerns on people in our community. He has worked in education, mental health, public health, psychiatric hospitals, day treatment, facilities for developmental disabilities and mental retardation, in places of detention, and in private practice. Dr. Johnson is in private practice in Renton, WA. Now he brings his experience and perspective to bear to grapple with issues and will try to understand each of the issues we will examine in this column. You are invited to come along and join the journey.

There are many issues, situations, and circumstances that impact individuals and our community as a whole. When issues involve the Black community and the minority communities there can be an uncomfortable interface between the interests of Black people within the community and between Black people and others in the community and/or society at large. Many people find it difficult to understand the issues or find it difficult to know what to think or how to respond. Many people simply feel overwhelmed by the challenges or find it difficult to comprehend them, so they seek to ignore them. This reaction further complicates matters.

Over time the debates, actions and concerns have escalated with regard to race and others issues. Many of these issues gained considerable steam after President Barack Obama was elected as president of the United States of America. Issues like violence and safety, justice and injustice, homosexuality and same sex marriage, immigration and undocumented citizens, unfair discipline in the schools, the miscarriage of justice and disproportionate adjudication , police misconduct and corruption, lack of unity and division, lack of opportunity following incarceration, poor education performance and poor education opportunities. You see the list seems endless, it just seems to go on and on. Well, this column provides an opportunity to exam these issues from a psychological perspective and the relative impact they have on individuals and even groups.

The issue we will look closer at this time is RACE. What is it and why does it matter so much? Why does it seem to factor into almost everything? What purpose does race serve? Now I know asking more than one question can complicate the discussion, but when it comes to race it is difficult to stay with just one.

Race is a biological, social, and descriptive concept. It is by its very nature discriminating. It is discriminating in that is distinguishes in some way membership in a particular group (race) from another. Race is a classification system used to categorize humans into large, distinct populations based upon anatomical, ethnic, cultural and other factors. Race is not in and of itself a measure of better or worst on any dimension. Such measures are a function of attitudes, biases, and even bigotry. Race is also better understood when one also recognizes what it is not. Race is not in and of itself a religion, nationality, or a social club. One cannot easily opt into or out of a race. Yet, many have found ways to skirt around obvious indicators of race, e.g., “passing” by changing one’s name, hair, or body feature.

Race is however a factor in one’s identity. It provides a basis for recognition, belonging, and reference. These are psychological constructs because they help individuals establish a “self-concept” (a relatively permanent sense of themselves). It helps them assert a key part of who they are. Race does not make reference to measures like the area where you live, how much money you have or your worth as an individual anywhere. When circumstances arise attributing race to these factors they emerge as a function of attitudes, biases, history, preferences and bigotry or racism.

Race matters because of its utility in making discriminations in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Race matters because neuroscientist have discovered in their research that the human brain has neural circuitry that distinguishes and predisposes select responses to others on the basis of racial features. This research suggests that this neural circuitry is involved in a person’s initial categorization of another. Some researchers have suggested that attention to race occurs within 120 milliseconds after you see a person. However, it is when certain beliefs, attitudes, opinions, assumptions, and biased conclusions about race are assigned to this perception that they evoke discriminatory responses (i.e., stereotypes). Perhaps this is in part why race seems to matter in virtually everything. It may be in part due to the combination of the neurologic perception combined with the learned or assumed biases about racial group membership that race becomes central to so many issues. It is this issue of the perceptive conclusions that people draw based on race that can and does influence their behavior.

Perhaps it was within milliseconds that George Zimmerman, a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman decided that Travon Marin, a young African American teenager wearing a hooded sweatshirt (“hoody”) was a threat and that he should follow him and subsequently kill him, or it was with little more than racial identification and biases that the white police officer chose to stop, frisk and handcuff the teenage boys walking to the community center to play basketball (profiling), or maybe it was somewhat instantly that the woman on the elevator decided that the person wearing a head wrap who got on the elevator with her was a threat so she clutched her purse tightly (racially phobic response).

One significant problem is that many years ago scientific researchers made racial bias easier for people to embrace by introducing artificial categories and conclusions about race, such as brain size, head circumference, level of intelligence and such that justified their own preconceptions on race. So you can see, anyone can be racially biased, but not everyone has the power to inflict racial injustice and disadvantage. Race does matter; Perhaps too much, perhaps too little. Even if you decided that race doesn’t matter or shouldn’t matter to you, it still matters to others and thus affects you. On April 22, 2014 the United States Supreme Court rendered a judgment that race should not be considered as factor for college admission at the University of Michigan. Here race is considered to be of little relevance, even though for decades race was relevant in routinely excluding persons from admission to college based in large part on race. It is difficult to avoid the impact of race when it factors in decisions that affect opportunity and the pursuit of happiness.

The United Nations convention stated that there is no superiority based on racial differentiation and any such assertion is false. A second major problem is that scholars can’t even agree on the concept of race. It is very difficult to discuss something when you can’t even agree what it is you’re talking about. Many have called for a national discussion on race. Little has been done to bring this about to date. A third problem is that to talk about race one has to accept the validity of the racial classification. During past United State Censuses people have complained that they do not subscribe to any of the classifications on the census forms. Little genetic connection for race regardless of phenotype (body features) has been scientifically established.

Sometimes an individual may use race to explain or justify their own actions or inactions, for example not being able to achieve or belong or because of their race they should not try for a job. Some see it as a qualifier of privilege (racial preference). Still others may see race as a collective issue of relevance and validation (dealing with injustice based on race). And others are more focused on race as important to access rights and privilege (privileged majority). Should race matter? Can we ever get beyond race? What do you think?

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