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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Challenging ourselves to relinquish racial baggage

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 22, 2013 - The first step is admitting we have a problem.

That’s the philosophy with regard to addiction, and I believe it’s quite relevant for the area of race relations. It’s easy for us to say that we are “over” race. Or, if we live in the city, it’s easy to claim that “we” aren’t the problem; it’s “those people” in the county.

Reality check:

Barack Obama has been inaugurated for the second time.

We just celebrated the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for the 27th year.

Yet in 2010, the St. Louis region ranked 31st out of 35 metropolitan regions for African Americans with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

The poverty rate for African Americans in St. Louis is 39.8 percent.

Some people look at these data and conclude, well, if only African Americans would pull themselves us by their bootstraps, get themselves together like ________ (insert other racial or ethnic group), etc…. Yet, President Obama, Dr. King or other successful African American males are considered exceptions.

I look at these data and ask myself how we can disrupt such disparities. There is nothing intellectual, scientific or innate that correlates with these numbers. We need to get real with ourselves about the socialization, access to quality resources, and environmental factors that contribute to these figures.

As a country, we need to come to terms with the fact that we have a tendency to make grand, sweeping, judgmental assumptions about African Americans -- males in particular and people of color in general. The reality is that droves of African American men are succeeding, and sadly unprecedented numbers are in the criminal justice system. All too often we let the latter statistic rule our thinking.

Recently, I’ve been asking, what are we doing to reframe our thinking? We need to reconcile our admiration for President Obama and Dr. King with the way we see other African-American males in our midst.

How do we get honest with ourselves regarding our unconscious bias, our assumptions and prejudices? In the words of Rev. Luis Leon, who read the benediction for the inauguration, if not intentional, “fear of those different from us will rule our hearts.”

In that vein, I started a challenge at the beginning of the year that will support anyone interested in recognizing personal and institutional biases and shedding some of the unconscious biases we have been socialized to carry. We need to acknowledge the way fear of others does rule our hearts, and subsequently affects policy, social norms and outcomes.

It is my opinion, that acknowledging we have a problem, recognizing where our assumptions lie, is the first step in rectifying the disparities that so clearly impact our region.

Kira Hudson Banks is on faculty in the department of psychology at Saint Louis University. She is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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