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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Progress on race doesn't mean the end of racism

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 16, 2008 - What does it all mean? Landmark after landmark. Contradiction after contradiction. What does it mean when in the past weeks we have seen a biracial man clinch the Democratic nomination and a town in Mississippi host its FIRST integrated prom?

What does it mean when we want people to interact across racial lines yet recent research suggests that the anxiety evoked by these interactions actually perpetuates segregation - for those who are ill prepared for such encounter, which is most of us since, well, that’s the reason we need more of it?

What does it mean when we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to overturn the ban on interracial marriage by hearing from interracial couples of today only to find out that they continue to experience verbal, and sometimes physical, assaults?

I guess it means that, like many things in life, the answer is not that simple. Things aren’t black and white -- pun intended. It means we’ve made progress. It also means we have work to do.

Some individuals stress the progress we have yet to make -- pointing out the continued examples of racism and other systems of oppression. While other individuals want to highlight the progress we have made thus far -- noting legal battles and the diversification of the middle class. The former demands the latter “wake up and stop living in denial.” While the latter is sick and tired of hearing the former complain since “it’s a new day.”

Why can’t we hold both concepts as valid reflections of our current reality?

I think what keeps people from doing so is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance refers to the psychological tendency to seek consistency. In other words, we don’t like it when we hold competing or contradictory thoughts or beliefs.

For example, if you value your money, yet given the cost of fuel, you choose to buy a car that gets a handful of miles per gallon, you will find someway to rationalize your decision. You might make a case for why the car you chose was your only option given your lifestyle; you might start to ride your bike to work to soften the blow. Whatever change you might make is fueled by the fact that valuing money and buying a car that will spend a great deal of your valued resource is incongruent. You need to make everything fit.

Research has found that when we have conflicting thoughts, we eliminate one. So, if you purchased the car, you most likely eliminated the thought that you value your money. That thought becomes conditional -- i.e. not to the extent that it limits your desire for the car.

Getting back to our original issue, if you believe we have made progress in the area of race relations it’s cognitively difficult to simultaneously hold that we also have to press on to make greater strides. On the most simplistic level, the tendency is to reject the competing opinion. It takes cognitive energy to consciously hold competing thoughts. However, I think it’s energy worth expending.

I firmly believe that both perspectives accurately reflect the present day dynamics. Simply refer back to the landmarks and contradiction in the opening to get a sampling of evidence. Arguing one perspective over another denies the complexity that it is not “either/or” it’s “both/and.” Until we recognize that reality and respect the fact that some of us are simple looking at things from a different perspective- some with a greater ability, or perhaps willingness, to change viewpoints -- we are wasting our breath. Progress gets mired down by defensiveness and accusations.

We need to tolerate the cognitive dissonance and hold the harsh realities and powerful strides. They are – together -- relevant, informative and integral to guiding us forward.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

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