New white identity deemed vital in changing society

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Estimates vary, but sometime in the mid-21st century, probably in the first half of the 2040s, the United States will cease being majority white. The proverbial melting pot will be a swelling multi-racial kettle.

Come 2099, no big city in the world will be majority white if global demographic trends continue.

john a. powell

john a. powell

How a minority white population and a multiracial American society will reshape one another are questions of the first magnitude, says Professor john a. powell, director of U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and holder of the Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion.

If powell is right, raising awareness of the false racial stereotypes that inhabit the human unconscious is an essential first step in easing the revolutionary transition to a multi-racial United States.   

In three Humboldt County presentations last week, powell weighed in with a big picture analysis of how America’s white identity, patriarchy and hierarchy may be upended, for good and for ill. As predicate, he told audiences in Arcata, Eureka and Crescent City that amid the nation’s fast-growing racial and ethnic diversity, “We are an angst-ridden society.” Donald Trump’s nativist invective is symptomatic, powell believes. Diversity produces reflexive discomfort with “the other,” those who are racially, religiously, socially and culturally different from us. That discomfort sabotages human connectedness and fosters turning inward, the professor explained.

Neuroscience shows that racial anxiety, the bulk of it unconscious, triggers the primordial fear of the “other,” unleashed by the fight-or-flight organ of the brain. An outpouring of anger and hostility follows, whether expressed or repressed.

In his presentations, powell said the white unconscious in the United States is primed with fear of black violence by television, movies, social media and the deeply embedded stereotypes they instill.

He illustrated. A white man may well perceive a black man’s cell phone as a gun. A white man with a gun may be perceived holding a cell phone.   

Such mistaken impressions are socially constructed by the thousands of images everyone is exposed to daily, powell argued.

He noted that President Barack Obama was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2009. The Tea Party sprang forth in 2010. “Obama’s election was very dislocating for a lot of people,” powell said. “He’s not like ‘everyone’ else. A black was no longer a cook in the White House, he was president.”

powell stated that the nation’s first black presidency, far from raising the curtain on a post-racial society, rekindled age-old racial fears expressed and reinforced in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.   

Angst about race, powell underlined, coincides with profound distrust of government, politics, Wall Street, the corporate world, sexual orientation, marriage and other social arrangements, like restrooms.      

His spotlight on the impact of social-cum-racial anxiety is borne out locally. Introducing the professor at Humboldt State, HSU President Lisa Rossbacher remarked, “We know racism is persistent and pervasive. We still struggle to be inclusive here on campus.”   

Millennials, young adults and students ages 18-33, are a bellwether of powell and Rossbacher’s comments. The millennial cohort, some 80 million, is the most racially diverse in U.S. history, based on data that are systematically compiled by the Pew Research Center on Social and Demographic Trends.

Some 43 percent of millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. About half of today’s newborns are non-white as well.

Millennials are feeling the general angst powell and others report. Young people’s social trust is at historic lows, writes the The New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Like powell, Brooks has a hunch that the country needs an alternative myth. As he put it in a recent column, “We’ll probably need a new national story” after the election, given the loss of faith in the “rags-to-riches” fable and the suspicion that the political and corporate systems are rigged on behalf of the one percent. Brooks hopes the new myth or narrative will be more redemptive, more communitarian and a good deal less centered on individualism, with its isolating impact.

powell addressed that subject at length in “Dreaming of a Self beyond Whiteness and Isolation,” an essay in his latest book, Racing to Justice. He tells of a classroom discussion with mostly white law students about the nature of the self. He asked if they had ever dreamed they were of a different race. Most hadn’t. Racial boundaries are deep-seated.

powell encouraged the students to picture themselves crossing racial, gender and sexual boundaries. Before the semester ended, “they had imagined themselves as the ‘other,’ and they had begun to question how these boundaries were erected, maintained and given meaning.”

In other words, the boundaries are not innate, but socially and culturally determined. They can be curbed if not rooted out.

“In transforming whiteness and privilege, whites would get the chance to be humane human beings,” powell wrote. People cannot take off their skins, nor can they make themselves aware of everything at work in their emotions and unconscious minds. But building conscious awareness of unconscious prejudice is healing and an antidote to the nation’s intense anxiety about diversity and difference.

Centrally, however, powell pronounces false the notion that individual and collective consciousness-raising can rid society of racism and its white genesis.

In his view, idealizing the power of the rational mind merely reproduces the error of the 18th century French Enlightenment. Europe was beguiled with the illusion of the permanent historical and intellectual progress that would be achieved by human reason and vaulting science. World War I crushed Enlightenment optimism and the nuclear age pulverized the remnants.

“Much of what we are learning from neuroscience flatly refutes such assumptions” about reason and rationality, powell wrote in Racing to Justice. “Certainly we can and should become more conscious, but we should not see the problem of privilege and race as primarily an individual psychological effort.”

Rather, what must be transformed, he contends, is society’s overt and tacit assumption that whiteness is the norm, including male whiteness. White vocabulary, assumptions and institutional arrangements should no longer arbitrarily and unjustly diminish the life chances of disfavored, segregated groups.

As America becomes minority white, action to expose what powell calls “the universal norm of whiteness” – making it socially and politically visible – would benefit all races.

A new white social identity, completely restructured, is imperative as the demographic revolution reaches its peak, the professor asserts. That imperative would replace the sense of “other” with the nation’s embrace of the “universal hunger for meaning in human life.”

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