Humboldt County takes aim at racism

See also: New white identity deemed vital in changing society
Paul Mann
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – When visiting author, lawyer and social justice activist john a. powell is asked by a reporter if America can ever free itself of racism, he tells this story:

“President Obama dreams he is in a conversation with God. The president understands that God can see the entire future, so he asks if America will finally eliminate poverty. God says, ‘Yes, but not in your lifetime.’ Somewhat encouraged, Obama then asks, ‘Will America ever come to grips with climate change?’ Again God answers, ‘Yes, but not in your lifetime.’ Finally, Obama inquires if America can get rid of racism once and for all. This time God answers, ‘Yes – but not in my lifetime.’”

john a. powell

john a. powell

Despite the joke’s fatalism, powell, who spells his name lower case a la the poet e.e. cummings, strongly believes inroads against racism are well within the nation’s grasp if society understands the role of the unconscious mind in racial prejudice and how neuroscience explains it.

powell outlined concrete methods to combat unconscious racial stereotypes in three lectures last week in Arcata, Eureka and Crescent City. A UC Berkeley School of Law graduate and former law teacher at Harvard and Columbia, powell keynoted the launch of “Our North Coast,” an 18-month initiative of more than 20 local institutions and organizations to foster racial, social and cultural inclusiveness.

His presentations are rooted in how the mind functions. In any one moment, powell said, the human brain can absorb 11 million bits of information. Yet the conscious mind can take in only 40 or so, at most.            

It is the brain’s limbic system, the unconscious, that sorts out those countless bits and categorizes what human beings perceive. Prejudice has neurological origins.

Because racial attitudes operate for the most part in the unconscious or subconscious mind, they are largely invisible to conscious awareness, despite their potency. He argued that the unconscious mind wields profound influence over people’s opinions and positions on social and political issues of the first importance.

Negative unconscious attitudes about race carry “implicit bias” or “symbolic racism,” which lead to unconscious discrimination. The limbic system’s categories store up negative stereotypes. When a person encounters someone of another race or culture, the socially-created stereotypes kick in, producing an unconscious emotional response.

Only two percent of emotional cognition surfaces in the conscious mind, whereas racial bias resides in everyone’s unconscious limbic system and its neural networks.

As powell put it, when “we are consciously aware of the [other] person, our stereotypes and beliefs about the person surface in our conscious mind but our emotional reaction has already occurred” before we know it. This happens even among people who are not prejudiced, he emphasized. Accordingly, it is not enough to ask what people think; it is essential to understand how they think.

Cultural stereotypes are difficult to uproot because the unconscious mind speaks in a different language than the conscious one, powell said. He underscored repeatedly in his lectures that the unconscious has no interest in facts; the brain’s limbic “fight or flight” system (the amygdala, the reptilian portion of the brain) is the source of primitive human emotions – and emotions trump facts. Hence the old but revealing joke, “Let me tell you the emotions on which my facts are based.”

Offering examples of how unconscious bias works in everyday life and in institutions, powell, a Detroit native and the son of sharecroppers, cited research that teachers unconsciously lower their expectations of black students, which tends to lower those students’ aspirations.

In fact, people of color often hold implicit bias against themselves, growing out of widely reinforced signals that emanate from the social and media environment. In movies and television, black men are freely associated with guns and violence even though – factually – more white men own guns.

Another example: if students about to take a mathematics test are told that Asian students tend to do better than whites, the whites will perform significantly worse than if they had not been primed to think of themselves as less capable than their Asian classmates.

The unconscious is deeply primed and collective clichés lead to paralysis and the failure to live up to one’s innate abilities. This happens even when skin color is not an issue. Tall people may command higher incomes than short people, for example.

These effects stem from the fact that many cognitive processes confirm subjective expectations, according to powell. The unconscious mind processes the millions of bits of information, and the 5,000 images Americans are exposed to each day, in ways that support prior beliefs.

As American society becomes more diverse, as the white majority becomes a minority, the nation’s racial hierarchy is mutating fast, powell says in his latest book, Racing to Justice, a collection of his essays. Racial divides are being widened and deepened by the broadsides of the putative Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, powell cautions.

The election of the nation’s first black president did not produce a post-racial society, it stoked prejudice in an increasingly segregated if diverse social realm in which individuals are more and more isolated, as portrayed in sociologist Philip E. Slater’s 1970 classic, The Pursuit of Loneliness, American Culture at the Breaking Point.     

Given the immense power of unconscious bias, how can individuals and society cope?

powell outlined several answers. Making oneself aware of unconscious beliefs, bringing them into conscious awareness, is the best start. From there, focusing consciously on positive images of others who are part of stereotyped groups helps to blunt bias.

Developing close peer relationships with people from other races dramatically reduces racial anxieties, powell advised.

Awareness, positive images and peer relations constitute the building blocks for shared visions. They are also the bedrock of multiracial coalitions in progressive movements that can overcome racial divisions and prejudice.

That is the objective of “Our North Coast,” a partnership formed by the Humboldt Area Foundation and Humboldt State University with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, which powell leads.

Other sponsors include the California Endowment, the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, the McKinleyville Family Resource Center, CASA Del Norte, First 5 Humboldt and the Patricia D. and William B. Smullin Foundation.

The regional initiative is a series of public talks and workshops scheduled over the next 18 months to pinpoint patterns in local life that fuel backwardness and hinder inclusion. Information is available at and (707) 442-2993.


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