Implicit bias in the presidential debate

The presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Monday night was the most watchedpresidential debate in American history. Race was a prominent theme of the debate, as it has been the whole campaign. At one point, moderator Lester Holt asked Secretary Clinton if she “believed that police are implicitly biased against black people” and Clinton responded, “Implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.”

Clinton is not the only prominent public official to recognize that implicit bias is a challenge for our nation. Last year, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy recognized the way in which “unconscious prejudice” contributes to inequality in a landmark decision involving the Fair Housing Act. And FBI Director Comey also publicly acknowledged the overwhelming research demonstrating the presence of widespread unconscious biases, and the way in which these biases may manifest in policing.

It bodes well that these scientific findings are making their way into our public discourse. However, their meanings and implications need to be carefully understood. Clinton was right that implicit bias is an issue that impacts all Americans, but does this mean that Americans are all secretly racist? Not at all.

Bias is not simply another word for racism. Bias represents an association between things. Everyone forms associations, a process that is simply part of being human. Even animals form such associations (think of Pavlov’s dog).

“Implicit” bias refers to associations that are not fully conscious. We could not survive if all our decisions were completely subject to the conscious mind. Because the mind processes so much information, the brain has evolved to look for short cuts. This is done by habituating many of the brain’s functions, letting the unconscious process large quantities of information through lumping data together in a streamlined, rapid fashion. While the conscious mind is slow and more deliberate, the unconscious is big and very fast.

Racial bias is not innate. The associations of the unconscious mind are largely formed by our environment, society, and culture. We are exposed to many images a day, by some accounts as many as 5,000. Certain images become paired in our unconscious mind. When two images appear repeatedly and frequently, the unconscious mind will connect them. These connections are largely environmental and do not need to be connected in actual fact. The unconscious does not make such distinctions. And these connections are built up over time, a process that happens largely without our conscious awareness, and without our conscious knowledge that we are using them to influence our reactions and behavior.

Through movies, music, news, and other cultural and social sources, our society has paired images of black men with drugs and guns. It does not matter to the unconscious that black people are factually no more likely to use drugs or guns then their white counterparts. Remember, facts are not necessary for implicit bias. The mere presence of cultural stereotypes between blackness and criminality will suffice. The unconscious will reach for the paired associations with the same ease that a commuter turns the corner upon reaching her or his street. Research by social scientist Jennifer Eberhardt from Stanford has shown that when people are exposed to a black face they can more easily and quickly identify a gun than a non-crime related image, even without their conscious awareness (Dr. Eberhardt was awarded a Macarthur genius grant for her research in this area).

These are not just individual issues, therefore our response should not be about individuals. What’s critical in the conversation around policing and implicit bias, as well as all Americans and implicit bias, is to understand that while implicit bias is not the same as racism, the results of implicit bias can still produce deeply racialized outcomes. Even if the conscious mind rejects racism, the unconscious may still hold biases. And these biases are even stronger when we are under stress.

Results based on these biases can undermine our conscious desire for fairness, but they are not insurmountable. There are things we can do to lessen bias, and knowledge and training both help. In the case of police, recognizing the role of implicit bias and providing sustained training to override those biases could save lives. Who could object to saving lives through such training?

Neuroscience is clear: Bias is part of being human. Racialized consequences of harmful implicit biases are not. And the content and strength of particular biases are socially constructed. Understanding the role of implicit bias in our national psyche is something that does affect all Americans and having public conversations about implicit bias, including from the platform of our presidential debate, is both powerful and promising.

For more information about implicit bias, see the Perception Institute’s work on the Science of Equality, or visit Harvard’s Project Implicit.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog and Huffington Post.



A bridge from Brexit

A few days ago, we woke up to a new world. Britain had voted to leave the European Union. Some were pleased, many were deeply concerned. What is likely is that many will be affected. Some wonder if the EU will survive. It will take months if not years to fully understand the ramifications.

Here we are asking: What does this mean for the US? Which of the same elements that ushered in a successful Brexit vote also exist in the US? Does the UK’s successful Leave vote make the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, built on anger and fear, more mainstream? Would a Trump presidency be the American parallel of England leaving the EU?

It is clear that anxiety, frustration, anger and fear played a large role for many in the UK voting to leave. In the US, there have been a number of studies showing anxiety, frustration, anger, and fear are playing a large role in our current election cycle, too. And while those sentiments might appear more extreme among Trump supporters, and are expressed in different ways, frustration and anger are also evident among Bernie Sanders supporters as well.

This begs a more central question: What is the underlying force fueling these feelings? The reasons most often cited are the economy, huge rates of inequality, fallout from globalization and the belief that governments are no longer responsive to ordinary people, but instead work for the elites. From the right, there is also a particular anxiety about a perceived Other, a feeling that Other groups are taking away the dominant culture, and that a collective sense of self is being threatened.

These reasons are all related, but they are not reducible to each other.

In Europe, concerns about the immigrant and the refugee Other, especially Muslims, has been a staple story of the right for some time. In the US, anxiety and discontent about the election of President Obama as the first black president, and the decline of the percentage of the white population, continue to be a staple of the right, and one that has taken on a more explicit role under Trump.

The right wing has been more than willing to stir up and capitalize on these feelings. And to many on the right these feelings are not solely about a loss of economic security, and the loss of a government that responds to their needs, but are also what some would call an existential fear — “Who are we? We are losing our soul as a white, Christian, Protestant country to the Other.”

This position that some call existential I am prepared to call deeply spiritual or ontological. We all have and we all need a sense of who we are. Many liberals assume this existential position is derivative of other concerns, in particular economic ones. This is important to note. If our ontological concerns are only a product of economic concerns, then the way to address these concerns is through an economic response. This assumes we are what we have, that our belongings are more important than our belonging. If people’s response to ontological concerns is inconsistent with their economic wellbeing we write books and think pieces about what’s the matter with those folks. We assume they are irrational, acting not just against their economic interest, but against their self-interest.

For far too long, many in elite circles have argued that globalization would benefit the average worker. We were told that in the long run globalization would be good for us, and that the government cannot do anything about the forces at work in the global economy. The choice that has been given to most people is: either accept globalization or a dysfunctional nationalistic economy. As we deal with toxic inequality spreading around the world, it is clear this position is clearly wrong. I have written that globalization can take many different forms, and that our government could support a globalization that is more sensitive to the needs of ordinary people. Folks here are still reacting to why we used taxpayer money to save the banks, but not the ordinary homeowner or renter. In Europe, after the 2008 financial crash, policies of austerity appeared to be more concerned about elite credit institutions than the suffering of ordinary people. People feel betrayed either by their governments or by other institutions in alignment with the elites.

It might be useful to think about how we organize ourselves socially. I believe our sense of self is organized around at least three related, but different axes: one is economic, one is political, and the third is ontological. Along the economic axis, the global economic system does not work for ordinary people. Along the political axis, the government appears to have been captured by the elites, and is not responsive to the needs of ordinary people. And along the ontological axis, the place where we are concerned about who we are as a nation and culture, there are those who define their ontological position against the Other, and there are also those who don’t, but who may not engage with ontological concerns in a meaningful way.

People who voted for leaving the EU and people who support Trump have concerns along all three axes but the most important, and the one most easily exploited, is the third–who we are becoming. Who belongs. This suggests that we must take these concerns seriously, and not reduce them to just one of the other axes.

To recognize someone’s anxiety is not to adhere to it. Anxiety can move in different directions. Which direction it takes is driven by the story we tell. One story is about the Other taking from us, not just our stuff, taxes and jobs, but our culture and soul. This is the right wing position. Members of the right assume this position on principle (they believe it) or for strategic reasons (it serves some purpose such as getting elected). This story is divisive, and it’s meant to be. This is an Us and Them story, a story of winners and losers, and it’s based on fear and anger.

There is another story, one more likely adopted by liberals. That story is about focusing on the economy, and it makes overly rational arguments. It asserts that the fear of the Other is just irrational, if not racist. This story prefers not to talk about the ontological anxiety, as it sees this as divisive and not real. It also adopts this position either on principle or for strategic reasons as well. The principle reason is a belief that this anxiety is derivative, and that we can address all concerns through a rational discussion about the economy. The strategic position is that even if anxiety is real, it is simply too divisive to discuss and should be avoided. This position leaves the engagement with anxiety to the right. This is a dangerous mistake.

There is a third story, and it is the one that I advocate. This story recognizes that there is growing anxiety. This story recognizes that change is happening very fast and can be difficult. This story rejects the Us and Them. Without reducing us to the same, this story also recognizes that we are connected–and not just economically, but also more fundamentally: we are connected as people.

To make this story work requires real effort, starting with acknowledgement. There is a common suffering, and there is also a possibility to more consciously connect. This story is based on bridging, promoting empathy and love and an emerging shared vision of a future. It will build on our example of the past. It is slow to demonize someone for having anxiety.

This story also acknowledges that we must address economic and political realities. Both the economy and the government should be structured to serve people, not the other way around. We must have governing structures that are responsive to people and not captured by moneyed interests. Our government should support the civil rights of all members, yet there must be a way to do so that extends the possibility that this approach is about all Americans. If there are policies that support immigration and resettlement of refugees, how do we talk to and engage working class whites that might feel threatened? Certainly simply asserting that those who have anxiety are morally suspect is not adequate.

While the government promotes inclusion, it must stride to make it clear that including a group does not entail disregarding other groups. I am aware this is not easy, especially if one group defines its well-being based on the exclusion or subordination of other groups. But we are reaching for a different story. This story must appeal to our better angels and talk to both our conscious and unconscious. We must all be given space to participate and shape this story. But this story also knows that political leadership and social architects play an important role.

In this story, we must have an economic system that works. An economic system where wealth is shared. Certainly there are unknowns and risks, but those with the most financial resources should be charged with taking on more of the risk and burdens. (Think of what this would have meant in the last recession.) The elite should not be able to capitalize on all the growth but socialize all the risk.

And while national interest will continue to be important, we must also begin to think about people globally. We should make sure that as we create new structures for capital, that we have parallel structures for people. If we need to defer benefits, we should look to those most able to bear the time and cost. We should work towards limiting the influence of wealth in the democratic space. Wealth should become our servant, not our master. The reasons for large corporations must be reevaluated. They should exist for the benefit of the common good and not simply to maximize profit for a very few. And this story acknowledges these spheres are interrelated–governments must set rules and structures for the economy that respond to all people.

This is the story that is often missing. People can and will change, but change is not easy. We need help. We need time, resources, and a story. We need all people to be part of the story, including the elites, in order to share in our economic, political, and cultural future. We need a government that is responsive, effective, and inclusive. We don’t have that today, but the solution is not to have government go away, but to work to make it work.

When we focus on these changes, we must also devote time, thought, and resources to the questions of not just what we have, but also who we are and who we aspire to become.

This discussion is not intended as a blueprint for the future, but an orientation in a new direction. Beyond Brexit and beyond the outcome of the 2016 Presidential race, we need a bridging story that gives reason for us to believe in a shared future.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog and HuffingtonPost.



The America we must become: A response to Orlando

We have and we have not been here before.

The news that our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community in Orlando were singled out and targeted for a hate crime of unimaginable proportions fills us with an intense sadness and a deep heartbreak.

That the attack happened on Latin night at the Pulse nightclub reminds us of the many layers of hate experienced by communities of color, and trans people in particular.

That this horrific crime came a year after the Supreme Court recognized the national right to same-sex marriage, and amidst global celebrations of Gay Pride month, adds another layer of grief.

That this hate crime happened a year after nine Black people were murdered in a church in Charleston, South Carolina—targeted simply for being alive and Black—adds yet another layer of pain in recognition of the ways that hate and violence continue to show up against communities who have been targets of violence and hatred far too long and far too often.

Hate crimes are classified as a specific and unique type of crime for a reason. Hate crimes are designed to be different, as their perpetrators consciously try to attack individuals solely because of a group they represent. A hate crime is someone attempting to say to a certain group that you don’t belong in our larger family. Hate crimes are an attempt to claim to an entire group that they are categorically and fundamentally different. In their attempt to send a message about an entire group, they try to deny the humanity of individuals.

We have to reject every part of that with everything we stand for as a country.

This attack is a deep injury to us all. While we grieve intensely and recognize unwaveringly that this is a hate crime against the LGBTQ community, we must also recognize that this is an attack on all of us. We are connected not only by our values, but by our shared humanity, so when you attack someone else, you are attacking all of us.

We must not let a tragedy of this proportion become a game of political football. We must claim the truth of what this attack signifies and resist political attempts to distort the facts or let the victims stories, lives, and deaths become diluted in fresh rounds of political maneuvering. Because the truth is that this is not the America we are.

We must become the America we want to be. We must ask ourselves: Who do we want to be as a society? Our best aspirations should be that of a society that practices love and inclusion.

The hateful bigotry and Othering being exposed during this Presidential election cycle is the opposite of our highest aspirations as an American society. We must not tolerate Islamophobic responses from our political or community leaders.

We must not give into the fear of the Other that will be on its ugliest and most base display in the following days. We must not give into the false notion that this attack should be met with retribution and further violence. We must not give into any distortion of the reality that this was a hate crime targeted against the LGBTQ community.

This is not just rhetoric. The killings in Orlando remind us of the real life-and-death consequences of how we organize ourselves as a society, of how we govern, of what policies we enact, of who we deem worthy of protection and regard, of who and what we value.

When I give talks, I often hear from those struggling to reconcile different beliefs—whether cultural, religious, or social—with changing policies and practices. These conflicts are real. But we must hold diversity and even disagreement within the spirit of love and family. We must recognize there is diversity not just across race, ethnicity, political parties, and religion, but there is also diversity of beliefs within our own biological families.

Simultaneously holding that we can disagree and that we can also still recognize our common humanity is part of the “better angels of our nature” that Lincoln called for during the Civil War. This is the beloved community that MLK aspired to.

It is never wrong to love and it is never right to hate. We must rededicate ourselves to love as we resist those who seek to divide us. But these cannot be merely words — those words have to be tied to action, and those actions must be rooted in a set of shared values, including the recognition of every single person’s humanity and life.

We must do more. When we say “enough,” we must say it with conviction and meaning. We must turn our aspirations into a reality because we must, because we care, because we can.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog and HuffingtonPost.



Scalia’s blind spot

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death on Feb. 13 has not only cast a cloud of uncertainty and speculation over upcoming court decisions this term, but has also thrown a curveball into an already raucous Presidential campaign season. Given the Supreme Court’s precarious ideological balance, a new court appointee would have the potential to dramatically reshape law and the power to settle many of our nation’s most contested issues.

For more than a generation, our highest court has been firmly controlled by Republican appointees, with many seminal cases decided by the court’s most moderate Republican appointee, a baton handed off between Lewis Powell to Sandra Day O’Connor to Anthony Kennedy, the so-called “swing justice.”

If there is a Republican presidential win this November, a Republican appointee would cement the court’s current right wing configuration, especially when taking into account that the court’s eldest member is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Democratic nominee. If President Obama or a new Democratic president, however, were to nominate Scalia’s replacement, then the court would tip in a new direction that would potentially touch every major issue of our time.

In the last 10 years alone, the conservative court has opened the floodgates to corporate campaign contributions in the infamous Citizens United case, struck down provisions of the critical Voting Rights Act, and curtailed both voluntarily K-12 integration plans and affirmative action in higher education.

A Democratic appointee could hold the power to revisit, if not reverse, these decisions.

More importantly, activists and advocates desiring a more inclusive constitutional reading would be in a position to pivot away from a defensive posture — hoping merely to preserve and defend hard won gains —toward a more proactive stance, able to develop and advance the law to expand the frontiers of constitutional belonging and equality.

With this critically important appointment at hand, it is worth considering one of Scalia’s most important legacies during his court tenure and its limitations. Scalia is perhaps best known as a proponent, perhaps even the forefather, of constitutional originalism, an interpretative methodology that sought to ground Constitutional interpretation in an understanding of the “original intent” of the authors of the Constitution. Scalia’s approach served in part as a rejection of the notion of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called a “living constitution,” whereby the terms within the Constitution, such as “reasonable” (4th Amendment) or “cruel and unusual punishment”(8th Amendment), might change meaning over time, depending on the norms or values of the contemporary society in which it was being applied.

According to Scalia’s very different approach, these terms had definite meaning, fixed at the moment of enactment as understood by their authors. Scalia even acerbically described the Constitution as a “dead” document as a vivid contrast in approach.

Originalism also served as a rejoinder to what many conservatives viewed as judicial overreach in the Warren Court era — specifically, reading rights into the Constitution that are not textually apparent. This includes criticism of Miranda v. Arizona, which requires law enforcement to notify criminal suspects of their rights, Griswald v. Connecticut, and Roe v. Wade, which read rights of privacy into the Constitution and recognized reproductive freedoms that flow from them, respectively. In his dissents, Scalia urged his colleagues to overrule these cases.

Originalism purportedly offers certainty, clarity, and consistency in constitutional jurisprudence but whether it provides these benefits is an ongoing debate. More importantly, some scholars have questioned Scalia’s consistency in applying an originalist approach, especially where it may have led to results incompatible with his political leanings. Many will point to his decisive role in the controversial Bush v. Goredecision as an example of judicial activism and conservative overreach.

There is, however, a deeper inconsistency in Scalia’s jurisprudence.

Justice Scalia’s full-throated embrace of originalism had a convenient blind spot. He ignored the fact that there were, at least, two different Constitutions. The Constitution of 1789 was very different than the Constitution as amended after the Civil War. The former was designed by and for slaveholders while the latter was far more democratic and inclusive, even if in aspiration. While many of Scalia’s decisions sought to understand the original intent of the authors in 1788 and 1791, he made little such attempt to understand the Reconstructed Constitution of 1870, the document that came after the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

These three amendments, known as the “Reconstruction amendments,” transformed the Constitution and American society by sweeping into full citizenship America’s newly freed slaves, endowing them with new rights, privileges, and freedoms. In a very real sense, these amendments changed the core meaning of “We the People,” by rejecting the infamous Dred Scott decision’s holding that persons of African descent, free or slave, were not, and could never become, citizens of the United States.

President Lincoln prefigured the transformative change wrought by these amendments in his Gettysburg Address, redefining the Civil War as a fight for the identity of the American polity, and called for a “new birth of freedom.” He crystalized that ideal in immortal language of inclusivity, a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

In the new Constitution equality ofall people is paramount — meaning not just property owners, and not just whites.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has invoked Abraham Lincoln in the current presidential campaign, strongly asserting that the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln. As such, Ryan states that a candidate for President must accept Lincoln’s reminder that our country was dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal,” as was asserted in the Declaration of Independence. (Today, all but the most exclusionary among us would understand that phrase to mean “all people are created equal.”)

Lincoln was not just making reference to the Declaration of Independence — his commentary was a reference and critique of the antebellum Constitution as a flawed or at best an incomplete compromise. Through the Reconstruction Amendments the Constitution was remade in Lincoln’s ideal, which introduced into it the inclusive principle of equality.

In the 30 years that followed, however, a reactionary and increasingly conservative Supreme Court eviscerated the original intent of these amendments with pernicious doctrines such as “separate but equal.” While Plessy v. Ferguson was overruled by Brown v. Board of Education, many of that era’s decisions that watered down rights embedded in the Reconstruction amendments remain intact and are still waiting for their proper reading in law as well as in our lived reality.

The Reconstruction Constitution is a wellspring for a project of an inclusive originalism. Many of us who have studied and written on the Constitution for years, such as Akhil Amar and myself, and organizations such as the Constitutional Accountability Center, are engaged in this project, seeking to reveal and uncover the understandings and meanings of the Reconstruction Amendment’s framers.

Justice Scalia’s originalism needs to be viewed in its proper light of being particularly one-sided in its view on the Constitution. Rigid adherence to Scalia’s approach would mean that today’s Court would deny that new birth of freedom where we recognize that “all people are created equal.” This continues to be an American ideal that is radical in human history, and apparently, just as in Lincoln’s time, still contested in certain quarters. But those who want to build an inclusive American future need to reclaim the aspiration of America’s past canonized in our living Constitution.

As Ryan suggests, those who refuse to live the self-evident truth of equality may not be fit to claim the mantle of Lincoln, but they may also not be fit to serve on the highest court of the land.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog and HuffingtonPost.



Racing into the future

“Identity” —’s “Word of the Year” — was undoubtedly one of the most popular topics of 2015. As what has been called “the year of identity” draws to a close, issues of race remain at the forefront of our nation’s consciousness and reality when it comes to identity.

In the past few weeks alone we’ve heard: that no indictments will be made in the police shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old Black boy killed at his neighborhood park; that a sitting Supreme Court Justice believes that Black students may fare better at “less advanced” universities; that a slim book that journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote as a letter to his son about the reality of growing up Black in America won one of the nation’s top literary awards; that a number of national news outlets have named the Black Lives Matter movement and its founders as one of the most important stories of the year.

These stories — and many, many more — make it clear that we are a nation bound up in issues of race. Yet despite our fixation, or maybe because of it, we remain deeply conflicted about race. While we too often and too loudly insist that race does not matter, there is a growing body of research that shows race impacts many of our decisions (many with deadly consequences), and that implicit bias and racial anxiety are likely to be greater for those who cling to the belief of a colorblind society.

Our complex and confused conversations, such as the merits of claiming #BlackLivesMatter instead of All Lives Matter, reflect our attachment to — and our ambivalence about — race.

In the hotly debated case last summer surrounding Rachel Dolezal, the former Spokane, Washington NAACP leader whose presentation and claims of being Black were exposed as untruthful, everyone seemed to have an opinion. I’m less interested in the case of one white woman’s struggle with her identity than I am by what the reactions to Dolezal’s story say about us. Our conversations were not only about her racial identity but revealed deep feelings about the implications of her claims—privilege, power, and the fluidity and boundaries of race in America.

Dolezal’s case is just one recent illustration that many of our racial debates are framed between two extreme and problematic positions. We talk about race not being a biological reality and yet we saw how easily people fell back into predefined notions of racial identities when it came to the Dolezal case.

If we reject the notion that phenotype and biology define race, then we often move toward the idea that race indicates a particular experience or culture on some level. But this argument doesn’t hold up much better than the one based on biology. Does this mean regardless of one’s ancestry one’s race is decided by culture? When we talk of racial profiling by the police, landlords, or banking institutions, we are certainly not talking about culture.

The other common claim about race is that it is socially constructed. But what does the social construction of race really mean, and how deep are we willing to go to examine it? If race is socially constructed, is it a stable construction, or is it something that shifts based on time and place? And who is the “society” constructing these racial identities—are all the members of society participating in the constructing?

In the debates over Dolezal, it appeared that our society has constructed race with such strict adherence to prior definitions that we were completely perplexed and even outraged by someone transgressing this construction.

But the idea that one could just feel another race and act on that feeling is also problematic. Let’s consider for a moment if a dark-skinned African American woman chose to be white — would she then be white? And if her stated identity was questioned, would people rush to this individual’s defense, claiming the individual has the right to be whomever she chooses? If race is socially, not individually, constructed, then how do individuals get to choose?

The view that racial identities and the categories that inform them are fixed and have some essential, defining element is wrong. Yet the opposite position — that individuals enjoy complete autonomy to define their racial identity — is also wrong, an attractive fiction in a hyper-individualistic culture.

Between these two poles lies the social reality of racial identity and hierarchy. While there is some individual agency in defining one’s identity, it does not alone give birth to a racial self entirely of one’s choosing. Racial identity and racial classification may lack an objective reality, but is it not entirely subjective or illusory either. It is both social and intersubjective with real life constraints and consequences. It is both very simple and doggedly complex. Just because we have weight does not mean we have deep or immediate insights into how gravity works; similarly, having a race does not by itself reveal the complexity of how race functions.

But race is not merely a question of identity. Race is central in how we organize our structures and for whom we grant or limit opportunity. The increasing racial and economic segregation in housing, schools, and cities — think of San Francisco, DC, or Seattle — attest to a profoundly racialized set of institutions and policies.

We often fail to lean into the reality of how race powerfully shapes these economic, political, and cultural structures. The left too often frames the debate as to whether to engage in “identity-based” politics or whether to focus on the economy. This leads to a false division that gives way to a contradictory discourse, one that proclaims race as unimportant or separate, or asks us to not be “distracted” by race so that we may achieve true reform in policies that build a healthy community such as housing, jobs, wealth, or access to political participation. Yet these issues are all powerfully relational to race.

On the right, attacks on the federal government and taxes for the rich may stem partially from ideological beliefs, but historically what has made these claims stick is the belief that our public funds will go to the “undeserving” — i.e. Blacks, immigrants and “Others.” These arguments mostly play out along racial lines but who the perceived Other is remains somewhat fluid. They need not be a different race — the Other can be women, gay and trans people, undocumented immigrants, and, most recently, Muslims.

You could put a pin in any week in America in 2015 to see on display our deeply racialized reality, what I prefer to call the process of Othering.

But I am not suggesting that nothing has changed in America. The way we do race is definitely changing, and will continue to change greatly, especially as a profound demographic shift continues to shape our future America. And even if we get that there is a shift in numbers, it is equally important to recognize that there will also be a shift in categories. Who will count as white, Black, or Asian in 2050? Are Latinos the new Irish, en route to becoming “white” both as a category and socially? And what will influence these possibilities and perceptions?

How we do race will be consequential to the kind of society we have in the future. Our racing will be impacted by our history, our experience, as well as our imagined future. Our future will be impacted by the way the conscious and unconscious make meaning of our new social constructions. We must intertwine race with the other urgent issues we must confront including extreme inequality, mass incarceration, full participation in our political and cultural structures, and—perhaps most critically —with our most fundamental questions about who we are.

The calendar year of obsessing over identity may be drawing to a close, but the new year and many to follow will find us continuing to grapple with the reality of what our beliefs, narratives, and policies concerning race and the Other suggests about us. We cannot just abandon the past, and while the past will help shape the future, it will not determine the future. We must be able to look both back and forward, not as passive observers but as participants with skin in the game.

Best wishes for a new year filled with light and love.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and HuffingtonPost.



What Trump gets right

How does one make sense of a US presidential candidate calling for the banning of Muslims entering the country and the tracking and profiling of those who live here? How does one make sense of a US Supreme Court justice suggesting that Blacks should not go to top-tier universities?

We live in strange times and yet we must claim these times to be ours. We live in a strange and anxious world and yet we must claim this world to be ours.

There are real concerns and fears about the escalation of violence. We are all well aware of ISIS and the destruction and death they bring to people in Syria and Iraq, the majority of whom are Muslims. There should be no apology for speaking up to condemn this violence, but we must also recognize their violence is largely directed at people trapped in situations we helped to create. In the name of U.S. safety and interest, we destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives in Iraq apparently in search of weapons of mass destruction, in reality making the world safe for the flow of oil and other resources to the United States.

I do not blame people for being afraid and confused, but I do blame those who claim to be leaders for stoking this fear and trading on it for their own nefarious reasons. Donald Trump’s latest statement is actually a continuation of a fairly consistent attack on people considered Other in our society — he has already attacked women, gays, immigrants, the disabled, Blacks.

Some say what Trump and other political candidates are doing is simply giving voice to the anxieties and fears many American already have. We are constantly hearing about our changing demographic and it is challenging our idea of what America is, and who we are. Change and especially rapid change is often difficult. It is understandable that people want to retreat into a fictitious past where life was apparent simple, secure, and happy. Today’s America is not the America many grew up with or imagined. Tomorrow’s America will be even more different.

But when one hears about how “we” are changing, who do we mean when we say “we?” What do we mean when we say “our” country? How we answer those questions in our words and deeds tells us whose life counts in America and which groups are inside our circle of human concern.

From coded to explicit

There is acknowledgement on both sides of the political spectrum that Trump’s latest statement signals a shift, a pivot away from the long-used strategy in American politics of using coded language — a “dog whistle” — to attack the Other. The elite, especially Republicans but also some Democrats, have been strategically using anxiety about the perceived Other to whip up fear for political and economic gain for decades.

The idea is simple. Give shape to the anxiety of a group who feels threatened by some Other. The Other can be the religious Other, the immigrant Other, the racial Other, or other Others. This strategy is not about race or religion, but about power and control. Elites have used this strategy to wrestle government away from people in favor of themselves, push for lower taxes, and enact deregulations that shift and concentrate money and power to themselves.

The strategy was successfully used by Richard Nixon. Called the southern strategy, it was designed to trade on the anxiety of southern whites about blacks, and it moved the south from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. This resentment would not just be directed at Blacks and the Democratic party, but also at the federal government itself.

Reagan would go on to perfect this strategy at the national level. He asserted that the government could not fix the problems the country was facing, that instead government was the problem. While he and others publicly called for a smaller federal government, what they actually did was increase not only the size of the federal government, but changed its role from protecting and serving people to protecting and serving the elites and corporations.

Traditionally, in a society like ours that prides itself on being equalitarian, the attack on the Other needed to be coded, not overt. The attacker needs to be able to feign innocence and even hurt. “What me, a racist? Some of my best friends are Muslim.” (Berkeley Law professor Ian Haney Lopez has brilliantly captured this strategy in his book Dog Whistle Politics.)

But now the climate has changed, so much so that Trump feels no longer compelled to use a “dog whistle.” Trump has broken with the old strategy in two important ways. First, his rhetoric and inflammatory speech has returned the national conversation to the era of Barry Goldwater, using language and messaging that are explicit. Second, Trump has also begun to attack the economic and political system that supports the elites.

In combining resentment and anxiety about the Other with resentment toward a system that favors the elites, Trump is not just a continuation of the old style. More importantly, he has actually done something that those who care about inclusion should have done some time ago: he has linked the challenge to a system rigged in favor of corporations with issues of race, immigration, and religion. He trades not just on economic fear and anxiety, but also on fear of a loss of collective identity.

Trump has manipulated this very real connection as a reason to exclude, rather than include. He has done something that those of us who care about justice must also do, but with a critical difference: we must link the rise of extreme economic inequality with the separate but related issue of who we are and we who we might become, not based on fear, but on hope and possibility.

What to do?

But enough about Trump. What is our message? What is our response? I think it should be that no person should be outside the circle of our human concern. Within this circle we have a duty to practice respect and care for a person, not for all their ideas or beliefs, but for their humanity. Furthermore, this concern should trump concerns for oil and profit. The message we need to proclaim is “people before profit” and “people caring about people” — all people. It is not enough to decide if someone holds racist views. We must look at the impact of their deeds and the structures that allow them to benefit.

When we condemn Islam for the actions of ISIS we are engaging in deeply stereotypical assessments that exacts injury on millions of people. When we refuse to collect information of Blacks being regularly killed by state workers, we are saying that black lives do not matter. It is not enough to oppose Trump. We must actively promote a society where people belong and no one is outside the circle of human concern.

We live in a complex, shrinking world. We must learn about each other. We much learn to talk to each other. If we were all the same, dialogue would not be necessary. If we were all different, dialogue would not be possible. But because we are both the same and different, dialogue is necessary and possible.

We who care must engage and acknowledge our collective anxiety and begin to shape a different story and a different possible future. Can we conceive of a government that is responsive and works to include all people? Can we conceive of a set of economic structures and policies that serve people and not just the elites? Can we tell this story and build this reality?

This is the unfinished business of creating a fair and inclusive society. This is our challenge.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog and HuffingtonPost.


When We Fully Claim Black Lives Matter, We Move Closer to All Lives Matter


When We Fully Claim Black Lives Matter, We Move Closer to All Lives Matter

For this piece, I want to turn my attention to a question that came up after we finished the day’s training. An attendee asked an important question about the BlackLivesMattermovement and targeted universalism. She asserted that when she, as well as others she knew, proclaimed “Black Lives Matter,” that there is often a rejoinder from liberal whites to reject that phrase and instead insist upon and declare that “All Lives Matter.” She asked me how I would respond to this exchange from the perspective of targeted universalism.

Before sharing my answer, I will take a minute to talk about the concept of targeted universalism. In my teachings andwritings, I have long asserted that we should be universal in our goals and aspirations, but targeted in our strategies based on our where we are situated in our structures, our cultures, and our environment. Too often our strategies are universal under the claim that we are treating all people and groups the same.

Consider if we are trying to get everyone from the first to the third floor. This is the universal goal. We may build an escalator to take people from the first to the third floor. The escalator is the structure. Now someone comes along in a wheelchair. The escalator does not work for her. She is situated both differently to the structure of the escalator as well as from those who can walk. The strategy that we might use for the group is, therefore, to build an elevator. Some could claim she is asking for something special–after all everyone else was ok with an escalator. But while an escalator and an elevator would both get everyone to the third floor, an elevator would take into account the different situation of someone in our group.

Two other quick examples. What if we want to raise everyone up, so we use the metaphor of the structure of a rising tide? It turns out that some folks may not have a boat and the rising tide does not raise them up but instead drowns them. Consider the universal goal of getting everyone out of New Orleans as the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. The strategy was: get in your vehicle and drive to safety. But as it turned out many people, a disproportionate many of whom were African American, did not have cars. The universal strategy — safety for all — turned out to not be attainable for many.



Searching for Equality in Indiana and Beyond

Throughout the history of our nation, many faith traditions have led on social issues. Religious leaders and faith-based communities played a critical role in the abolitionist movement, suffragist movement, and civil rights movement. Even today, there are vigorous and active communities of faith that speak out publicly to the issues of our time, from #blacklivesmatter to Moral Mondays in North Carolina.

At the same time, there is also a long history of drawing upon scripture or using religion as grounds for exclusion or an excuse for discrimination. Supporters of slavery, Jim Crow, apartheid, and anti-miscegenation justified these practices and policies, in part, on religious traditions. The proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act under consideration in Indiana is an unfortunate continuation of this less salutary tradition.

While it is vital to respect religious beliefs and practices of different groups, that must not become a justification for discrimination. The RFRA would permit, in some circumstances, individuals and businesses to discriminate on the basis of religious beliefs in delivering goods and services. Whether intended or not, this law is also likely to embolden discrimination and create a hostile atmosphere for gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in Indiana.

It is especially troubling when the state effectively sanctions private discrimination, placing its weight and imprimatur behind the beliefs of a few to exclude and marginalize. The state is a public entity, entrusted to create and foster space where all members are cared for, respected, and included.

The Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society strongly disagrees with Indiana’s proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our message is one of inclusion and fairness, of belonging and not “othering”, and we support the LGBTQ communities of Indiana – and the world – to be respected and treated with dignity. We ask Indiana and all other state and local governments to reject the institutionalized exclusion of groups based on differences that enrich, rather than impoverish, society.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog and HuffingtonPost.