A. The Psychology of Anti-Black Racism

In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois, then embittered by the increasing social pathologies and economic deprivation among the black migrants of the northern ghettos, prophesized that the race issue (or “Color Line”) would become a dynamic constituent of public opinion in the twentieth century. In the early fifties, at the dawn of an era of prosperity and abundance, the black residents of the northern and northeastern ghettos still suffered economic deprivation and social marginalization. At the turn of that decade, Ralph Ellison deplored the social and economic condition of this “invisible man,”--this dark-skinned man who was not so much invisible after all, as he stood out “damned” because he was black and “damned” again if he tried to integrate. Today, as author and journalist Farai Chideya argues, we still continue to depict the United States as black and *355 white, despite the fact that its racial composition is constantly changing and that it is projected that whites will become a minority in less than forty years. Just as the racial geography of the United States has not changed much in decades, the psychology of anti-black racism--meaning the attitudes and perceptions that have fostered white negative judgments about blacks and black culture--has remained essentially the same, perpetuating a “thought system accenting white superiority and black inferiority,” a “slavery [that is] unwilling to die.” And it is unlikely that it will change, as long as the inner fears, distrust, and suspicions that have previously bred prejudices and misjudgments about blacks persist. The main focus here is not so much on the reasons why anti-black racism has not ceased--despite the fact that the debate on race and racism in mainstream media has lately decreased--as it is on the psychological roots and motivations that sustain this old hostility toward dark-skinned individuals in general.

Notwithstanding some common systemic and cultural accounts of anti-black racism, the rejection--or loathing--of those with a darker skin seems to be grounded in psychic conflict, betraying an innate fear and anxiety about the potential evilness of the self. While darkness stands for the unknown recesses of this potentially vicious self from which the white individual incessantly tries to evade, anti-black racism is a projection onto individuals who are different in appearance form one's “white self” of that fear which the individual must live through his entire life. It is an evasion from oneself, or from what one could have been. From the perspective of the Cress theory of Color-Confrontation, the alienation from the self has eventually developed into alienation towards others--in this case, it is directed against blacks. For as Frances Wesling puts it, “[t]he destructive and aggressive behavioral patterns displayed throughout the world by white peoples towards all non-white peoples is the evidence of the inner hate, hostility and rejection they feel towards themselves and of the deep self-alienation that has evolved from their genetic inadequacy.” The projection of the white individual's assumed evilness onto individuals from the darker races is supposed to relieve him from his own anxiety--itself connected to a common core of alienation and narcissism--and serve as a constant reminder of “what” he should *356 not be. The black man, a host for the most reviled images and reflections, becomes the white man's alter-ego and must endure hatred and abhorrence in order for the white man to live in peace with himself.

Anti-black racism (and certainly racism in general) is by definition misanthropic, since it sacrifices a section of the society for the other section to surmount its debasing perceptions about itself. Also, it is only a provisional escape from the self as it just postpones white anti-white racism, for, as Lewis R. Gordon has argued in his influential work Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (1999), white Americans would have considered Europeans black if there had been no Africans. Blackness then becomes a psychological construct, a reinvention of the white self, and an image of it that is purposefully distorted and disfigured in such a way as to look as different as possible from the “original.” This depreciation of blackness has affected the whole African American community, which explains the disaffection of the better-off fringes of the community which often turned to black cultural nationalism for self-identification, specifically because of the resistance they faced in their progress toward integration. Today, white expectation that African Americans will not be able to “make it on their own” is in itself a racist message, a self-fulfilling prophecy which suggests that the latter lack the cultural and ethical requisites (the work ethic, commitment, integrity, etc.) likely to help them climb the socioeconomic pyramid. For example, the idea that President Barack Obama, an African American man, could serve in the highest executive position in the United States came as a surprise to many; indeed, the 2008 election marked a significant *357 demographic change in the United States towards a greater recognition of diversity. Newspaper headlines nationwide celebrated America's entry into a new era of racial comity and social justice, when even a black man was able to climb up the most prestigious career paths if he had the necessary credentials to do so. On the front page of The New York Times, for example, one could read that “Obama [was] Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls.” This could be either an extremely naïve statement or simply a deluding assumption about a long-wished-for condition of racial equality. When one learns that, a few weeks before, an article by a prominent columnist in the same newspaper strongly argued that, in the process of choosing a president, racial considerations could not be ignored, and that substantial numbers of white voters were not yet prepared to support a black candidate, one's skepticism only increases. As he put it, white voters in Ohio and West Virginia, for example, “were wary of a black president even if he might be better for them economically.” The same journalist reported that a Republican voter from Wheeling, West Virginia stated “[w]hat you hear around here is, would you rather have a black friend in the White House, or a white enemy?” An additional statement in the same article explains how the race issue of the election was, according to this journalist, decisive for a great number of white voters. The journalist reports Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, as saying that “the fact of the matter is that some voters--we can't know yet how many--will not get past [Barack Obama's] race. And [that he] very much believe[s] that the McCain-Palin ticket is tapping into that.” A more sincere headline appeared on the first page of The Boston Globe, another mainstream newspaper, reading “Among blacks, joy and tears, at journey's end.” This may be a more realistic description of the way a majority of African Americans felt. The only question, then, is what are the tears supposed to convey? Those were definitely tears of non-belief and puzzlement about something that many African Americans expected would perhaps never happen, at least during their lifetime. The man who was referred to at the Republican rallies a few weeks before his election as “not one of us,” and who was called, *358 according to The New York Times columnist Patrick Healy, “Arab, Muslim, traitor, terrorist, friend of terrorists, Barack Hussein Obama,” finally became the first African American president. If anything, such reactions on the part of many African Americans speak to their awareness that anti-black racism is deep-seated in a large number of white people's psyche and that much remains yet to be done to help reduce racial prejudice.

During his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama, in turn, was aware of the importance of the racial factor in the election process. Speaking of the psychological and cultural legacy of centuries of human bondage and the persistence of anti-black racism and hostility, he once admitted that “[he] ha [s] never been so naïve as to believe that [Americans] can get beyond [their] racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy, particularly [with] a candidacy as imperfect as [his] own.” If, with the election of Obama, the black/white divide seemed to come down suddenly, it was not because white perception of African Americans and their culture changed. The former has certainly improved; otherwise, one would not witness the election of an African American to the White House. It was specifically because, among other things, the political and economic conjuncture of the late 1990s and 2000s determined this drastic change in public attitude toward federal politics. Candidate Barack Obama's election catchphrase “Change We Can Believe In” appealed to a large majority of disaffected youths and educated whites, and, as the serious economic recession worsened, Obama won even more votes from working-class whites in several states. But the largest votes came from the black community, and here is where racial politics come to the fore. Eight in every ten black voters gave their voices to Obama, while this particular election saw a black turnout that was unequalled in history. In brief, Mr. Obama's election was rather a personal odyssey, an individual achievement, and was no way a sign that anti-black racism *359 has completely disappeared. It was an exceptional achievement by an upper-middle class, Harvard graduate, biracial politician.

The importance of Mr. Obama's racial background for large numbers of voters, as revealed by the 2008 election, reflected the persistence of anti-black racism in contemporary America. Many voters, as noted earlier, expressed their distrust of a black candidate and even gave him offensive names. Others, especially politicians and public figures at both local and national levels, were particularly cautious when they discussed Mr. Obama's racial background, reminding us that race remains a taboo, an uncharted territory to stay away from. The fact that, today, if you are a politician and want to pursue a successful political career, you need to avoid bringing up racialist topics, may in itself be solid evidence of the precariousness of interracial relations and, more specifically, black/white relations. For fear of being charged of anti-black racism, whites can sometimes be quite watchful of their language in the presence of black colleagues. Incidents where whites are accused of being racist because they use words judged inappropriate by their black colleagues, employees, or teammates are quite common. When, for example, the white ombudsman to the newly elected mayor of Washington D.C., Anthony Williams, used the word “niggardly” to mean “thrifty” when talking about his plan to manage the funds at his disposal, he was accused by a black co-worker of racism and was eventually compelled to resign. Whether the word was used unwittingly or on purpose, no such incident was ever likely to turn into a scandal in the first place if the relations between blacks and whites were not weighed down by suspicion and mistrust.

*360 The above incident with Williams occurred in 1999, but many more incidents where black employees accused their white colleagues or employers of using language that had racist overtones have been reported throughout the national media. The point, however, is that the improvement in black/white relations observed over the past decade should not downplay the fact that anti-black racism has often played a role in determining white identity and culture, as opposed to black or African American identity and culture. It is eventually structured along old beliefs and values that have transformed over time into cultural symbols and that have become difficult to dismantle.