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The roots of racism: a psychoanalytic perspective. (Special section: the American dilemma revisited: psychoanalysis, social policy, and the socio-cultural meaning of race).

We seek on this panel to address the roots of racism, but in order to do so, we must first be clear about what is meant by "roots." This term, so familiar and so easy to think that we understand, is in fact a complex tangle, a cover for much that is significantly in contention. Psychoanalytic discourse talks a lot a the "roots" of patterns of human experience. Usually that means something like the origins of the pattern in the early history of the person's life, but for others among us today--those who represent disciplines and perspectives other than psychoanalysis--finding the roots of a problem may have a rather different meaning. For some, the roots of our problems lie not in the infancy of individuals but in enduring social patterns of inequality; they lie in economic inequalities and in differences in political power or access to social position. For others, either by virtue of their academic discipline or their personal racial identity, the roots of racism lie in our nation's tragic and appalling history and in our failure fully to transcend it. "We were slaves, and we are still slaves," is a phrase I heard, with but slight variations, from a significant number of African Americans during the course of researching my book Race in the Mind of America. To reach the most satisfactory understanding of the roots of our difficulties, I would suggest, we must recognize that the conscious and the unconscious, the personal and the social, the "inner" and the "outer," are not competing perspectives or locations but rather strands of a kind of social double helix, wrapping around each other much like the strands in our DNA. The potential of psychoanalysis to further our understanding of our nation's racial impasse has been impeded by a failure to integrate psychoanalytic understanding into a larger, more comprehensive vision. This failure, in turn, lies in a vision of psychoanalysis that is widely shared by psychoanalysts and non-analysts alike. That vision casts psychoanalysis as a study of the "inner life" or "inner world," a realm hermetically sealed off from the world of everyday life, moving us from within on the basis of images and fantasies from childhood--fantasies that are largely untouched and unmodifiable by the events of later life.

I wish to offer here a different vision of what psychoanalysis is about and what psychoanalysis has to offer: a vision which I believe can provide a bridge between the psychoanalytic understanding of our difficulties and the understanding offered by the other disciplines represented here today. Psychoanalysis, I wish to suggest, is not the study of an isolated inner world. It is, rather, the study of the ways--the often-surprising ways--that we subjectively give meaning to the events and experiences of our lives, and of the ways that we hide from ourselves both those meanings and the motives for the hiding itself.

The version of psychoanalytic understanding which guides my thinking incorporates all of the observations that have been at the heart of the psychoanalytic point of view--including very centrally the pervasive influence of unconscious fantasies and conflicts--but it recasts them in a form more readily integrated with an appreciation of the powerful additional influences illuminated by students of human behavior whose work derives from other disciplines. This alternative version of psychoanalysis--one I call cyclical psychodynamics--highlights the countless feedback loops that link our conscious thoughts and attitudes, our more hidden and conflicted fantasies and desires, our overt actions and their consequences, and the larger social context in which it all is manifested. From a cyclical psychodynamic perspective, no one part of this complex and reciprocal loop of causes is "deeper" than any other, and no part can be ignored without impairing significantly our understanding.

Let me offer an example here--drawn from outside the psychoanalytic situation--to illustrate how this circularity works in the realm of race relations. In research conducted some years back at Princeton, the subjects (all white undergraduates) thought they were participating in a study of interviewing techniques. In fact, however, the focus of the study was, in essence, on unconscious racial attitudes. Unbeknownst to the subjects, half of them were randomly assigned to interview a black interviewee and half a white interviewee. Of particular interest in the present context is that the indicators that were looked at were not the more obvious or overt signs of whether the interviewers were being fair or biased, hostile or friendly--not, that is, the kinds of manifest and explicit behavior that can be more readily controlled in order to make a good impression (on others or, importantly, on oneself). Rather, the investigators looked at a number of nonverbal indicators that are not only harder to control, but likely not even to be consciously noticed by the people manifesting them. What they found was that whites interviewing blacks positioned their chairs further away from the interviewee than whites interviewing whites. They also made more speech errors when talking to them, suggestive of anxiety or emotional conflict; and they ended the interviews sooner.

At first blush, what can be seen in this study is consistent with the standard view of racism and racial prejudice that most progressive thinkers hold. In addition to having to deal with the still very significant explicit racist attitudes that they encounter daily, blacks also have to deal with a host of more subtle, but no less impactful behaviors from whites that the white person may not even know about or be able or willing to acknowledge. The study, it seems, reveals something about the way whites treat blacks and shows how African Americans have the cards stacked against them the minute they walk into the room.

And indeed it does. But consider further what a study like this suggests: Day after day, in context after context, African Americans in our society encounter experiences like the ones demonstrated in the study. What are the implications likely to be for how they then behave in the presence of whites, for the emotional attitudes that African Americans convey (often equally unconsciously) from their end of the interaction? It is simply too much to expect of any human being that he or she can encounter these kinds of subtle slights (on top of all the not so subtle slights and the many very concrete economic and social deprivations) and not have that influence their behavior and attitudes in interacting with whites or the emotional messages they convey in the interaction.

And indeed, another finding of the same research project demonstrates this kind of effect quite clearly. In a second study, investigators trained interviewers to behave toward the people they were interviewing either as the subjects in the first study behaved toward blacks or as they behaved toward whites. In this second study, however, all the participants were white, so the only variable was the interviewer's behavior. What was found was that white interviewees who were subjected to the kind of interview experience the black interviewees had encountered in the previous study were judged by raters to be less competent and less at ease than those who were interviewed more in the manner that whites were in the previous study. In other words, simply being treated the way that blacks are likely to be treated in an interview--including in ways (such as sitting further away or making more speech errors) that are subtle and largely unconscious and undetectable--will make anyone--black or white--appear to be less qualified. White interviewers thus are likely to have the subjective experience-seemingly confirmed by their senses--that despite their best efforts it is difficult to find black applicants who are as qualified as whites and perhaps that blacks have an "attitude," that they simply do not comfortably fit in. What these white interviewers are not likely to recognize is that their own behavior has brought this result about.

What is crucial for us to understand is that what is revealed in studies such as this--and in the countless slights and injustices that any African American in our society can elaborately document from his or her daily life--is not a simple, unidirectional, unconscious racism on the part of whites, something "inside" whites that, one way or another, is bound to come out. Rather it is a complex and, to a large degree, self-sustaining vicious circle in which the behavior and attitudes manifested by each side (both with and without awareness) evoke an all too predictable response from the other side. Those of us on the political left (and here I count not only myself but, if I am not mistaken, the large majority of this audience) are more comfortable with focusing on the impact of whites' behavior and attitudes on blacks. In so many ways African Americans really are the victims in our society, the people who have to cope with a profusion of indignities, inequalities, and deprivations, that it seems churlish to describe the pattern as one in which they are co-participants. And indeed, African Americans are the victims of racism, discrimination, and a far from level playing field in a host of ways. This truth--reflected in continuing differences in income, infant mortality rates, life expectancy, housing conditions, and a myriad of other concrete differences in life circumstances and opportunities--must not be made to disappear by the introduction of a vicious circle analysis. Neither can it be ignored that this particular vicious circle pattern does have a beginning, a clear point of origin and responsibility: The pattern began when white slavers captured and sold and white slaveowners bought innocent human beings who were in no way responsible for their cruel fate and when, faced with the flagrant immorality of this behavior, the white community created a series of rationalizations that spawned the racist stereotypes we contend with to this day. This much we ignore at our peril--both practical and moral.

But, these crucially important facts and perspectives need to be supplemented by an understanding that illuminates for us the trap in which we are all caught, or else we will continue to be unable to right the persisting wrongs that are at its heart. The very reason that the study I have just been discussing is worth citing is that what was revealed was not a quirk of a small number of Princeton undergraduates, but a pervasive feature of our society, reflected in countless interactions between blacks and whites every day. Given this reality, we can be almost certain that when blacks and whites interact, they each are carrying a history that is not only abstract or societal but immediate and personal. The prior experiences that these white undergraduates had with African Americans were--almost inevitably--with African Americans who had already had numerous encounters with other white people who had acted with them very much the way the white undergraduates in the study were about to. What this means is that the pain and hurt and rage that these African Americans experienced in relation to previous whites with whom they interacted almost certainly shaped, in a high proportion of instances, the way they reacted in their interactions with the white subjects of the study as well. So the white subjects of the study--who, without question, were manifesting attitudes and behaviors that contribute significantly to keeping African Americans so unjustly marginalized in our society--were also manifesting the already internalized consequences of their own previous actual experiences with other African Americans. They sat further away from black than white interviewees, made more nervous speech errors, and cut the interview short because they were anxious, they were anticipating--and not necessarily consciously--something uncomfortable. And of course, the ironic result is that--again, largely without awareness--they now are actively participating in the continuation of the malevolent pattern, in behavior that will keep the same things happening again.

In this brief presentation, I have chosen to illustrate the vicious circularity in our racial impasse via a social psychological study rather than a more traditional psychoanalytic data source. My aim, given that I am the psychoanalytic representative, so to speak, on this initial panel, was to highlight the ways in which psychoanalytic perspectives dovetail and overlap with findings from other vantage points and can be integrated with those findings. Much like psychoanalysis itself, the research I cited is guided by an appreciation of how often we are not conscious either of the reasons why we hold certain attitudes or even the fact that we hold them.

What psychoanalysis particularly adds to our understanding of the unconscious psychological tendencies that perpetuate our racial divisions is an appreciation of the dynamics of conflict that lie behind them. Psychoanalysis is often seen--not always inaccurately, I am sad to say--as a discipline aimed at finding deeper pathology and secrets beneath what may appear to be a relatively benign exterior. But the power of psychoanalysis to illuminate the depths of psychological life need not be limited to the unmasking of demons behind the faces of angels. By pointing us to focus on the pervasiveness of conflict, by highlighting the complexity, contradiction, and tensions that lie behind our more manifest attitudes, psychoanalysis leads us--or should lead us--to question the assumption that people can easily be classified, say, as racist or not. A psychoanalytic perspective suggests instead that whether people end up on one side or the other of a social conflict may depend on a slight shift in the balance of forces in the psyche, forces whose tensions and contradictions are often obscured by the resultant surface, which is evident to the naked eye. But just as a picture that may have been hanging on a wall for ten years reveals the delicate balance of forces that kept it in place only when it comes crashing down, exposing the potential that existed all along for quite different resolution of those forces in conflict, so too may we find that a slight movement--akin to reaching what Malcolm Gladwell has called the tipping point--may result in a quite unanticipated consequence. This may entail movement toward a racist orientation by people who had not seemed so inclined, but it may also be reflected in movement toward a position of greater solidarity and understanding of common interests among people who have too readily been written off as racists.

In a different context, Freud commented that human beings are both much worse and much better than we are accustomed to think. In seeking the roots of racism and racial division, it is essential that we be alert to both, and to the ability of both tendencies to cohabit in the same personality. Psychoanalysis is increasingly concerned, as we begin the 21st century, with the ways in which people co-construct the reality between them. Such an understanding, combined with an appreciation of the pervasiveness both of vicious circles and of unconscious and unwitting participation in those circles, is a major prerequisite for resolving the continuing American dilemma that is the concern of all of us at this conference.

Paul L. Wachtel is Distinguished Professor in the doctoral programs in clinical psychology and social-personality psychology at City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. A member of the faculty of the Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, Dr. Wachtel has also served as director of the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at City College. He is internationally recognized as an innovator in the field of psychotherapy for his contributions to the application of psychological theory and research to the pressing social problems of our times. A co-founder of the Society for the Exploration of Psychotherapy Integration, Dr. Wachtel is the author of many books, including Action and Insight, The Poverty of Affluence, Family Dynamics in Individual Psychotherapy, Therapeutic Communication: Principles and Effective Practice, Psychoanalysis, Behavior Therapy, and the Relational World, and, most recently, Race in the Mind of America: Breaking the Vicious Circles Between Blacks and Whites.
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Author:Wachtel, Paul L.
Publication:Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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