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Childhood Race Fears Won’t Go Away

July 25, 2010

One is always taking a chance when writing about racial or ethnic issues – we come to it with such different perspectives – it’s easy to be misunderstood.

It’s hard to envision exactly why this is true – after all – we all have opinions, and should be able to thoughtfully write about anything that strikes our fancy.  While this is true about most subjects – race or ethnic relations seem to be an exception.

We are in the second year of what is certainly a four-year discussion on race (black versus white) in America. This has come about with the election of Barrack Obama as President – the first black President - despite his election being hailed as a transcending one – a post-racial Presidency.

This dialogue is tiring many Americans, and some have quit listening altogether. There seems to be some new race issue with political consequences surfacing all the time. This past week it was a little known U.S. Department of Agriculture official in Georgia that stirred things up.

A larger and larger segment of the country sees all this as pointless. We are entering the 50th year of a seemingly daily dialogue on race, and while much has changed, many will argue, much has not.

Racial tension – and racism – is well represented on both sides of the equation – in equal numbers – and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.

The reason is simple and has little to do with politics. Most fears that exist between two individuals – or two sets of people - are nothing more than a power struggle between an old brain and a new one. While things can be better for a while, the old brain is dominant, and unless individuals work very hard at changing their ways – the old fears and anxieties will eventually win out.

We learn at an early age – what is safe and what is not.  Thoughts and attitudes that represent a psychological danger to us – including racial prejudices – are grounded this way. Thus, attitudes and fears about race, ethnicity, and religious prejudices are rooted early, and plague us right through adulthood.

There is always temporary progress – much like there is during the romantic phase of a relationship – but in time old fears take over, reality sets in, and we learn that the same needs and fears, the ones we experienced as a child, remain as adults.

Same can be said about race relations – while much progress has been made – childhood comfort zones lurk in the background, and the racial tension within us, developed at an early age, will surface as adults. 

We know for example, that black leadership in America remains skeptical about racial progress, and is quick to point out any racial failing it can find.  Rarely do we hear that the glass is half-full, rather it is always half-empty, as they see it no other way.

Something similar might be said about white liberals, and conservatives, who continue to condemn racism and ethnic slurs, yet their words and concern are doing little in a practical sense to foster improved relations.

The media also plays a role, and is always on the lookout for issues that stir racial tension, and usually ones that have political overtones. This is not to blame the media, but simply to point out that most of these issues are played out in the open, where political posturing is usually the norm.

We can strength the laws, improve communication, emphasize education, and commit to racial and ethnic equality, but sooner or later, the prejudicial fears we experienced as children will resurface, along with the same anxiety and fears.

This basic psychological fact – more than anything else - predetermines our general attitudes and feelings on race and ethnicity. I’m not talking about what one may say on the subject, but rather, what one truly believes, inside the exterior self.

If we are unable, or unwilling, to recognize that our racial prejudices were solidified many years ago, as children, then we are destined to be clueless on how to overcome them as adults.