June 4, 2014 | WGVU For 150 years, Hope College symbolized the conservative part of the
Dutch reformed movement. But last week, Hope teamed up with the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance
to focus on race and inclusion. This is in addition to the work they’ve
been doing to help migrant workers, mainly latinos, who, for decades,
have been coming to pick fruit on this side of the state.
Racism is not dead in America or Michigan. But what happens when
someone tells a white guy like me: “you’re racist. Don’t try to deny it.
I’ll say “I’m not racist. I don’t see race. I’m colorblind.”
John A. Powell grew up in Detroit. He’s 67 now. He comes from
America’s most prestigious universities including California Berkeley.
He teaches law there. His new book is called Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build and Inclusive Society.
Powell wandered around the lectern of Hope College chapel. 700 people were inside. He said having bias doesn’t make you bad.
“You’re not a bad person. I’m not a bad person. But bad things are
happening. Kids are getting shot. People are being segregated in
schools. How do we change that? We’re not saying you’re bad. But bad
stuff is happening.”
Professor Powell says police who shoot innocent blacks are not
necessarily racist. Many are black themselves. Here’s an exercise he
does with the audience. It proves there’s a lot we can’t control.
“I’m going to ask you to shout out the colors as soon as you see
them. You will some letters as well. I want you to ignore the letters.
All I want you to do is say the colors.”
Powell showed words on a big screen one at a time. The word red was
in red ink. The word black was in black ink. Then green appeared in red
ink. Black in blue ink. Powell had asked the audience to say the colors
not read the words. People got tripped up because the words were not
written in the color of the word.
“I know it’s early in the morning. (laughs from the audience) So let
me just talk to you about what just happened. I told you to ignore the
letters. You can’t ignore the letters. Your unconscious is always on
line. When you go to sleep at night you can’t turn it off.”
Implicit means any thing we are not conscious of. We are loaded with implicit bias.
Humans process 40 bits of information per second consciously. But 11
million bits per second unconsciously. Our unconscious doesn’t like
blanks. So it fills them in.
Powells’s word/color exercise shows the clash between the conscious
and unconscious. It feels like our brains aren’t working right. Powell
calls it cognitive depletion. The unconscious is social. It builds up
associations through movies, literature, the internet and people you’ve
had contact with since you were born. The unconscious affects everyone.
“When we find out we have these tensions it doesn’t make us racist or sexist. It means we’re reflecting the larger environment.”
So white guys like me feel we’re off the hook. But powell says we have a responsibility.
“When two things happen over and over again we build a neuro network over them. They become connected in the brain.”
For example, you see a mugshot of a black man. Conclusion? Black men
are criminals. The connections we make are mainly social. They are
“We may think that our goal here in Western Michigan and in our
society is to treat everybody the same. But I would suggest to you that
is not our goal. Our goal is to treat people fair. Our goal is to be
inclusive. People are not situated the same within structures.”
A student in East Grand Rapids or West Bloomfield is unlikely to have
witnessed violence or felt hunger like city a city student has. In the
last U.S. Census, whites had 22 times more wealth than blacks. $110,000
compared to $5,000. Professor john powell might say start there.
“We need to pay attention to that difference. If we want to get people to the same outcome we can’t treat them all the same.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, one out of every
three black men will go to prison in their lifetime. Perhaps millions
will go because of unconscious bias.
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