"Houston, We Have a Problem!"

May 31, 2020

 

For weeks we have been asking about the “new normal.” This week in America we received the answer: “Enough is enough.” There is no more patience with the attitudes, practices, and systems that have blurred, buried, and discounted historic racism in America.

The impulse is to blame “out of state, far left Antifa;” the impulse is to minimize the pattern and pervasiveness of police violence toward people of color; the impulse is to raise national concern only when buildings are burning rather than when Black lives are lynched. But even more, the fact that four cops can act in broad daylight with cameras rolling and citizens screaming in protest to their actions in such a murderous manner is all the proof that a normal citizen needs that something is terribly wrong with America. The fact that the police officer received the minimum charge after a four-day delay and that his accomplices have not been charged, raises questions that go beyond policing to the entire judicial system. The palpable outrage is understandable for there is a 400-year-old history and context to this behavior. All this has taken place in a progressive city with the entire nation watching. What about what happens in the dark, when the police body cams are turned off, in a less progressive city when no one else is around? The problems of American racism remain—perhaps less overt, but no less real or pervasive. Buried racism is still racism. Unconscious racism is still racism.

My family has a long history in dealing with civil rights. My grandfather, Alex R. Batchelor was the Secretary of Negro Work for the Southern Presbyterian Church during the Jim Crow era. He was the president of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, an historically Black institution that later named its administration building for him. I am proud of my son, Alex, who has continued his namesake’s legacy in protesting police brutality in New York City, teaching art at Rikers Prison, and regularly identifying with Black Lives Matter movement. This is a legacy I am proud of.

Yet this week I’ve wondered what I can meaningfully do as an old privileged white Christian man?

This week we all watched George Floyd being murdered by police. A historic scab was pulled off a long festering wound and violent protests erupted across numerous American cities. A daily reality for most Black men became vicariously conscious to all Americans.

 

 
I’ve decided that the answer to this question is to examine again my own habitus. “Habitus” is a sociological term, first coined by Aristotle and later elaborated on by French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu. Habitus is history swallowed—the unconscious dispositions from the past that continue to shape our collective social imaginary. We know that 95% of our behavior is shaped by our unconscious. Therefore, it is naive to think that all of us don’t carry some degree of racist tendencies in ways that is almost impossible for us to readily acknowledge.

We need to engage in socioanalysis. Bourdieu writes, “Not only can habitus be practically transformed by the effects of a social trajectory leading to conditions of living different from initial ones, it can also be controlled through awakening of consciousness and socioanalysis.” Elsewhere he writes, “Sociology can be an extremely powerful instrument of self-analysis which allows one better to understand what he or she is, by giving one an understanding of one’s own conditions of production and the position one occupies in the social world.”

Socioanalysis has a dual role. First, it provides an analytical “self-understanding shorn of self-complacency”—in order to reveal the structure and dynamics of habitus. Second, it enables one to use this insight in order to transform habitus. In this latter role, sociology is always in the service of the activist, the reformer, and the prophet; those concerned about initiating social change. It is a tool for discerning power arrangements and a guide for transforming them. The objective of socioanalysis is the “conversion of one’s gaze.” “The task is to produce, if not a ‘new person,’” Bourdieu explains, “then at least a ‘new gaze,’ a sociological eye. And this cannot be done without a genuine conversion, a metanoia, a mental revolution, a transformation of one’s whole vision of the social world.”

And so as a white man in a racist society I have decided to begin my own exercise in socioanalysis by re-reading my grandfather’s book, Jacob’s Ladder: Negro Work of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, as well as New York Times bestseller Ibram X. Kendo’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It is time to break the white attitudes that perpetuates “racism without racists.” We must stop our colorblindness that allows people to espouse egalitarian values while continuing to enjoy the benefits of unequally ordered social arrangements. What we saw in Minneapolis this week was the social equivalence of Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert warning, “Houston, we have a problem!” I don’t have all the political or sociological answers to this complex racial situation, but I can begin the conversion of my own gaze.
 

 


 

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