When I first started composing this commentary it began as a review of tribalism spanning from its origins to how it infects modern day life in America and beyond. While I still intend to share that particular article with each of you in the near future I feel that it will take a bit longer for me to finish and be satisfied with the final product before I offer it for your collective review. In the meantime, I want to focus on something else which is somewhat related to the issue of our tribal separation from one another: our culture of distrust.
Not long ago I overheard a discussion on television which covered the divisions in our society along racial lines and how this impacts the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. Back in 2015, I participated in a series of “race discussions” held in my hometown of Newark, Ohio. It was hosted by the Freedom School of Licking County and brought together a number of community members of various racial backgrounds. During these candid talks we openly discussed our feelings about race relations, exposed whatever racial bias we may have harbored throughout our lives, and even discovered bias that we may have not realized existed.
Each part of this discussion series encouraged us to contemplate historical documents and review them together. One of the documents we reviewed was an excerpt of a Social Studies primer from a school in New England during the late-1800s (shortly after the Reconstruction Era). Though this textbook was from a part of the country which had long outlawed slavery and which had fought as part of the Union, there were still deeply unsettling references to certain humans as “subhuman” and assertions that skin color – and region of origin – indicated a degree of savagery and a lack of capacity to thrive independently as the shade of skin grew darker.
There were highly emotional moments for each of us as we shed our shell of vulnerability and allowed our diverse brothers and sisters in attendance to respond and counsel. We maintained our civility throughout the experience and many potential doors to continued collective growth were opened to us. It is one thing to harbor your fears about the “other” when you are among others who look and act like you, but it is a truly liberating blessing to share those internal struggles with a room made up partially of those whom serve as the focus of such. Why is this not an experience duplicated more broadly and more frequently?
Racism largely still exists and thrives in this country and all around this planet because we have not made it a point to bust down those barriers to coming together. It is fueled and perpetuated by a cultural mindset which discourages a sense of collective identity. We have maintained a de facto system of segregation in every aspect of our society because it makes us feel more comfortable to mingle with the familiar. One doesn’t typically fear that with which one has become accustomed. The same goes for the relationship between members of separate communities.
For instance, take the troublesome relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. Over time, both the authority figures and the minority populations they are charged with protecting – alongside the rest of us – have been guided by a mutual sense of distrust. With the police, there is a dominant fear of entering a neighborhood that they either know or feel has an engrained hatred of law enforcement. Regarding the communities of color, a long history of abuses leads them to avoid contact with the police whenever possible for fear of becoming another statistic.
Either way, both the police and the minority populations fear for their safety when reality forces them to interact. On a day to day basis our sensationalized media and certain divisive political forces convince those in blue that they are targets. So, when a fellow officer abuses their authority the first instinctual reaction of the police community is to protect their brother or sister in uniform from those calling for blood. In essence, this is where we see a bit of overlap with tribalism. In the interest of shielding the institution and thwarting a societal assault on one of their own, the police “tribe” coalesces and deems an attack on one of them – irrespective of that individual’s deeds – as an attack on all of them.
With the communities of color, one need only possess a modicum of understanding for basic American history as it relates to race relations. Minority populations have always been treated either overtly or covertly as second class citizens. Yes, there have been exceptions over time, but the bigger picture has portrayed an image of a lopsided application of justice. From being hosed down in the streets protesting segregation and seeing their sons incarcerated for life largely related to drug “crimes” to a seemingly endless stream of dead black men and women whose uniform-wearing executioners have yet to be held adequately accountable, it shouldn’t be too difficult to comprehend where the distrust originates.
Still, not all minorities hate or distrust police and nowhere near all police officers hate or distrust minorities. A cancer exists in our society, and that cancer – which we must root out – is present in the form of the break down of community. Distrust – in any scenario – can only be dealt with in a two-step process: communication and verification. In other words, distrusting subsets of the community must come together and communicate their issues with one another and then work to secure concrete actions for a resolution which suits everyone. Neither side can resolve this alone. This has to be done collectively.
This isn’t something which can be fixed overnight. We are talking about massive and deep wounds which have festered for centuries. It is a long, ongoing – possibly even never-ending – process. If we want to see peace and equal justice, then our obligation is to mend the divisions within our societal family. If we ignore this necessity of working as one, we will continue to see these tragedies and the subsequent social unrest unfold on our televisions and computer screens. “No Justice, No Peace” rings true, but justice can not thrive when there is no unity to begin with.