The roots of racism are imbedded deep within the life history of the individual as well as the history of mankind. The term psychodynamics refers to the systematized knowledge and theory of human behavior and its motivations. Psychodynamics contends that a person’s total makeup and probable reaction at any given moment are the product of past interaction between his specific genetic endowment and the environment, both animate and inanimate, in which he has been living from the time of his conception.
A child is born as free of racial prejudice as of political preference. The significant activities and needs of a human being are not determined by the amount of melanin in his skin. While the black man’s and white man’s experience in this society differs, the principle of physiological and psychological functions is the same. As William H. Grier and Price M. Cobb write,
There is nothing reported in the literature or in the experience of any clinician known to the authors that suggests that black people function differently psychologically from anyone else. Black man’s mental functioning is governed by the same rules as that of any other group of men. Psychological principles understood first in the study of white men are true no matter what the man’s color [Black Rage, 1968, p. 129].
To understand the behavior pattern of racism we must dig below the surface. The influence of early thought patterns of the child stains his life-long perspective of his fellow human being in ways of which he may not be conscious. Many white Bible-believing, evangelical Christians find it impossible to accept a black man into fellowship with them. Why?
We shall first examine how the emotional effects, attitudes, and concepts of color lead to racial prejudice.
As the child’s external sensory apparatus of sight and hearing develops, he is developing also the internal psychic mechanism. He does this through reflex behavior, associations, assimulations, and various psychic defense mechanisms—processes that enable him to interpret the various images and concepts that are to be a part of his life. The significant adults in the child’s life convey not only thought patterns but their own anxieties. There is an intermingling of concrete and abtsract stimuli, and emotional and intellectual responses are formed.
At approximately the age of three or four, the child is becoming familiar with the color spectrum. While his eyes are interpreting and distinguishing colors, his ears are picking up various phrases. “Pure and white,” “black as sin,” “yellow coward,” “savage redskins”—these are emotionally flavored word concepts that portray color as abstract qualities. Such phrases in the primitive thought patterns of the child’s mind become emotionally charged by the various methods of reinforcing present in the child’s environment.
One of those methods of reinforcement is fear, which may be used to control the child’s behavior. The child may be told that “if you’re bad the big black boogieman will get you.” In this way the color black can become “phobogenic.” Phobia is the term used to describe the process in which a fear becomes attached to objects or situations that objectively are not a source of danger. The object or circumstance selected to be feared is something that can be avoided. The child may fear his parents but is unable to avoid them. If he is told about the “big black boogieman,” he is given an object of fear that he can avoid and repulse. This “black object” can later become the first black boy he meets in kindergarten.
I vividly recall one of the first poems I heard recited to me during my kindergarten days:
God made the nigger;
He made him in the night,
He made him in a hurry,
He forgot to paint him white.
The five-year-old white boy who recited this to me had already been programmed to have a racist view of a fellow human being. To this child, at the age of five, color had become a measure of a person’s worth, and in his deception he attempted to make me an inferior creature of God.
The fantasy of white-good, black-bad, white-superior, black-inferior, has been maintained and preserved by our society with all the resources at its command. In the past, both Christians and non-Christians used pseudo-scientific articles to perpetuate the fantasy. This method of brain-washing is seen in the following quotation:
Before the abolition of slavery persons of mixed Negro and White were produced in very large quantities in the southern states. The best blood of the south flowed in the veins of Virginians and South Carolina slaves, and there is said to have been not a plantation in Louisiana on whose cotton fields there were not to be found the half-brothers, and half-sisters, the children or the grandchildren of the owners kept at work by the overseer’s whip [Baur, Fisher, and Lenz, Human Heredity, third edition, 1931, p. 628].
What conclusion would you draw from this information? By a process of mental distortions, the author draws this one: “Naturally this extensive admixture of white blood has contributed to raise the intellectual level of the colored population.” And so amoral slave-owners who exploited the minds, bodies, and souls of fellow human beings, disobeying the laws of God and man, are portrayed as if their sins were a blessing.
How can a white Christian who knows and believes the Bible refuse to have fellowship with his black brother? This is accomplished through a mechanism called logic-tight compartments. Arthur P. Noyes gives the following example:
The psychotic patient may live simultaneously in two related worlds—one of fantasy, and one of reality. One patient in his fantasy would own the United States Treasury and its contents; he built and controlled the hospital in which he lived, but had just lost the key to it. Almost daily he would hand his physician an order for a billion dollars, at the same time begging for some tobacco and that he be given parole of the grounds.… This coexistence of the consciousness of fantasy and the consciousness of reality is made possible by the mechanism of rationalization and its production of what is known as logic tight compartments. Related ideas exist in each compartment undisturbed by those in the others, each group pursuing its course segregated from those which are incompatible by a barrier through which no reassuring or argument can force a passage [Modern Clinical Psychology, fourth edition, p. 62].
Logic-tight compartments produced by the defense mechanisms of rationalization and denial are not only found in the psychotic patient; they are also found in persons who are considered to be of sound mental health. By such a mechanism, a white Bible-believing Christian can read a verse such as First John 4:20—“If anyone says ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar …”—and refuse to have fellowship with his black brother. Our society has been instrumental in planting the seeds of racism in other concepts besides color. Dr. Charles A. Pinderhughes tells how words such as high and low are used to assign roles to people:
High-type people are associated in the mind with the high part of the body, with the head, with thinking, with leadership, with what is taken in and believed and with food. Low-type people are associated with the lower body, with the bottom, with the perineum, with what is excluded and expelled. Lower parties are often trained or molded by upper parties and sent out on missions often as expendable, as reflected in military and other hierarchial organizations [Journal of the American Psychiatric Association, May, 1969, p. 1552].
A person’s behavior is likely to be influenced by whether he is perceived, and in turn perceives himself, as “high type” or “low type.” This also determines whether he sees himself as one who should control or should be controlled. The systematic manner in which the black man has been held in the “low” position perpetuated the fantasy that the black man was less human and less worthy than the white man, who made laws to enforce this fantasy. This sense of paternalism of the white man to the black man is reflected not only in political areas, but also in the missionary efforts of the Church.
Because our society is programmed to reproduce white power and not black power, the concept of black people being in positions of control has been difficult to accept. Forming a positive self-image is extremely difficult in the black community. The white child, on the other hand, through word concepts of color and of “high type” and “low type,” is engendered with a sense of self-aggrandizement and control. Any challenge to his authority, whether violent or non-violent, must be suppressed.
Perhaps the most important dynamic factor determining personality is a person’s choice of a device to handle his fears and anxieties. From his earliest existence, man has used the defense mechanism of projection—finding a scapegoat. Adam said to God, “The woman whom thou gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” Like individuals, a society can project repressed impulses onto an outside source when its members learn to project the same impulses to a given object or an idea. By this process, group members identify with people who are perceived as similar (“our kind”) and trustworthy; they are associated with the “higher things of life,” and thought of as right. Those who are different are perceived as objects not to be trusted but to be regarded with suspicion. Their culture may be strange; their appearance is unlike that of group members. They are considered either wrong or inadequate and must be rejected. They must be kept out of the “In” group. Some of the ideas and thoughts of members of the “In” group are delusions and fantasies, though they are not recognized as such because all the members believe them and use their reason and their other facilities to support them.
To act out impulses of anger or hostility on other members of the group would interfere with society’s sense of unity, so the “In” group finds an outside object on which to project those impulses. For more than 300 years, the black man has provided that scapegoat for white “In” American society. He was, as could plainly be seen, different, and it was a difference he could not hide. To the black man could be conveniently imputed all those repressed, forbidden impulses our human nature harbors. The forbidden sexual impulses, for example, were placed upon him, and that projection gave rise to further myths and fantasies.
A weak society, like a weak individual, is threatened because of immature thinking processes; it neglects to build up an inner strength and instead builds outer defenses that delude it into thinking it is strong. The process of segregation is such an outer defense, and it has been harmful to our country. Now the black man is saying to the white man, “I am no longer going to be your scapegoat.” The young black child is not swallowing the poison that has tended to make him hate himself but is spitting it back into the faces of those whose forefathers fed it to his forefathers. Now that the psychological projections of the white man are not being accepted by the black man, white society is frantically searching for another scapegoat. Perhaps the hippies are fulfilling this role.
The Christian Church has tended to maintain society’s fantasies by presenting a false picture of the Christ of the Bible. It has tended to portray Jesus as an Anglo-Saxon, blue-eyed, blond, Protestant (and, some add, Republican) Saviour. As William E. Pannell writes in My Friend the Enemy, “this conservative brand of Christianity perpetuates the myth of white supremacy.”
Underlying all injustices and the desire to dominate is the self-serving inner force that Freud called the id. The basic nature of man, which in theology we know as our sinful nature, cuts across all racial lines, and the black man as well as the white man is subject to this disease that perhaps more than any other cause leads one human being to dehumanize another. The Black Panthers—who refer to white policemen as pigs—have learned this lesson in dehumanization well. So have white men who refer to blacks as monkeys or apes. When we deprive human beings of their humanity and soul, we can justify and rationalize anything we do to them. We can murder them, lynch them, or shoot them as easily as we shoot a squirrel or rabbit.
Perhaps the black man’s use of the word soul is a reminder to himself and his white brother that he is human, that he is a “living soul.”
Joseph Daniels is director of the Mental Health and Counseling Center of the Christian Sanatorium in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He is a psychiatrist with an M.D. degree from Howard University Medical School, Washington, D.C.
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