Obama Presidency Could Change Psychology Of Race

Tell Me More continues What If? series, exploring the possibility of the nation electing its first black president. Dr. Carl Bell, a psychiatrist, and Randy Blazak, a sociology professor, discuss how the potential election of Sen. Barack Obama might change how people evaluate racism.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, when a person goes missing, getting information to the public quickly can make all the difference. But it often does not seem to work the same way for people of color. Now a new group is trying to change that. We'll talk with the founder of the group, Black and Missing. It's our Behind Closed Doors conversation, and that's in just a few minutes.

But first, ever since Barack Obama became the Democratic Party's nominee for president, our program has been exploring what it might mean to have a black president, how it might affect American politics, society and culture. We're calling it our What If series.

Today we want to examine how an Obama presidency could affect the psychology of racism. Joining us is Dr. Carl Bell. He's a professor of public health and psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Also with us is Randy Blazak. He's an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University who has studied white-supremacy groups in the U.S., and he's a former skinhead himself.And I welcome you both. Thanks for joining us.

CARL BELL: Thank you.

RANDY BLAZAK: Good morning.

MARTIN: But before we talk about the presidential contest, Dr. Bell, I wanted to talk about the theory that extreme racism itself might be a psychiatric disorder. The clinical community has been looking at this, as I understand it, for some time now. Has there been an answer to this question?

BELL: Not yet. The research is continuing. At this point, common wisdom suggests that most racist behaviors are learned but there may be two percent or so that is based on a clinical issue.

MARTIN: What's the line? Is there a bright line here between somebody who has just kind of learned, absorbed whatever is around him or her and the culture and somebody who's just got a real problem?

BELL: Well, I mean, part of the issue is that people who are paranoid, people who are schizophrenic, sometimes become delusional, and they place all of their mess in other people. The FBI, the police, whoever, and African-Americans, Asians, other folk could be a target in that projection. So there would be a fairly bright line. We have seen clinically where people have espoused very racist attitudes and beliefs, and when their core psychiatric illness is treated, those things go away. The paranoia goes away, essentially.

MARTIN: What about the fact, though, that certain kinds of behavior was culturally sanctioned in the past but no longer would be? Do you think that that - I guess what I'm wondering is, is there a certain core group of people who you think have always been pathologically racist, and is that group the same as it's always been? Or do you think it's smaller now because our socials norms are different, don't tolerate certain behaviors?

BELL: You know, America has a tremendous challenge. And the challenge is that we all believe in this ideal that people should be judged by the content of their character. But the other side of the coin is that when you look at what really happens in life, that is not the reality. And so that's the dissidence that we've got to deal with as a society. The hatred of other groups, of people, of foreigners as xenophobia has always been supported by this culture. But at the same time our ideal say that's not a good thing. And that's going to be the challenge with a black president.

MARTIN: Professor Blazak, I'd like to bring you into the conversation. How do you think about this as a sociologist? Let's put your sociologist hat on first, and then you can tell us your personal experience. Do you see a difference between people who have prejudice and are profoundly and pathologically racist?

BLAZAK: Well, there is sort of a continuum because racism is relatively normative. If racism is an illness then probably most white people are sick, I would argue. But there are people at the ends of that spectrum who display what we might call sociopathic personalities that are really attracted to the world of hate because it gives them an excuse to be violent, to put other people down, to feel like they can act on these prejudices. But there are certainly underlying in mainstream society, as well. So it's really a continuum from the very mild people who would say things like, well, I'm not a racist, but to the extremist of the Timothy McVeighs of the world who really want to do harm to large numbers of people.

MARTIN: You have some first-hand experience with this because you grew up in a town where the clan was active, and when you were a teenager you joined a skinhead group. Could you just talk about what - why you'd - what need that filled for you? Why do you think that happened?

BLAZAK: I didn't join a skinhead group because they were really just sort of emerging at the time. But I was in a town where the clan was a normal part of the background, a little town in Georgia outside of Atlanta. And I thought every town had a clan. I thought that was normal and that their rationale was the acceptable way of looking at things, including the sort of fear of the others, especially this intense fear of minorities.

And things like - you'd hear, well, if a black family moves into your neighborhood, the property values are going to go down and there are going to be gangs and drugs and things like that. So there was this intense fear of something that you didn't know about, and it was liberating once I personally got over that because I realized how much time I was wasting living in this fear. But that fear is very normal for folks, and I think it's reflected in this presidential election.

MARTIN: Is the fear - tell me - well, tell me about that. How you think it's playing out in this presidential election?

BLAZAK: Well, there will be - there's all these great little things that you hear when you do my research, including people saying things like, where I grew up, there were no black people so we couldn't be racist, as if we would be racist if we had a chance to, but there was just nobody to be racist towards. So there is this lack of knowledge about African-Americans in general and this mythology that emerges around them. And so some people have said - and this is, you know, sort of documented. You can probably find the videos on YouTube that if Obama becomes president black people are going to take over. There is going to be - anti-white attitudes will be normative. And it's kind of like homophobia. You know, a lot of straight, homophobic men are worried that gay men are going to treat them the way that they treat women. There's a lot of white males who think that if minorities have a position of power, they're going to do to them kind of what they've perpetrated in the past.

MARTIN: But these are the same people who say that there is no racism. So what is it they're afraid? I mean, if people say, there's no racism here, what are they afraid of? If they're - I mean, what is that?

BLAZAK: Well, first of all, that's another part of the continuum because only white people say that. You know, there is - well, there's plenty of evidence that there's still discrimination from police profiling to job hiring and on down the line. But there is - so there's a feeling that - and it's especially true with young people - that we've solved all these problems and therefore we don't have to talk about this anymore. In fact, we haven't. We have to acknowledge that there are these problems.

But if it seems like the problems have been solved from a white perspective, or sexism, it's been solved from a male perspective or on and on, then can we please stop talking about it because it makes me feel uncomfortable.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in for just a second. Let me - hold on, Dr. Bell, hold on just one second - to say, if you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Randy Blazak, he's a sociologist at Portland State University who studies the psychology of racism, the sociology of racism. I'm also speaking with Dr. Carl Bell. He's a professor of public health and psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical School.

We'd like to hear from you also. Is race and maybe racism something you think is embedded in our psyche? Is it something you can teach yourself to overcome? We'd like to hear what you think. And to hear what other people are saying you can go to our blog at npr.org/tellmemore, or you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that number is 202-842-3522. Dr. Bell, you wanted to say something?

BELL: Well, what Dr. Blazak is talking about is the ideal. If you ask your average American what their ideal is, they will say the ideal is that everybody is free. Everybody should be judged by the content of their character. There is no racism ideally in America. That's what the Constitution says. That's what we're about. That's who we are. That's the ideal. But when you then go to the ground and look at the reality, you find something very, very different.

The reality is that if Barack Obama - when Barack Obama, in my world, is going to be elected, everybody is going to have to change their attitudes. African-Americans, Asians, white folk, everybody is going to have to look at things in America differently because it will have proven that we can live closer to the ideal than we have been.

MARTIN: I just want to pick up on something you both talked about, which is fear. And I want to play a short clip from a discussion that a couple of our hosts, Steve Inskeep and Michele Norris had last week in York, Pennsylvania, where they were talking to a diverse group of voters about their views, about the election. This is a woman named Leah Moreland, who, after a couple of hours, got really frank about her feelings. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF NPR NEWS INTERVIEW, OCTOBER 24, 2008)

LEAH MORELAND: I don't want to sound racist, and I'm not racist, but I feel if we put Obama in the White House there will be chaos. I feel a lot of black people are going to feel it's payback time.

MARTIN: Dr. Bell, can I get your take on what you think that fear is about?

BELL: Well, it's their own fear. I'm not a racist but. Again, it's projection. It's concern that black people are going to treat white people like white people have been treating black people for all these years. It's just plain, old psychological projection and fear, stereotyping and assumptions which are just, I don't know. I just - I find that sad.

MARTIN: Randy? Thoughts?

BLAZAK: Yeah. Well, you hear that a lot. You hear that a lot. And it is the feeling that there is this need for some type of balance, like a teeter-totter. If it goes up one side, it must mean it's going to down the other. This is a kind of zero-sum game, and the idea of sharing and moving past that, it's hard for some people to grasp if they think of things in these kind of dichotomous categories. It's either white on top or black on top.

MARTIN: Why this particular office when you had African-Americans serving in very visible positions? I mean, two successive secretaries of state have been African-Americans, and you know, not to be ridiculous, but Oprah, you know is the queen of the world. I mean, she's such an important cultural presence. I mean, she has a tremendous audience response around the world. So what is it? Is there something about this particular office that just makes people feel - the people who have these anxieties just stimulates them?

BELL: The president of the United States is reportedly the most powerful man in the world. And for a black man to be in that position scares people because they have all these assumptions and stereotypes about who black people are and what they do.

MARTIN: What about the other idea that I think a lot of people I've heard express, which is somehow along the lines of an African-American president would somehow be healing, that it would help heal the country racially. Dr. Bell, is that a plausible argument?

BELL: That's my expectation.

MARTIN: But why?

BELL: I remember when we had our first black mayor. That's exactly what happened. Things were fairer, there was more respect. Everybody just got along much, much better.

MARTIN: Randy?

BLAZAK: If I can add to that. There are a wide variety of views in opposition to an Obama presidency, and some of them are political and economic, and then you have those folks who think he's the anti-Christ. You have this sort of extreme fringe. And all those people are going to have to eat their words in some degree after he becomes the president because things will change but not dramatically. You know, there are folks who think that white people will be enslaved under an Obama presidency, and of course, none of this is going to happen. So they're just going to have to say, well, he's a president who just happens to black, instead of he's a black president with a black agenda.

So it's going to be a great opportunity for those folks to reflect and for a larger a national dialogue, which is something that kind of started under the Clinton administration, to try to have some type of federally-led dialogue about race. And it seems like every time we do that, whether it's in response to an incident like Rodney King or O.J. Simpson or just because we need to, we move a few steps forward.

MARTIN: What about the idea, Dr. Bell, about black racists or people of color who are also racists? Are they going to have to sort of change their views in any way?

BELL: Exactly. The people who are of the opinion that white people are just so racist and as a result they react in responding to that are going to have to realize that in order for an Obama to be elected, it's going to require that white folk vote for that. And that's going to change attitudes for black people and everybody. I mean, it'll show the entire world that America's actually trying to live up to its ideal, which is a good thing.

MARTIN: Randy, final question to you is earlier in that campaign cycle, it was reported that some hate groups were actually hoping that Senator Obama would be elected in order to spark some kind of race war. Now, racism and violence have long been linked in this country, and of course, you know, around the world. On the one hand, the threats against Senator Obama were such that he was assigned secret service protection months before the primaries actually started. On the other hand, the people who study these things say that the activity among some of these hate groups is actually a lot less than they were expecting. What do you make of that?

BLAZAK: Yeah, there's sort of a lot of chatter in the world of hate on their discussion boards, and the clan and skinhead groups have thought that they would benefit greatly from the rise of this black politician. And on a certain level, on the margins, they have. They actually got more attraction around the illegal immigration issue than the Obama presidency, which is interesting, about the changing nature of racism. But the hopes of some of these folks are that an Obama presidency will create this type - this sort of reverse racism that they envision that will further along their hopes for some type of racial awakening of the white race. But it doesn't really seem like that's happening because people seem to be more concerned about the color green than the color black or white. ..TEXT: You know, economic concerns have really trumped, even in rural Southern towns where you would think that people would be flocking to the clan to defend their white heritage, are more concerned with getting the economy back on track.

MARTIN: And finally, we only have about two minutes left. I wanted to hear from each of you if possible, what if Senator McCain wins? Do you think that the race conversation - what happens to it?

BELL: It goes away as usual. I mean, everybody is sort of put back to sleep.

MARTIN: Randy Blazak, what do you think?

BLAZAK: It's going to be a challenge to see this as something that wasn't sort of a nefarious attempt to disempower black people yet again, and hopefully we'll be able to continue the conversation but it'll be a challenge, as usual.

MARTIN: But Dr. Bell, do you envision a tension arising from that? What Randy Blazak was talking about, this idea that perhaps some - I don't know, that the election was stolen, as it were. Do you see that increasing social tension? Not that we're predicting that.

BELL: That's going to be a concern. But I mean, you know, for the majority of black people that'll be business as usual. For most black people, we are very clear that if Obama were white, he would win by a complete and total landslide. And part of what's slowing things down is the race issue. So again, we've got this tension between our reality and the ideal. We're hoping that America lives up to its ideal.

MARTIN: And Randy Blazak, final thought?

BLAZAK: It's an incredible turning point to think how far we've come in 40 years. And this country really has grown a lot to make this a reality, and we should take pride in ourselves no matter who wins.

MARTIN: Randy Blazak is an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University. He joined us on the phone from his home in Portland. Dr. Carl Bell is a professor of public health and psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical School. He joined us from Chicago. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BLAZAK: Thank you.

BELL: Thank you, Michel.

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