It is difficult in America for an individual white person lacking power or authority to accomplish much of anything toward eliminating systemic racial inequality. On the other hand, we can all certainly do something in this regard in our personal sphere of influence; that is, through our profession, job, church, sport or just in talking to our neighbors.
My purpose in this article is to jump start action (as opposed to just more talking) in each of us as individuals. Of course, the best place to start is with myself. So, here is a format I am using to figure out what I, as an individual, can do. Maybe it could work for you, too.
The format is this:
(1) Do an inventory of your personal skills that might be used to address systemic racial inequality.
(2) Look back over your life and see if you have done anything with these skills in the past.
(3) Ask yourself what you can do with these skills going forward.
Now, I will be so bold as to expose my own thinking regarding these three steps:
Inventory and looking back
My alleged skills have been mostly in the areas of psychology, teaching, research, writing … and golf! As expected, looking back I haven’t done much in the last 60 years to advance the cause of African Americans. However, I was actually surprised to remember that I had done a few things that might be worth building on at this point in time:
Psychology. As a 16-year-old camp counselor back in 1962 with early social and psychological leanings, I remember selecting the only black 8-year-old in the camp to be in my cabin. It was a leap of faith for a rookie counselor to do this, since I wasn’t sure I even knew how to be a camp counselor! How would the other 19 sheltered white children react? How would the one black child handle it? How would I handle it? I chronicled the experience in a previous column titled “The Legend of Harry Bonner” [Morning News and scnow.com, Feb. 27, 2018]. I stayed in touch with Harry for a while afterward and know that he went on to be a successful high school and college graduate at excellent schools. I wish I knew what he did with his adult life.
Teaching. As a teacher, I spent 22 years at Francis Marion University, which has a 43% black student body. I estimate I taught a total of about 3000 students at FMU, which would suggest I might have helped 1,300 black students to college degrees. While my student evaluations were far from perfect, one attribute that consistently got high marks was “tolerance.” So I must have done something right with the racial issue, as well as gender and age differences.
Research and writing. As a young university professor/researcher, I published an article called “A New Look at Racial Prejudice.” (Psychology in the Schools, 1977 (14), 188-190). In the article I proposed that the problem in racial prejudice is not racial discrimination, but rather racial generalization. That is, it is inevitable that we will see the difference between black and white, but that’s not the problem. The problem arises when we generalize across all blacks or all whites, particularly in an unfavorable manner.
More recently I published a column titled “Adopt a Family” [Morning News and scnow.com, Oct. 2, 2019], which suggested pairing one family that has figured out how to use the American system to their benefit, with another family that has not figured out how to do so. Then, rather than giving money, give your time, skill, knowledge, information and other resources on a continuing, long-term basis to help the less fortunate family gradually improve their quality of life.
Golf. What could I possibly have done with golf regarding racial issues? After putting my memory in overdrive, I recalled the time I invited two African-American men to let me sponsor them in becoming members at my, then, all-white country club. They declined due to not being golfers and having many other expenses with children still in high school and college. As much as I wanted them to break the color barrier, I could not argue with their priorities.
My personal history reveals that I have done very little with my skills, but they do offer some direction regarding what to do now:
I could (1) write more articles on the subject, (2) try to implement the “Adopt a Family” idea briefly described above and (3) freely offer my clinical psychology services through the local mercy medical clinic. Then there is (4) the “First Tee” program for introducing underprivileged youngsters to the discipline and integrity of golf. When it comes to my skill in (5) teaching, I think it is presently my time to learn, rather than to teach anything.
Lastly, I can (6) keep “thinking”— my favorite pastime! Indeed, I just had a thought that as many blacks as whites should be recruited to be on the police force. Patrols should ideally go out in pairs of a white and a black policeman or policewoman. Then, in situations where racial bias might arise, checks and balances would be in place.
Having gone out on a limb with this article, I am hoping that before readers saw me off they might consider doing the above 3-step exercise themselves.
The Emancipation Proclamation happened in 1863. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964. Let’s hope it doesn’t take until 2065 for us as a nation to live up to our promises regarding these landmark legislations of 1863 and 1964.
As Robert Frost so eloquently poetized: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
Dr. Tom Dorsel is professor emeritus of psychology at Francis Marion University now living on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached on Facebook or via his website, Dorsel.com.