“And with economic and cultural indexes down, with the world turned darker and more predatory, we will go through more. We thought we’d be telling our grandchildren about the spring of 2020. Actually we’ll be telling them about the coming 10 years, and how we tried to turn everything around.”
~ Peggy Noonan, "On Some Things, Americans Can Agree". June 4, 2020. Wall Street Journal.
Last week my 11-year old daughter cried as she told our family how young neighborhood boys her age - strangers - had attacked her. They pelted her with batteries and tried to drive her off the bike path as she pedaled away from school, ramming her bike with their own.
Her mother and I explained that maybe the boys’ home lives aren’t positive. Maybe they are being raised in abusive households. But that didn’t satisfy her sense of injustice.
Her school is in an immigrant neighborhood of Amsterdam, near public housing. Here in the Netherlands there is a higher proportion of Surinamese immigrants in public housing. These are largely descendants of African slaves from Dutch Suriname. Racial issues were in the back of our minds.
The boys were black. She’s white.
To us her story seemed racially charged. And it was - in part - but it was also a story about trust.
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When she was assaulted she felt that her mother - riding far ahead on her own bicycle - hadn’t heard her yells of distress and hadn't protected her. She cried not because she was physically hurt, but because she was scared - could she trust her mother to listen to and to protect her?
“To Protect and to Serve.”
~Los Angeles Police Department motto
Just as children see parents as protectors, so citizens view police. And in the George Floyd murder video, the world got to see yet another example of why many black Americans (and others) don’t trust the police. When the police routinely abuse minorities, when they kill civilian bystanders, when they use military tactics against peaceful protestors, frayed trust morphs into rebellion.
Today’s newsletter examines inequality, the fraying of civil society in the USA, and the path ahead - with a few suggestions to turn things around.
I'M NO HERO
Please keep in mind, I'm no saint - I've done nothing noteworthy to support racial justice. Yes, I speak out against racism when hear it. In college I attended anti-KKK (white supremacy) marches at the Texas State capitol. But that's nearly nothing. I've had a privileged life.
I'm not suggesting that my daughter's small troubles have any significance next to hundreds of years of inhuman degradation and systemic racism.
What I am suggesting:
1) If democratic government institutions continue an us-vs-them / command-and-control approach, social unrest will escalate.
2) Unconscious racism and classism will continue to stress developed countries. Rebuilding social trust is key to address #1 and #2.
3) Media sterotyping exacerbates racism and unconscious bias. (I would feel justified harassing a white girl if I were those boys and I had watched the Amy Cooper video).
DROPS IN SOCIAL TRUST PRECEDE OUTBREAKS OF UNREST
At MarketPsych we monitor the national mood for every country in the world in news and social media. Declines in national trust in our media sentiment dataset preceded the outbreaks of social unrest during the Arab Spring in 2011 and in Hong Kong before the 2019 social unrest. (Our source data is described here).
We see a similar dip in US trust in the chart below from late May 2020. The lower white line represents US Trust. The orange line is overall sentiment in the media about the United States (US), while the light purple dashed line is the prevalence of references to social unrest in the media.
US trust (white lower line above) took a dive as George Floyd's murder saturated the news cycle, the national mood turned south (orange line), and social unrest then flared.
In the below long-term Trust comparison among countries from 2015-2020, we see that US trust was already historically low (see orange line) relative to the Eurozone (purple line) and China (green line).
The George Floyd murder crossed the boundary between opposed political camps - everyone can agree that police should not murder citizens. Everyone can agree there is a legacy of damaging institutional racism in the United States. But what to do about it?
There are encouraging signs that business leaders get it, with many supportive statements from CEOs:
“We have to be very careful not to assume that this experiment that we have called ‘America’ can withstand our apathy right now.”
~ Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck & Co.
Unfortunately there are also signs of re-fragmentation along familiar, media-enhanced, political lines.
“When children take a standardized test shortly after a neighborhood murder, their scores suffer. The price of crime is paid, above all, by the trauma of kids whose parents can’t buy their way out of its presence.”
~ Adam Gopnik. The Great Crime Decline. Feb 5, 2018.
The social and even cognitive effects of experiencing trauma - racial and criminal - last a lifetime and are often unconscious.
Of my daughter’s three best friends, two are black girls. Despite the many positive exposures to diverse people in her life, after she was assaulted she asked me to never take her past areas where “neighborhood” (generally black) boys congregate. Although she denies it - and maybe I'm overreacting to make a point - such an event could cause her to unconsciously profile dark-skinned boys as violent, despite her daily exposure to her loving dark-skinned girlfriends.
SEEING PAST STEREOTYPES
I can't change what happened to my daughter, just as I cannot change the recent and historical racism and injustice suffered by the boys who assaulted her. But I can help her understand nuance when she looks at people - to understand that anyone can become violent, and anyone can become a true friend, and everyone is animated by their own unique spark.
Over the past weekend I took her to an art exhibition about portrayals of blacks in the art of European Old Masters at the Rembrandt House. Not the most subtle parenting move. Yet she didn't catch it as an attempt to foster racial understanding. And while she wasn't captivated, fortunately my eldest daughter (who also attended) loved the exhibit.
SOURCE: Portrait of Don Miguel de Castro, Emissary of Congo is a 1643 painting by the Dutch Golden Age painter Jeronimus Becx
At the exhibit we learned that 0.4% of the population of Amsterdam was of African origin in the 1600s, and the first inter-racial marriages were recorded in the prior century.
But beyond cultural understanding and exposure, what can we do, right now, on a social level?
From my perspective as a psychiatrist, the US would benefit from a truth and reconciliation commission in which both sides (police and racially-profiled groups) share their stories of stress and injustice for all to hear and process. This can lead to deep social healing, but it must be a heartfelt and participatory process as it was in South Africa following apartheid.
Community policing - disarming police, except for SWAT teams as in the UK, might work. In the US, with so many guns, the police could easily become targets. Nonetheless, police showing they trust the people - similar to taking a knee during protests - may be a necessary first step to recovering their trust. There have been excellent inroads with community policing programs, integrating police into the communities they serve, and more progress in that regard would help.
According to this Wall Street Journal article, providing support, listening to colleagues, and trying to understand is key to addressing racial bias in the workplace.
From the perspective of one who works in the field of media monitoring, I also think more has to be done to prevent algorithmic polarization. Government should regulate auto-generated articles (robo-news). These articles are being written to hit emotional buttons - not because of any evil intent - but simply to keep readers engaged. They are technology without humanity, something like the Matrix - AI evolved to harvest mental energy and attention. The media and opportunistic politician's negative portrayals of racial groups learn from and feed into such algorithms. Emotionally-engaging articles and triggering videos are served to us in constant rotation. Pulling the plug from most media is also a worthy personal option.
If the current US administration escalates "domination" and "law and order" rhetoric to appeal to emotionally-triggered constituents, not only will they lose the general electorate, but protestors - not trusting police intentions - will likely escalate more in response. One hopes that politicians don't try to "win" a conflict that can only be deescalated by understanding, where quiet and listening reflects courage, not weakness.
Fortunately, healthy societies respond to feedback, and US citizens on a local level (if not national politicians) are likely to make adjustments, collectively, to see the recent turmoil through to a positive outcome for everyone.
Down on one knee,
Richard Peterson and the MarketPsych Data Team