TOPICS > Nation > Race Matters: Solutions

How do we improve dialogue about race relations?

October 9, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Discussions of race can cause anxiety and tension, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to engage in productive dialogue. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks to Linda Tropp of the University of Massachusetts Amherst about how we can improve understanding.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the latest conversation in our race matters series.

Tonight, Charlayne Hunter-Gault looks at how the color of your skin affects your view of racial tensions.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Here in the Psychology Department of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, classes like this one focus on issues of race and the vastly different perceptions between blacks and whites of racial progress, with blacks far more pessimistic than whites by almost every measure.

One of the department’s leading scholars who studied the racial divide and how to narrow it is Linda Tropp, director of the Peace and Violence Program. Thank you for joining us.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Professor Tropp, thank you for joining us.

LINDA TROPP, University of Massachusetts Amherst: Sure.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You have written a lot about race and how it’s a taboo subject because it’s anxiety-producing. What did you mean by that?

LINDA TROPP: Yes.

If we think about the types of behavioral manifestations of anxiety, things like making less eye contact, shifting away, standing farther back, or maintaining greater social distance, all of those might be manifested due to racial anxiety, but, in actuality, they might be interpreted by the perceiver or the person you’re interacting with as racial hostility or rejection.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But why is there racial anxiety?

LINDA TROPP: I think in part because so much of our focus has been on reducing prejudice, and we haven’t focused as much on equipping people with the skills to actually navigate cross-group intersections successfully or with ease and comfort and confidence.

And I think what often happens is when we feel anxious, we kind of shut down. We’re a little more likely to depend on stereotypes for how we perceive people and how we respond to people. So, if we give people opportunities for real engagement across group lines — and these need to be repeated actions. It can’t just be one experience.

And often for those folks who say I tried and it went terribly, I try to remind them when you first try to learn how to play tennis, you don’t know how to hold the racket right. When you’re first learning a language, you’re not automatically fluent, that these skills take time to cultivate, and that the more we actually engage meaningfully across group boundaries, the greater facility we get in doing so, the greater ease and comfort we experience.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you see fear as a part of this whole equation on both sides?

LINDA TROPP: Yes, absolutely.

Well, fear, especially from the perspective of members of the black community who are being policed, you know, lives are at stake. I can understand completely how there might be fear. And, you know, talking with students about the manifestation of fear, it’s also this sense that members of the black community are not part of the community that police are designed to serve and protect.

There is the sense of separation, that I’m considered a perpetrator of crime, not necessarily part of the public that should be protected, so the police are not for me or serving me.

From the white perspective, I think there’s a lot of fear, especially when you think about white police officers in black communities. I think there has perhaps been a bit more distance between the police force and members of the community.

So, I would be a strong advocate of community policing, where you actually spend more time in the neighborhoods, getting to know shopkeepers, getting a sense of how people respond to you, helping them see that you’re not necessarily a threat.

And you can think about this, how if you only interacted — a very different context — if you only interacted with a romantic partner when you have to fight about something, that relationship is probably not going to go very well.

If you have many other varied types of opportunities to build, you know, a relationship or have interactions, you’re likely to cultivate a baseline or a foundation of trust, so that when conflicts come to the surface, you’re more willing to give the benefit of the doubt, you’re more willing to entertain alternate perspectives.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you think of the discourse, though, as it’s going on in the country today? It just seems to me cacophonous.

LINDA TROPP: Yes.

It’s hard because there are so many different messages. And I think people are somewhat selective in which media outlets they pay more attention to and regard as valuable or important. And it’s important to establish that alternate viewpoints of the different groups or entities in those situations, that they have valid experiences and perceptions.

And I think, rather than necessarily having sound bites going back and forth, as part of this broader cacophony that you’re describing, that we should try to understand, well, why do people feel that way, get a little bit deeper in our analysis and understanding across group lines, because I think that would go a long way.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Who has to take the responsibility, do you think, for more constructive dialogue about race and racism?

LINDA TROPP: Yes.

You know, I think people on all sides have a bit of responsibility to take. I think, in particular, white people need to be less concerned about how they will be perceived and really more focused on learning about others’ perspective.

And I think to the extent that they do that with integrity and the best of intentions, as we were describing before, I think people of color will be receptive to that and be more willing to engage in conversation.

And I say I focus on the responsibility of whites first because I think, oftentimes, people of color, or black people in particular, will complain about feeling like you have to educate white people, and it gets tiresome. And especially in these types of discussions where race enters your life on a day-to-day basis, to have to say, yes, race is an issue, seems a bit tiring, a bit taxing.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, if you have a situation like we have in this country today, where, as I said, we don’t talk about solutions as much as we talk about the problem, how do you get past that?

LINDA TROPP: I think multifaceted approaches are usually the most important.

To share a little bit of the work that I and my colleagues have done focusing on contact between groups, actually giving people opportunities for real, meaningful, close interactions across group boundaries, and what that does is, it not only tends to reduce prejudice, but it helps to reduce our anxieties about cross-group interactions in the future.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Finally, it used to be said that it is always darkest just before dawn, and then, during my generation, it was always darkest just before it gets pitch black.

(LAUGHTER)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Where do you fit in this analysis of the future of race relations in this country?

LINDA TROPP: You know, some of my colleagues will tease me, but I try to be hopeful.

And at the very least, the way I see my work is, I think, on some level, there will likely always be biases between groups. But I think, what’s the alternative? If we don’t try to fight for greater integration, greater social justice, then those entities and factors that try to pull groups apart will only become stronger. So, that’s kind of where I find myself.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It sounds pretty positive to me.

LINDA TROPP: We got to do what we can.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you for joining us.

LINDA TROPP: Thank you so much.

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