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"The Conflict Behind Our Racial Conflict,"

by Paul L. Wachtel January/February 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

As a psychologist, I think of political attitudes not as fixed and singular but as the end result of emotionally powerful conflicts that lie beneath what might seem to be monolithic opinions and dispositions. The task for those of us committed to progressive social change is to make contact with the side of our seeming opponents that might be more receptive to our message or our concerns than their present manifest stance might suggest.

The point is not that every racist or every greedy pursuer of self-interest has a hidden heart of gold. There are certainly people who are pretty thoroughly opposed to what progressives stand for. But many millions more are considerably more complex in their feelings than they themselves are aware of. The attitudes they manifest reflect the current resolution of conflicting forces; but as with a picture that comes crashing to the ground after hanging on the wall for years, a slight shift in the forces which have been invisibly contending can yield a dramatic change in the overall result.

Implementation of Polikoff’s extension of the Gautreaux program has the potential to contribute usefully to that needed shift in the balance of forces. Polikoff notes that the image of the “ghetto black” has cast a shadow over race relations generally and contributed to what he calls a negative “character change” in our entire society. That image is constructed mostly of myth and stereotype, but it is reinforced by some of the unfortunate realities that have accrued from our compressing a critical mass of misery into the fissionable space of our inner cities. Polikoff aims not just to provide a better opportunity for those families who make the move, but, in essence, to defuse the generators of explosive misery and rage that have sent out shock waves to our entire society. He aims, it seems to me, at nothing less than another “character change” in American society, one much more congenial to justice and caring.

That character change is possible for precisely the reason of the conflict that underlies any character configuration. Americans have not become converted in recent decades into totally different kinds of souls. The balance of forces in their psyches has shifted, a shift that for many is probably no more absolute or categorical than a 51 to 48 percent division in the electorate. In both instances, we must remind ourselves not to despair or to conclude that an irrevocable change has occurred.

Once any change in a complex configuration of visible and less visible forces or attitudes begins to occur, other things begin to alter as well, often in unpredictable ways. I have described in Race in the Mind of America how intricately connected and intertwined are the behavior and attitudes of blacks and whites. Each side responds to the other, and each, simultaneously, partially “creates” the other to which it responds. This reciprocal (if mostly unwitting) participation in the perpetuation of a circular pattern of response and counter-response, with each side experiencing its behavior and attitudes as purely the product of the other’s, has been at the heart of our continuing racial tragedy. Polikoff’s proposal offers a way out of this pattern, a way to break into its dynamics by opening the pressure gauge in our inner cities and by paying careful attention to the experience of people in the receiving communities as well. If his proposals are implemented, it will be utterly essential to maintain this dual perspective. However valuable it is to improve the lives of those individuals who are enabled to move, the national character change we so urgently need will not occur if the receiving communities perceive themselves to be the losers in this exchange. In that sense, community-building and “revitalization” is almost as important to invest in in the receiving communities as it is in those communities more obviously in need. We must make this work.

Paul L. Wachtel is CUNY Distinguished Professor at City College of New York. He is author of Race in the Mind of America: Breaking the Vicious Circle between Blacks and Whites (Routledge, 1999).

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