Professor: Not Seeing A Racial Divide Doesn’t Mean It’s Not There

Editor’s Note: Last month Patrick Henri, a member of the Ansonia Board of Aldermen, wrote a column saying the White House administration were accomplices to the murder of two New York City Police Department officers and that the White House administration, Al Sharpton and the New York City mayor were “traitors to their race” who manufactured a “racial divide between poor blacks and police.”

The column upset local civil rights leaders, who said Henri’s comments merely exploited the death of police officers to score political points, and to create an “us” versus “them” mentality.

Click here to read Henri’s column.

Henri then declined an invitation to talk about race relations with the president of the Ansonia NAACP.

The Valley Indy reached out to Shirley A. Jackson, a professor of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, for her reaction to Henri’s column.

Jackson holds a doctorate degree in sociology and specializes race/ethnicity, gender, and social movements.

The Valley Indy earlier this month posted three questions to Jackson:

1. What is her reaction to the Alderman’s column?

2. How does a community start a meaningful conversation about race relations?

3. Are we at a low point in the U.S. in terms of race relations, given the events of the past few months?

Jackson’s answers are below:

Alderman Henri appears to be misinformed.

Engaging in angry and divisive rhetoric is unhelpful; particularly in this case where select individuals are being named as though they are responsible for the actions and thoughts of a large number of people.

A racial divide does indeed exist which makes it possible for the Alderman to claim that it does not.

Recent studies on race relations show that white Americans share similar beliefs as Mr. Henri (See Nancy DiTomaso’s The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality without Racism and Kristen Lavelle’s Whitewashing the South: White Memories of Segregation and Civil Rights) but what these studies and Alderman Henri’s own words show is that there are different perspectives that exist.

Just because someone does not want racism to exist, does not make it go away. What is real to those people who experience racism may be seen as something described as whining, complaining, and stirring the pot.

But again, it does not mean that racism does not exist. In 1949, Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal wrote about “The American Dilemma”, a monumental work that expected there to be a collaboration of whites and African Americans to address the racial dilemma in the U.S.

Years later, with the Civil Rights movement, there were indeed some things that improved. And yet, some people seem to believe that all is well simply because of the passage of legislation.

As we know, just because there is a law, does not mean that there will not be those who will not follow or respect it. If this were the case, no one would be making right hand turns when signs say that you are not supposed to. Yes, even the minor laws have a place. But how many people follow them every single day? Similarly, just because there are laws against serious crimes, we continue to build prisons.

In a nutshell, just because you don’t want something to happen, doesn’t make it so.

It is difficult to start a meaningful conversation about race relations if there are individuals who are so stuck in their own minds as to what should be and what is. This is something that has been occurring on all sides. There are those who may immediately believe that the police or suspected criminals are suspect and those who believe they are not. Oftentimes this is without evidence supporting either position.

People tend to dig their heels in regardless of evidence to the contrary. Not every police office is a saint and not every person stopped because they are suspected of having done something wrong is a criminal. At the same time, not every police officer is a racist and not everyone who is suspected of a crime, innocent of some kind of wrongdoing.

I don’t believe this is a low point in terms of race relations in the U.S.

Things have been this way for quite some time. We just have chosen to ignore it in the hopes that it will either go away or improve on its own. Neither is reasonable.

The back and forth shouting and angry feelings are understandable but they are still, not helpful in helping us to come to a solution.

If one is wealthy, it is hard to understand what it is like to be hungry. When one is housed, it is hard to understand what it is like to be unsheltered or homeless.

It is a painful process to have one’s viewpoints challenged. But it is necessary if progress is to be made. Espousing vitriolic hateful comments about what people should do and should not do ignores the reality of difference.

While the Alderman assumes that Al Sharpton is the only voice that African Americans are listening to is misguided and incorrect. But this shows that there is a lack of knowledge about what is really going on behind the scenes, especially when one there is a lack of acknowledgement about diverse opinions among members of a particular racial or ethnic group.

We have two ears and one mouth for a reason. There is a time to speak and a time to listen. We should listen to diverse opinions and not simply those that support our opinion. Not all whites think the same nor do all persons of color. Just as there are those who want discussions about race and racism to take place, there are those who do not.

It is much easier to ignore or refute the experiences of others when you cannot even admit a problem exists.

Jackson is a board member of the National Association for Ethnic Studies and the Society for the Study of Social Problems, she served as president of the New England Sociological Association, chair of the American Sociological Association’s Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities, and on committees in the Eastern Sociological Association and the Association of Black Sociologists. Click here for her bio.


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