John A. Powell helped a Kansas City audience understand more clearly how a presidential candidate like Donald Trump is getting so much political traction being divisive and why some people continue to be enraged by everything President Barack Obama does.
Powell said at the Kauffman Foundation that each situation involves what he calls “othering” or people’s sense of belonging. Powell, an internationally recognized expert on civil rights, human relations and civil liberties, didn’t use any of the presidential candidates’ names.
But the audience of more than 200 people could easily infer from his Monday night lecture sponsored by Communities Creating Opportunity and the REACH Healthcare Foundation that he was trying to explain why Trump’s poll numbers have stayed high despite Trump denigrating women, Latinos, blacks and Muslims. It’s easy for candidates today to capitalize on the fear and anxiety a lot of people are feeling as the nation’s demographics continue to rapidly change.
“For many people it’s quite scary,” said Powell, executive director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and professor of law and African American studies and ethnic studies at the University of California-Berkeley. Some candidates are tapping into that fear to defy the political gravity that has caused other hopefuls to crash and burn.
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Powell explained that candidates, including Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan have used race and a sense of “other” to further their presidential hopes. The wealthiest elite in America continue to use race and ethnicity to separate whites from people of color.
It’s why some people refuse to accept Obama being in the first African American president. To many African Americans, Obama symbolizes a belonging in this country, Powell said.
But to many whites, “he’s not really an American.” It’s why people refused to accept that Obama was born in the U.S. even after Obama made his birth certificate public. They hated him because of his controversial Christian minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but then accuse the president of being Muslim. “Most Americans are deeply obsessed with race,” Powell said.
“What they’re really saying is to be an American is to be white,” Powell said. “When we ‘other’ people we actually define ourselves.”
“Othering” includes people of different ability, sexuality, class, gender, race, skin tone, ethnicity, age and religion.
“We are questioning their belonging,” said Powell, whose used PowerPoint slides to help illustrate his lecture. “We are questioning their humanity. They are not like us. They are not like me.”
Powell conducted workshops and spoke to other Kansas City area groups this week, including area foundations and the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City. That’s important. Foundations will need to better understand the needs of minority communities so they can provide targeted funding.
The chamber can use Powell’s guidance as it continues its Urban Neighborhood Initiative designed to pump new economic vitality into neighborhoods running from 18th to 52nd streets and from Troost to Prospect avenues. That is to include starting a new charter school.
Powell’s lecture Monday was the day before Merriam-Webster Inc. named the suffix, -ism, as its 2015 Word of the Year. The top ranking -isms include socialism, fascism, terrorism, racism, feminism, communism, and capitalism, which have all made their way into the 2016 presidential campaign.
Powell used the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, saying blacks whether slaves or free could not be American citizens. He said blacks because of race are the “infinite other.” Subconsciously, people take in thousands of images through the news media, reporting on blacks being involved in crimes.
Consciously people say they look past the race of individuals. But their subconscious isn’t as disciplined. Images of African Americans and crime surface causing race to negatively affect individuals’ decisions in hiring, housing, education and law enforcement, Powell said. He added that folks who self-identify as liberals tend to be more affected by subconscious bias.
Subconscious bias also helps explain why police, who are mostly white, have been “primed to associate crime and violence with blacks.”
That association has surfaced in the last year with many unarmed African Americans, including Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Eric Garner being killed by white police officers. People’s humanity has been diminished to where they are not seen as human. “The black community is being traumatized by the state,” he said.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the black student protests on college campuses like the University of Missouri-Columbia have become ways to humanize and give a voice to people who had been viewed as the “other.” Powell said he understands the anger of people who have been traumatized and oppressed.
“Anger is not the problem,” Powell said. “Rioting is not the most productive response, but it’s better than being asleep.
“We should all be indignant when a life is taken. If I were white I would be even more indignant. What the police are physically saying is we are doing this for you.
“White people should say, ‘Not in my name.’”
Powell urged the audience see the humanity in others. It’s done through people spending time together, sharing stories so everyone can gain a sense of community and togetherness from folks with whom they thought they had nothing in common.
It could be as simple as asking people who are homeless or ex-offenders what vegetables they like, he said.
Powell said there has to be a conscious effort to create a space that makes others feel like they belong. In addition to stories, that can include shared pictures, music and events. It’s about expanding the circle of humanity to be more inclusive. It’s also about building a society that doesn’t structurally exclude people with disabilities — like putting in an escalator when an elevator is needed for people using wheelchairs. “The strategies we use for people has to be different,” Powell said.
People also need to pull away from the political push toward white nationalism. He urged people to temper their anger with compassion for others.
“We don’t want to practice reverse ‘othering,’” Powell said.
That would take the country in an even worse direction.