GUEST BLOG: Thoughts on the Shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston

By James McKim, Diversity Committee Chairman, Episcopal Church of New Hampshire

By now, most people have heard about the recent shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston South Carolina. As someone who grew up in that community and work to help people benefit from diversity, I felt the need to share a few thoughts about the situation in which we find ourselves regarding race relations.

My take on the 4 main reasons we are in the situation we are in are:

1)   Human Nature

2)   Culture

3)   Few Role Models

4)   The Media

and What follows is an expansion on those 4 reasons and what we might do about them.

1.   Human Nature

David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, used results from neuroscientific research to devise the SCARF-model, according to which the human brain has five distinctive social needs (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and 

fairness). Studies have shown that when our brains perceive a ‘threat’ to any of these five social needs, the amygdala (a small almond-shaped structure, which plays an important role in emotional learning and memory) sends impulses to the hypothalamus, which then activates the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn triggers the nervous system to go into an automated ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. Simply put, perceived threats in the social environment – when your status, need for certainty, autonomy, relatedness or sense of fairness is compromised – activate the same automated ‘disengage’ (fight or flight/ avoid/ withdraw/ danger) neural circuitry in your brain as when you face a physical threat such as a fearsome predator or armed robber.3

In the context of interaction between different races the brain’s need for relatedness (our need to feel safe with ‘our own’ people – our ‘ingroup’ – and to feel that we are included in that group) is of particular importance. As part of the process to assess our relatedness in any given situation, our brains are constantly gauging whether people – strangers in particular – are ‘friends’ or ‘foes’. Anyone perceived to be different from those my brain (the amygdala) perceives as ‘friends’ or belonging to my ‘ingroup’, automatically triggers a threat response.

I have seen this first hand in people, here in New Hampshire, who do a double-take or even cringe when they first see me. They regain their composure, but you can tell they were taken aback. Other members of the Diversity Committee tell similar stories, some even more hurtful.

Just because someone is different does not mean they are a threat. We need to educate everyone to understand and overcome those basic instincts and impulses to fight when they encounter someone perceived to be different. Raising “emotional intelligence” is critical.

2. Culture

Because of our innate tendencies/need to classify and be afraid of people not “related” to us, the stereotype of African Americans is either of 18 - 25-year-old, hoodie-clad males who, as Dylann Roof is quoted as saying “rape our women and you're taking over our country” or single mothers who were abandoned by uncaring fathers. It is unlikely he would have drawn this conclusion first hand. So, he could only have come to this conclusion from the world around him. The culture in which he lives.

Our society does not do enough to eliminate those stereotypes. In fact, our society holds on to institutional practices and symbols that propagate those stereotypes - celebrating the people who created them in the first place. One only need look at the state capital in Columbia to see the Confederate flag flying in remembrance of times gone by when African Americans were said to be lazy and do all sorts of bad things.

Some people say the flag is representative of history and should be allowed to be seen and used. Others (including even some here in NH) say it represents the rebel spirit and has nothing to do with or is not meant to represent racism. I grew up with many guys who had Confederate flags and gun racks in the back windows of their trucks. To them it may have, in fact, represented the rebel spirit and had nothing to do with racism. What those who fly it today do not seem to grasp is the pain it causes many people just seeing it. It is divisive where a flag should be uniting.

Just because you can show something does not mean you should show it. We need to relegate that flag to museums only. Remove it and all the other symbols that cause painful memories or conjure up a time when all people were not treated as equal from as many places as possible. One might even suggest making laws to ban it just as states have made laws to preserve it.

3. Few Role Models

Another reason the stereotypes exists is that there is a lack of non-white non-entertainment role models. Where are the pervasive images of non-white doctors, lawers, and merchant chiefs? The old adage “You cannot be what you cannot see” is true here. Young people of color have very few modern-day role models who are not entertainers glorified for unhealthy or not down-to-earth (i.e. like the common person) ways of living.

And older people who are “doubting Thomases” will not believe the stereotypes they have learned are not true if they have little exposure to examples of modern-day people of color who do not fit the stereotype.

There are more modern-day African-American successful non-entertainment role models today than there were when I was growing up. And for that I am grateful. We are making progress. But we need an education system and institutions that produce more.

4. The Media

Even as we need more role models, the Media (television, radio, new services) is also a reason our culture is what it is. The Media creates and perpetuates culture.

Everyone in the Media knows that sensationalism sells. I’ve worked in radio and television so I know this from personal experience. Any situation with people who are not like “us” or causes a “stir” is sensational and is preferred viewing over “boring” stories about people doing good things. So, the media is geared to tell sensational stories. 

There are those who say, I’m not in the south, why does this matter to me? Two words – “foreign relations”. Think about how other countries see us. Just as we see them, through the Media, they see us through the Media. For example, we hear through the Media that Iran is a terrible place with no area that is safe. Yet, if you think about it, Iran certainly has places that are not war-torn. We just never hear of them because they are “boring” to the Media. People around the world are seeing the United States (not just New Hampshire) via the Media.

This Media view of us has a negative impact on two levels: individual and national.

1)   Individual – People from other nations think what happens in the south is the same as what happens in New Hampshire, so even people in New Hampshire are seen as racist and not to be trusted. Do we as individuals want others to see us this way?

2)   National: If people from other nations think we as individuals and as a nation are racists and cannot be trusted, how can we have moral authority or trust when we attempt to help solve the world’s problems or attempt to trade with them for the goods and services we take for granted every day.

What can we as individuals do?

1)   Stop supporting media outlets who report sensationalism.

2)   Barrage media outlets with complaints about the volume of sensationalist stories and sloppy journalism requesting more positive/factually accurate stories.

3)   With the power of the internet (facebook, twitter, Pinterest, etc.)  we need to publish positive, life-affirming stories which overshadow the negativity of the Media.

To address the 4 reasons above, something Martin Luther King said in 1963 delivering a eulogy for the victims of the Birmingham church bombings comes to mind “They (the victims) say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”

I would add that we need to recognize that while we all have biological fears of those not like us, we need each other to survive. As individuals, we cannot ourselves produce the food and materials to live. And as Maslow taught us, we certainly cannot achieve self-actualization alone. We need others who can make what we need or help us do what we feel we must.

We cannot afford to alienate the very people on whom our lives depend. But we can and should do everything in our power to help and benefit from our fellow man whatever their race, creed, or color as they should help and benefit from us. That is what love (aka Jesus’ teaching) is all about.

Some people think this is hard. But I think anyone can start by having a non-outcome oriented (i.e. just spending time together or “hanging out”) dialog with people different than ourselves! And the church has a major role to play in making this happen as it is all about relationships. It’s amazing how people’s opinions change when you just have a conversation.