What Charles Barkley says about tribal mentality (watch the video) is spot on. We are all susceptible to in-group favoritism, which is to prefer those we most identify with over those who we do not, and, with that, we can lose our objectivity. Sadly, when issues are framed as ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (rather than on the basis of a careful and impartial analysis of the facts) the only result can be more polarization and division.
It is not just a matter of dividing over racial identities either. Identities can be built around many things. We can prefer or judge more harshly based in gender, class, education, religion, nationality, political affiliation, brand, friendship, familiarity and basically anything that can be used to create categories of people. We don’t always side with those who are most like us either. Regardless, who a person identifies with or against is a reflection of their own priorities and these often seemingly unconscious preferences are worth our conscious examination.
When the allegations against Bill Cosby started to become a story I was originally skeptical of his accusers. I cringed because I had thought of him as a sort of role model of fatherhood. I imagined his status as a wealthy celebrity may make him vulnerable to those seeking to gain financial and a sort of odd offer that could suggest a money motive behind the charges made me wonder even more. Still, why would I assume Cosby is innocent and assume over a dozen women are guilty of trying to extort him? It could be that I’m a man like him who would fear the same happening to me. It could also be that the accusers are anonymous people as far as I am concerned and Cosby a public figure I thought I knew.
In contrast, a few years ago when the charges against Jerry Sandusky were made, when he was accused similarly in what became a media frenzy, I assumed he was probably guilty and without much consideration of his possible innocence. First off, he lacked cuteness factor and, as awful as it is, appearance is a factor in our judgment of guilt or innocence. In my mind Sandusky looked the stereotypical part and that prejudice despite my knowing appearance is not evidence of guilt. Second, despite being a Penn State fan, Sandusky was not on the coaching staff for a decade and I did not recognize him. Besides that, his TV interview was awkward and, while actual proof of nothing but his awkwardness, it gave me the heebie-jeebies.
Black men often suffer the same image problem that causes people to be suspicious rather than sympathetic. It is unfair, but not an inexplicable prejudice and definitely not helped when the causes célèbres are young men who died in violent confrontation. It is not helpful to the cause of overcoming racial prejudice that solidarity centers around skin color rather than unquestionable character. It is not fair to the vast majority of black young men for them to be lumped together with every other black young man and especially not helpful they be categorized with those involved in tragic violent encounters.
The idea that every black male is equally likely to be killed is based in an erroneous assumption that race is the only important factor in predicting outcomes. Statistics do not tell individual stories and many factors other than race influence risk. Factors like single parent homes, participation in gangs, drug use and many others can add to risk. Factors like education, positive attitude, good community and others can reduce risk. So, rather than categorize by race only (as if that’s all that matters) and feed a tribal mentality that is already too prevalent, we should look beyond as well. We should encourage unity around the ideas that reduce risk for all young men regardless of their race.
“It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
A first step towards light and away from darkness is to reconsider our own tribal identity. It may say nothing more when she does it than when I do, but I did find it interesting that Whoopi Goldberg is skeptical of the allegations against Cosby and yet did not rise to the defense of Sandusky who faced far fewer accusers. To Goldberg’s credit, she did separate the acts of the retired coach from the Penn State community, which is more fair than demanding morally responsible and mass punishment for those who had no way of knowing. But why do we not treat both accused men the same regardless of appearances?
But I do digress. This is my advice for moving in the direction of light and unity beyond racial identity. This, for those afraid of young black men, means to identify with the young black men who do not fit a violent stereotype and should not be defined by the negative statistics. It means judging less in appearance, less collectively and more on individual merit. For those who fear police, this means obeying the law even when in disagreement, treating officers with respect even when not understanding their requests of us and seeing them as unique people to be treated as individuals rather than as part of some monolithic thing to shower our contempt upon.
It is the image of Devonte Hart giving a hug to Sgt. Bret Barnum that show the real path out of darkness and to light. Let’s follow their lead and be a new tribe bigger than skin color and prejudice. Leave fear and mistrust behind even if it makes you more vulnerable. Give people who look different from you the same benefit of doubt you give to those who look more like you. Be willing to go the second mile for those who seem as a threat to you and live to be a light to the world. The world needs more hugs, fewer demands and chockholds. We need to love all people as we want to be loved.
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” (James 2:8-9)
Anyhow, this is probably as much as I want to say about racial tensions, I have probably said more than enough already and I pray my words are understood as intended. May God bless his children of all colors, genders and social statuses with abundance of love for each other. May we love each other as God loves us and be leaders in love rather than reactionaries in fear. We need love and understanding beyond the tribal boundary and that which is only made possible through having the mind of God.