Uncomfortable truths

Dr. Walter Collier presents a talk on racism, and his new book, this weekend.

Courtesy Dog Ear Publishing.

With the issue of racism in America rising to the forefront of the national news, a talk scheduled for this coming weekend could not be more timely. Last May, local author, educator, and researcher Dr. Walter Collier wrote a book called “Why Racism Persists: An Uncomfortable Truth,” and on Saturday, Jan 20, the author will give his first public talk on the book at the Oak Bluffs library.

Collier has a slightly different view on his chosen topic than others who have addressed the issue of racism. Describing the nature of his upcoming talk, he says, “What I intend to address is the other side of the coin. When the issue of racism is raised, it’s generally focused on those being discriminated against. The focus is rarely on those who are doing the discriminating. There’s no way to solve a problem involving two or more parties if the focus is only on one of them.”

In the book, Collier examines many different factors that may help explain why, half a century after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, racism is still an all-too-evident reality in our country. In the talk, as he does in the book, the author will discuss some of the contributing factors. These include economics, spurious science, white privilege, political instigation, and even mental illness. There’s a lot to digest in the book, but it’s refreshing to see that the author has not gotten stuck on one theory to the exclusion of others.

Collier has a background that makes him eminently qualified to tackle the many topics that he discusses in the book. He holds a master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in public policy analysis from New York University. Throughout a long and varied career, he has worked as a social science researcher and strategic planning consultant for numerous organizations including the National Science Foundation, Princeton University, the American Cancer Society, and the Ford Foundation. Although he has authored numerous publications, this is his first nonacademic, entirely accessible book.

Collier has an easy manner and a way of discussing his topic with passion but not preachiness. He has made it his lifelong mission to educate and engage people in honest dialogue about racism in community discussion groups, papers, and on the Internet.

Approaching the topic in the way that he has chosen adds a level of discomfort to an already charged subject. “I don’t think we really have an honest discussion going currently,” he says about examining the perpetrators rather than the victims of discrimination. “It’s not an easy thing to talk about. It kicks up emotion on all sides. It may kick up guilt, anger, embarrassment.

“You can’t just look at one side and solve a problem,” says Collier. “We need to examine what may influence whites to intentionally or unintentionally contribute to the persistence of racism. If we don’t look at what whites can do to at least become aware of their own biases and behavior, nothing will change.”

Collier has spent a lifetime accumulating knowledge on a variety of subjects. “I had originally thought about going into academia,” he says. “Instead I chose to do research out in the world, rather than being cloistered in the classroom. As a result I ended up exploring many different areas.”

Talking to the author, one is impressed with the amount of research and thought that has gone into the writing of his book. He provides a lot of data and examples to back up his arguments. He touches on science: “At one point, a few scientists made up this characterization, a dichotomy that placed whites at the top. The world really bought into it, and the myth of race became something that people accept as factual”; on economics: “In the South — and in the North — slavery grew into an industry which became quite egregious over time. The dehumanization of blacks has continued. This basis of hatred without cause, the desire to keep a certain people down merely for their skin color has not changed”; on white privilege: “It’s really a contractual agreement between those who want to continue racism and those who just happen to be white. When there are privileges or buy-offs, a number of people won’t stand up or will isolate themselves in a sort of bubble where they don’t have to think about their complicity”; and on a new field of study — the psychopathology of racism: “There has been research looking at the possibility of including racism as a mental disorder. There’s been resistance to that, but the more we allow it to be considered normal behavior, the more we contribute to sustaining it.”

Collier also speaks, just as eloquently, about intergenerational teaching and political instigation: “There are many instances where political leaders who stir up the pot of racism have given permission to people who are on the fence to be more inclined toward racist attitudes, and for those who are devoutly racist to be given permission to continue.”

Despite the many obstacles we face as a nation, Collier is optimistic about the future: “I just think this problem is just going to take time for us to deal with. It’s been with us for the last 400-plus years. Just becoming more sensitive and more aware is probably the first step.”

“Why Racism Persists,” a book talk with local author Dr. Walter Collier, Saturday, Jan 20, 1 to 2:30 pm at the Oak Bluffs library.