A conversation with Michael Emerson on race, humility and ways we can talk to one another


North Park University Provost Michael Emerson with poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera

There are few people better able to offer perspective on the polarized state of the nation than Michael Emerson. Emerson, provost of North Park University in Chicago, is one of the foremost sociologists on race, religion and civility in the United States. For 25 years, he has done groundbreaking research in the field, including serving as one of the lead investigators with the 2006 and 2012 Portraits of American Life studies that explored ethnic and racial diversity.

In a recent interview, he shared insights on how we got to where we are today, and what we can do to promote a more intellectually humble, respectful national dialogue.

Q. The 2006 Portraits of American Life study revealed shocking disparities in racial understanding, with 43 percent of whites saying one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race. By 2012, 55 percent of whites wanted to stop talking about race. Where do we stand now?

A. I’ve actually heard people say this, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ We should be so far past talking about it that I just can’t stomach even thinking about trying to start from square one. What we need are solutions, actual progress. So, when I hear that, and I hear it quite a bit in the last few months, particularly. I think even trying to ask, ‘Let’s talk about it,’ maybe we have to have a different strategy at this point.

Q. One can see how toxic the conversation about race is in the volatile reactions to the act of NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem. We know from research that in order to move forward, people have to be free to say where they are now, and for some it means interpreting the gesture as a lack of patriotism and for others it is a call to action to address inequality. Yet being honest in today’s culture means risking being attacked as a racist or white supremacist or in the case of one ESPN host, having the president call for your job. If we’re afraid to be honest, can we even start to have this conversation?

A. We can’t. Not only are we afraid to be honest, when there is honesty, people often aren’t trained to be able to handle that. You maybe heard some corporations are using a snowflake test. They’re worried about hiring people that just cannot handle criticism or conflict. Their lives have been so cocooned they are able to surround themselves with people like them, that think like them. They don’t know how to handle people that don’t. They don’t know how to handle conflict and they don’t know how to have discussions where people disagree. That’s a growing trend in our country in part because of social media. I can just encounter only people like me if I wish. Maybe you’ve heard this before. This is what Trump does. And why the people that follow him do because he just says what he thinks in a way that they either don’t feel that they can or are scared to, but he says what we’re feeling.

Q. As we retreat into in groups of people like us, there seems to be an increasing tendency to dehumanize one another with negative stereotypes that do not consider the complexity and wide range of beliefs and experiences of individuals within groups. We marginalize Muslims. We marginalize blacks. We marginalize atheists. And we marginalize religious conservatives. But we don’t seem to be sensitive to that. In our rush to marginalize others, are we losing our ability to listen to and understand our neighbors as we would want to be listened to and understood?

A. I don’t know if you’ve encountered any of the research of George Yancey at the University of Texas. That’s what he’s finding. So when he’s surveying academics, who tend to be on the more progressive side, they have no problem at all saying, ‘Of course we wouldn’t hire a religious conservative. They’re not real scientists. They’re not to be taken seriously. In fact, they would do nothing but bring harm here,’ and have no problem with that. We all have these blind spots to groups. It’s a hard thing to get your hands around, isn’t it? We felt we were making progress since at least the civil rights time of more and more inclusion of groups that had been excluded but somehow it’s all backfiring and people are pushing back.

Q. In thinking about ways to overcome polarization, I am increasingly drawn to the work across several disciplines by humility scholars. Their findings are lifting up qualities of the virtue that can positively influence behavior, qualities such as a nondefensiveness, of being other-focused, of being able to listen to other people, of being sensitive to our own weaknesses and being able to appreciate the strengths of others, of being open to new ideas, everything we haven’t been talking about in reference to today’s culture. Do you think humility research can be a valuable resource as we seek to have conversations about issues like race?

A. One-hundred percent so. We’re really reduced to we’re a rights culture. I know how to try to declare my rights. I don’t know how to do anything else, really. Humility research, all those traits you just described, those are things we don’t typically learn how to do. In a rights culture, I learn how to speak up for myself, I learn how to recognize when I or my group is experiencing injustice, but I don’t learn a lot to think about other groups and what they might be encountering.

Q. Is there hope that we can cultivate humility as a way of being that does grant every human being respect and having a basic value?

A. There’s definitely hope. We can always learn. We’ve learned how to get to this point, and we can learn to figure out that it isn’t working and that there is a better way. In my role as provost, chief academic officer, we have given a lot of thought to institutionally what is the end result that we are trying to create for our students. And so even as you were talking about humility research, well that’s what we need to be integrating. That has to be an outcome of our graduates, that they have those characteristics, they have been taught them, they have been given the ability to practice them, they can demonstrate them. I hear a lot of talk among faculty and administrators across universities that they’re asking how are we failing. There’s a sense that we are failing. We have to change something. And I think this could be one of the outcomes.

Q. Is part of what is necessary to encourage people as they are able to move forward in their understanding and empathy on issues such as racial inequality? Take a white person like me, who grew up in an all-white, lower middle-class neighborhood. The people I grew up with who I knew as decent people understood race in a certain way. I hope I am are on a continual journey to learn more about what it means to be black and white in America. But a sincere effort of self-awareness and self-examination by any of us opens our eyes to just how much more we have to learn. Should we see progress as people evolve from Point A to Points B or C instead of attacking them publicly as racists or white supremacists for not being at Point Z?

A. You’re really hitting it. I’m holding my hand up right now, and saying my understanding of race is I’m at the pinky finger and where I want you to be is at the thumb. What we’re doing right now is demanding that you immediately leave that pinky finger and be at the thumb. And if you’re not there you’re going to be insulted and so on. What actually happens is I first have to move to the ring finger, the index finger, it’s step by step. So, it has to be seen as a process of education, helping people move because we all start from somewhere, rather than simply demanding that we all end up at some imagined endpoint immediately.

Q. You and I by the nature of our work in the academy and the media probably tend to spend more time around liberals. But at times it seems many find it hard to grasp that the rules of human nature also apply to them. How is it possible to help introduce the concepts of general and intellectual humility in liberal institutions, and to help them understand that on many issues they also are at the pinky finger, as opposed to thinking of themselves at the thumb?

A. Here is my easy answer: humility research. There is such a tendency on the progressive end or if you’re highly educated to be kind of chauvinistic about it. I know it’s right. Of course I know. I’ve started to say that we have a growing movement of fundamentalist liberals. So absolutely committed to their views that they cannot conceive that there can be any other way. That’s fundamentalism, often in a different direction than we think it to be. I have a dean here, who when he has faculty conflicting, he asks them always are you able to to concede that you could be wrong? Are you willing to entertain that? If you’re not, then we’re not going to have a discussion. We’re wasting our time. The essence of being a human being in the modern world is that you have to be able to hold that you could be wrong so that you want to learn from others.

Q. What about the elephant in the room, Donald Trump? How should a reasonable person respond to his multiple provocations, sometimes three or four a day, that seem to constantly ignite the cauldron of polarization, while reducing public discourse to the level of, “You’re a jerk. No, you’re a jerk.”

A. With Trump, the best course would be to ignore him. I constantly read in the media, he’s an idiot, he’s so dumb. I just keep thinking he’s so dumb, he’s got you where he wants you. He wants you to be focusing on these issues so you’re not focusing on other issues. He’s doing it on purpose and you keep falling for it. Just ignore it, and he would lose his power.

Q. It doesn’t seem we’re getting great direction from political leaders. Will a new movement promoting respectful dialogue be more effective as a bottom-up movement as opposed to something that comes from the top down?

A. As we track the data, people are less and less trusting their institutions. So it is going to have to be perceived as a grass-roots movement. I think something like Black Lives Matters. Whether people agree with it or not, its success was because it was perceived as being grass roots, and saying we’re not tied to the religious leaders as such.

Q. In the area of race relations, which you have spent the last quarter century researching, are there any specific things you would recommend as to how we can start to make a difference?

A. One is to take seriously a growing movement called cultural competency and actually engaging in learning that. Not really starting the conversation just where we’re at, but first engaging in some of that training so you’re ready to discuss. And this is really hitting me as I watch more and more young religious leaders of color saying, we’re not going to talk about things like reconciliation as such. We’re not even going to talk about white privilege. We’re talking about what it is: White supremacy, and that’s what we have to deal with. I know it’s ugly. I know that offends white folks. There is a term for that: white fragility. But unless we address that, it’s wasting my time. It’s wasting your time. So I guess we’d be coming to terms with that: white supremacy.

Related: Is it OK to ask, ‘Where are you from?’

Image by North Park University, via Flickr [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
Image by Oregon Department of Transportation, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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