john a. powell —
Opening the Question of Race to the Question of Belonging

“Race is a little bit like gravity,” john powell says: experienced by all, understood by the few. He is an esteemed legal scholar and thinker who counsels all kinds of people and projects on the front lines of our present racial anguish and longings. Race is relational, he reminds us. It’s as much about whiteness as about color. And it largely plays out, as we’re learning through new science, in our unconscious minds. john powell is steeped in this new learning and offers it to us, as a form of everyday power, to animate our belonging to others that is already real. But we must claim it.

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is the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California at Berkeley. He previously directed the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University and the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.

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Join us at 10:00 am this morning for a live video stream of Krista's conversation with john a. powell, one of the most revered thinkers on race today. We'll be taking your questions online too!

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Thousands of people hold hands and sing "We Shall Overcome" during a prayer vigil for the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting at the College of Charleston TD Arena in South Carolina.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla

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Prof. Powell has helped me to further understand my feeling on race. I am white. I have lived in Georgia for 23 years after being born and living in NJ and FL for 41 years and South America for 6 years. The forgiveness expressed by the families of the victims of the massacre in Charleston is very powerful. It has freed me from a defensive posture, in my thoughts, as "not part of the racist people" that would rejoice in, let alone do such a thing, to come closer to the compassion I feel for those directly affected. I'm sure many of my fellow citizens in the South are experiencing the same thing. Thus, the openness to removing the Confederate battle flag and other honor based items from the public square throughout the South.

This was a wonderfully elucidating interview on race, especially so for a white like me. Liberal as I might be, I didn't/don't understand all the graduations of the problem. But now I realize I must first struggle with my whiteness, and how that confounds any thinking about what I might contribute to love with respect to this problem.

Racism is not preserved by racial groups. Racism is preserved by poisonous messages that go into the social conscience and kill it. Once killed by the poison all manner of atrocities are allowed.The hideous slavery this country wants to "whitewash" from history, police brutality for centuries, 100 years of lynching, and now Charleston. We must start with: REMOVE ALL RACIAL IMAGES THAT ATTEMPT TO PORTRAY THE DIVINE. It feeds the subconscious a false notion of white supremacy and black inferiority. Then we will have space to begin a real conversation.

Thank you Dr. Hakim for pointing out something that hadn't ever crossed my mind. Chipping away at my own ignorance is a long process.

I am so grateful for this episode. Prof. Powell's thoughts, ideas and overall vision inspires and energizes me. Learning to be human - it is the journey, thank you for giving me new ways to think and things to think about!

There is a body of literature based on Ernest Becker's 1973 book The Denial of Death that has uncovered one source of unconscious racism - our fear of death. Terror Management Theory has been a basis for hundreds of articles and studies, and has demonstrated that most of the time we deny death, but when faced with our own mortality we seek to reinforce our own culture and demonize "others." One example of this research that comes to mind was a study of 4th year medical students who given one of two medical case studies of a patient coming into the emergency room with chest pain, maybe a heart attack although with no clearly worrisome test results. (Arndt, Vess, Cox, Goldenberg, Lagel, Medical Decision Making/Mar-Apr 2009) Racial bias has been found in the past in the form of less aggressive treatment plans for minorities. In the study some medical students were made "mortality salient," aware of they own death, others not. The only difference between the 2 case studies was the name of the patient - in one a Christian sounding name, the other an Islamic sounding name (‘‘Abdollahi Abdolhos- sein’’ or ‘‘Adam Vess’’), race (white vs other) and religion (Christian vs Muslim). The study chose Islamic religion "as the outgroup given the rising tide of anti-Muslim prejudice" after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. The mortality salient students, those reminded of their death, more often kept the the Christian patient for observation and sent the Islamic patient home with instructions to return if they developed more symptoms. Medically speaking this is consistent with less aggressive treatment. I haven't seen the issue of fear and denial of death (our primary unconscious coping mechanism) and the consequences of that denial being challenge (Terror Management) discussed outside of the research, but it seems important and may perhaps be underlying the escalating polarization in U.S. politics and public expression since 9/11. Given that we humans will all die, that we are blessed or cursed with the knowledge of our mortality, our unconscious reactions are maybe not all the same but almost certainly we all have some reaction and for many, the reaction feeds racism.

I loved this show today. I gauge such shows as good or bad based on; "do they spark ideas in me I have never had before". Today, Dr. Powell's interview offered me three new ways of seeing; Individuality, Societal Isolation, Individual struggle with change and Capitalisms promotion of individuality, isolation and powerlessness in members of society. These ideas intersect over and over as I reason each idea separately. I will be looking into Dr. Powell and his ideas because I can feel his words in my heart as well as my mind... a great deal like Vincent Harding. Thank you Krista, please have more shows like this in the future.

The most powerful conversation about race I have ever heard. For me, Dr. Powell's words ring like a clear bell of truth. Cuts through so much confusing noise on the topic. I will be thinking about these ideas for quite some time. I know they will prove helpful to me as I encounter the ebb and flow in my daily life of connection and disconnection. The image of the blind woman and the bicycles and the "change of heart" experienced by Dr. Powell-- so profound. And expanding the conversation to how the ideas from The Enlightenment may no longer serve us-- very thought-provoking. Thank you Krista for providing a space for sharing these ideas on a Sunday morning.

In heaven we will, since our bodies will be at complete command of our bodies, be able to take on different racial characteristics, at will. We see Mary taking different ethnicities and races in her appearances, but she is always recognizable as Mary.

I have always felt that there was something missing in the mainstream discussion of race. Whether something is prejudicial in favor or in detriment of a particular group of people, it is prejudice. Call it racism, fascism, give it any name you want, just don't use the word reverse blank-ism. Reversing a prejudice only glorifies the favorable aspects of prejudice, thus giving said prejudice more power and permanence. I wholeheartedly agree that the discussion of what it is to be white is necessary, to allow us to see the issue of racism as a whole, thus better understanding our society, and perhaps healing prejudice based on race altogether. Perhaps it can serve as an example to base "healing" of other matters in our society. Fantastic episode.

I am a Social Worker with seniors who are homebound. I was interested to hear the statistic about isolation being a greater risk factor for health than smoking and other well-known risks. I would love to use that research as a way to advocate for programs to address social isolation with the individuals I serve. Can you please share the source of that statistic with me? Thanks for the thought-provoking interview!

I had the same curiosity so I googled "health effects of social isolation" and found this study:

From this link, you can download a PDF of the study. It is a meta-analysis of 148 studies (308,849 participants). The authors concluded: "The influence of social relationships on risk for mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality."

Hearing John Powell talk caused me to relax a little bit...that is important. I am struggling with how to reach those around me who have a more narrow view of the world without being pedantic or shaming. Dr. Powell's observation about the left being more about the "me/I" and conservatives in the US being more about the "we" - points out a real need to get comfortable with each other - to relax and hear eachother's thoughts and concerns w/ out anything but caring. I am motivated to look into the Enlightenment period and how that acted as a "project" for white people to feel special. thank you.

John and Krista,

If I had been in the audience I would have asked a question about "whiteness". While I absolutely agree (as a white 64 year old woman) that the enlightenment over emphasis on the individual/separateness/rationality needs to shift to keep up with the 21st century, I don't think it needs to be gotten rid of entirely. Singularity and rationality were important achievements and stepping stones. I would like to see us create and support an "I" that is consciously aware it is embedded in a "we". After all, someone cooked and cleaned for Einstein. Someone talked to him regularly informing his understandings of science and life. I am not sure I know what that looks like. John, maybe that looks like Black culture. I would like to ask for more examples of what an evolution of the enlightenment ideology might look like.

As a white New Orleanian who has struggled with the racial disparities that my home city encapsulates in stark fashion, well this conversation helped me realize that it's not guilt that motivates me to speak out on these issues, but the broader understanding of the unconscious mind and how we must become self aware to become socially awakened. I am not a "black" man, but I personally suffer alongside my brothers and sisters because of racial segregation here in New Orleans and it's attendant loss of significance to the "white" community (of which many of my friends and most of my family belong to).

We all breathe the same air and are a part of creation...there is no reason to treat any people as "other", since we are all brothers and sisters(children of God).

It is too bad that Everyone can't see this.

I would greatly appreciate if On Being can bring back john a. powell to your studio for a follow-up interview - so he can comment on and help us continue to recognize the idea he has that "we are already connected, we just don't see it yet." The presidential election to me illustrates a further widening or assault on connections already there, already wanting to "become," and I wonder if how we see these times we live in -- where are there opportunities to advance the vision of belonging for all that stands in juxtaposition with the "Enlightenment Project?"