We can blame the store manager, since fired. We can blame the police who actually arrested them for not leaving the premises when ordered to. (Why were they ordered to leave when white people in the same situation would not be?) We can blame society. So many targets to blame. This case is not a symbol but, more importantly, an illustration of the issue of identity. Of course, this example is a particularly American one. But the issue is the basis of much of the world’s history throughout the centuries. Prejudice.
In our book IDENTITY, Dr. Wayne Andersen and I wrote:
In 1954, psychologist Gordon Allport related prejudice to categorical thinking. Because we think in terms of generalized categories, Allport suggested that prejudice is a natural and normal process for humans. He wrote: “The human mind must think with the aid of categories. Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibility avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.”
While the mind runs on automatic, we have the added control of observation and reason. Here is the mix. There are three forces at play: automatic categorization, observation, and reason. In a way, sometimes they are in competition, especially when observation and reason contradict the attributes of some category the mind has generated.
It is easier to give in to the assumptions of the category than to observe more closely; and from that vantage point, use reason to come to a conclusion. It is easier to be prejudiced than not. Prejudice means you have come to conclusions BEFORE you have observed, which is completely different from true judgment, in which you reach a conclusion AFTER you have looked at facts and evidence.
We can understand the underlying structure of prejudice. That doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. We can see in this Starbucks example the indignation of injustice. Two innocent guys doing what others have done from the inception of that company, sitting at a table minding their own business. And because of two facts alone, they were black and the store manager was white, the episode was able to take place. If the facts went like this: The men were white and the store manager was black, we can imagine a vastly different outcome.
One helpful effect of this event was the outpouring of outrage from most parts of our society. That demonstrates that people care about right over wrong, justice over injustice, and fairness as a value.
Here’s the thing: as Allport implies, the mind sorts things into generalized categories of similarities and differences. That is how we process the world. But our values are often in contradiction to our mind’s mindless groupings. This insight gives us a chance to support our values over our mind’s automatic predisposition. We could say that anyone who is a member of a group different from ours, whatever our group is, will have an automatic reaction that divides us from them. That fact does not lead to the action of discrimination.
When we add observation and reason to the mix, we are able to support our values over our instincts, and a higher social order becomes possible.