Harvard Professor Henry Gates , Arrested in ‘09 at his home

Yassuh, Boss. Right Away.

When the Perceived “Other” Fails to Defer to “Authority”

Amy Alexander
Jul 14, 2013 · 9 min read

Now that the Zimmerman not guilty verdict has surfaced the topic of incipient or subconscious white racism, I’ll take the opportunity to draw your attention to a lesser-known but pernicious iteration of this ageless American theme:

The Deference Dynamic.

I’ll do my best to avoid over-reaching in the manner of some “cultural critics” who take a breaking news development shaped by a wickedly complex psycho-social dynamic, and clumsily attempt to enlarge it from the micro to the macro without providing appropriate context or historic insight. (Sometimes, an awful story about Dumb Assery that leads to tragedy is just that — a one-off.)

Yet often where anti-black racism that leads to high-profile tragedy is concerned,context is extremely important, as is the need to genuinely understand history. I do not care if you are a Rock Star coder or a serial entrepreneur with a slew of successful start ups to your credit: If you aren’t smart enough to learn why so many people are torn up about the Trayvon Martin killing and the recent acquittal of the man who shot him then you are actually a cultural dunce.

Let’s highlight a persistent through-line that exists in the majority of postmodern racism-related cases. Stories like the fatal shooting of an unarmed 17 year old black boy by a white adult male — an adult who by way of explaining his lethal action said that he “feared for his life” —rightly upsets us.

But how much do you really know about the degree to which power, history, and perception drives these episodes? How often do you recognize the long-tail of race history in America as it influences day-to-day interactions between whites (and authority figures, writ large), and people of color, especially those with limited economic or educational means?

We’re far removed from the days when law enforcement officers brutalized blacks brazenly. But I’m suggesting that the absence of empathy combined with a strong Deference Dynamic is now a key driver of racist episodes that are at worst lethal, and, in the realm of mundane, daily interactions, soul-killing.

I Don’t Feel Your Pain: Can Whites in Authority Identify with Blacks?

There is science involved too. Studies of the brain and human emotion and the ability to sympathize and empathize with “the other” have demonstrated the role of cognition and conditioning in forming racial perceptions. This in turn influences the empathy-gap-meets Deference Dynamic. But I’m not writing a science piece, I’m undertaking a cultural examination, and an effort to raise questions about how every day, walking around “regular Americans” are complicit.

When those who are in power lack empathy for those who have little or no power, that’s when the Deference Dynamic can lead to horrible outcomes. This combination is not new, of course. What’s new is the tricky new permutations, varieties, and locations where this manifests.

What’s new is that guns are insanely available to civilians who should not have them. What’s new is that technology now enables individuals with limited cultural exposure or who have mental health challenges to obtain information that can incite them to a level of paranoia and obsessive hatred that can jump to lethal actions.

The “empathy gap” + Deference Dynamic is alive and well in America, boiling along for the most part quietly below the radar. And day by day, it claims the spirits, livelihoods or in some instances the very lives of black and brown people without ever making the nightly news or blowing up in Twitter.

Tim Wise, a race relations expert who happens to be a white guy, wrote about empathy and it’s role in the killing of Trayvon Martin:

Empathy, which is always among the first casualties of racist thinking, mandates our acceptance of the possibility that maybe it isn’t those long targeted by oppression who are exaggerating the problem or making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill, but rather we who have underestimated the gravity of racial domination and subordination in this country, and reduced what are, in fact, Everest-sized peaks to ankle-high summits, and for our own purposes, rather than in the service of truth.

Failure to Defer + Empathy Gap = A “Threatening” Person of Color

George Zimmerman apparently felt threatened by Trayvon Martin and by the teen’s response to being followed and questioned. What would have happened if Trayvon had turned and — instead of remaining on the phone with his friend, Rachel Jeantel, as was the case — immediately gotten off the line and stopped walking. What if he’d turned his body to fully face Zimmerman, placed the can of iced-tea and bag of candy he carried on the sidewalk; lifted his hands skyward or held them outstretched, and asked in a flat voice what Zimmerman wanted?

I happen to believe that chances are pretty good that had Trayvon displayed this degree of deference in that moment, he would be alive today. Zimmerman is apparently without empathy when it comes to blacks or anyone with dark skin. Which is to say that Zimmerman could not muster or did not possess the emotional EQ, the empathy, to consider that the lanky person he confronted on that damp, dark evening might be just as afraid of Zimmerman as Zimmerman claimed to be of him, and to adjust his approach accordingly.

Couple that with whatever incipient racism the WannaBe cop may have unconsciously held, and voila — a black youth unpracticed in the sadly necessary survival skill of quickly, cleanly deferring to white “authority figures,” is killed in a blink by a white “authority figure.”

In other words, to put it crudely, Trayvon Martin failed to engage the “Yassuh, Boss,” response that blacks first adopted during the antebellum era, and which whites of a certain sensibility still require of blacks in 2013 America.

Early this month, LaVar Burton — a veteran, award-winning actor and host of a legacy Public Television reading program — described the survival tactics he’s developed to cope with this Deference Dynamic, the elaborate steps he takes to avoid being shot or harmed by law enforcement figures whenever he is stopped.

An anti-police brutality march

Unlike Burton, of course, Trayvon Martin didn’t have the benefit of many years in which to develop and practice such survival skills. And even if his parents had previously undertaken That Talk with him, it is far from a lock that a 17 year-old would smoothly be able to engage the “Yassuh,Boss” tactics on the fly.

Obama as Commander in Chief? Not to the GOP

So there it is, and yes, by “it,” I mean the irrational, outsized fear of blacks held by some whites, a fear that also influences encounters that have nothing to do with the possibility of crime. Really, metaphorically speaking, each day in America millions of “deaths” large and small take place within this context, the disappearing of black and brown humanity, economic opportunity, bodily freedom and basic dignity that is the direct result of this “empathy gap” meets Deference Dynamic. Much has been written and spoken in the aftermath of the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict about the Will My Black Son Ever Be Safe to Walk the Street? theme.

For me, in light of what I know about the Deference Dynamic, I’m actually a bit less concerned about my 10 year-old son being shot by a WannaBe cop, a real cop, or another black guy as I am about his ability going forward to locate, land and keep a job that will allow him to build a productive life for himself.

Consider that President Obama is frequently described even by Democrats on the Hill and members of the supposedly “Liberal media” as being “too aloof” to productively negotiate with Republicans on the large and small matters of governing that impact our systems. To my ears, when I hear the “President Obama is Too Aloof” rhetoric, it means that whomever is speaking views the president as insufficiently deferential to white Republicans in the House as they hatch and fling crazier and crazier forms of obstruction at him.

This Deference Dynamic also drives the persistent achievement gap in our education systems. It likewise under-girds the deplorably high rates of incarceration of black and brown men and women. Where middle-class, college-educated blacks are affected, it is the foundation, too, of the wealth gap that always existed but which has widened exponentially during this lingering “recession” (which for masses of black Americans is truly a Depression.)

On this last point — the negative economic impact of this — the Age of Obama has emboldened whites in the workforce like nothing I’ve ever experienced previously in the 20+ years since I graduated college. Of late, most insidiously, the “empathy gap” + Deference Dynamic has coincided with record-high unemployment rates for blacks.

Republican Representatives and President Obama

Statistical data and anecdotal evidence abounds: Black and brown colleagues in academe, the media, and other white-collar settings where those in my network make their living, have described to me episodes of white direct-reports demanding (overtly or subtly) a degree of deference that is mind-boggling. Usually, it doesn’t matter if the black or brown worker is a Subject-Matter Expert in areas where “the boss” is not, or if they’re deeply experienced in their field; nor, even, does it matter if my black or brown colleagues are one thousand percent, unquestionably factually correct on a given point of contention that may arise during the course of a given work-related issue.

Hey Black Pro Man or Lady: Learn to Defer…or See Your Career Die

We are, it seems, not only expected to defer to the authority of the white direct-report — however incompetent, unethical or insecure they may be — we are required to “Yassuh Boss,” them if we want to remain employed. Moreover, and more lethally, the wobbly economy has made any high-paying, competitive positions within the non-unionized, right-to-work environment that now characterizes most private-sector workplaces bloodless versions of the Hunger Games: Black and brown professionals better shut the fuck up, absorb any kind of humiliation from incompetent, insecure, or venal white bosses or face swift removal.

In this same context, the “hook up” factor that white workers and job-seekers experience is an important hidden aspect of this Deference Dynamic: If you are a college-educated, experienced working professional or job seeker who lacks an intimate network of hiring managers and gatekeepers who will “hook you up” with a promotion, a new job, or protect you when budget-slashing commences, you’d sure as hell better work on your Deference chops while on your search.

I’ve heard legions of stories from black job candidates who’ve sat for interviews with white gatekeepers, only to learn that the prospective “boss,”without shame or fear, made it clear that Deference to their “authority” was a big priority among their hiring-decision metrics.

To those who say, “What’s race got to do with that?,” I repeat: If you don’t know the history of white racism in America — and the permutations, and manifestations of it over many, many decades — you really should consider broadening your education.

Amidst the wealth of race-related commentary and news stories that floods the Internet and the airwaves, only one significant piece of thoughtful interrogation has surfaced about this manifestation of 21st Century Deference-oriented racism, Rutgers professor Nancy DiTomaso’s recent book, The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism.

Thus, untold number of black and brown adults and teens and young-adults seeking to enter the workforce are effectively dead in the water, when it comes to obtaining and keeping work. Surely, were this a true “meritocracy,” or a nation in which hard work, playing by the rules, compassion and equal opportunity existed in fair measure for all citizens, the empathy gap + Deference Dynamic would not require exposure. It would not sideline (or worse) millions of Americans daily. But it does. And more than exposure, it deserves genuine, solutions-oriented discussion, along with serious policy revisions.

Honestly, it is past time, since as we know, it also exists in settings that are literally deadly. Just ask Oscar Grant’s or Trayvon Martin’s parents.

I. M. H. O.

The Editorial Page

    Amy Alexander

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    Promoting Knowledge, Identity, Vision, Justice, Reality and Humor. Wise Acres Welcomed. http://t.co/h9wJJvHLTg

    I. M. H. O.

    The Editorial Page

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