THE BLOG

The Office Can Be as Hostile as the Hood

06/18/2015 09:56 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016
Christopher Futcher via Getty Images

There are multiple ways to kill a black body. Whether it is in an instant from a bullet, prolonged from the repeated blows of a police baton or slow and agonizing from the constant barrage of microaggresions in the workplace, the results are the still the same--the certainty of death. Black men and boys in US society who dress and speak in a certain manner personify a number of historically contrived white racial stereotypes about the "Other." These one-dimensional narratives were put in place to dehumanize black people and to satisfy white gluttony through the elimination of black talent, casting them as the least desirable among humankind. Among the more familiar black stereotypes are the gangster, the thug, the dumb jock and the deadbeat dad. These white racial code words have been seared into the psyche and operate just below the level of consciousness. They frame knowledge, silently informing thought and action while infecting every aspect of civil society. And while white people are protected from the injury they often inflict on people of color, blacks feel the brunt of abjection through a constant barrage of insults from racial taunts, slights, bullying and other forms of every day discrimination that single them out as a stigmatized group.

Such a history of white racial domination provides some basis into the sustained aggression leveled against young and mostly unarmend black men, boys and women. (People of color who work in white environments also hear the same message of black deviance, and in turn, unwittingly act on similar race-based assumptions.) It is not so unfathomable, then, when these black youth are harassed and gunned down in the streets of Anywhere, America at the hands of white authority because they occupy a sinister place in the recesses of the mind. Many of these senseless shootings happen in an instance. As a white law enforcement figure approaches a black body, the instinct is to draw the weapon out of fear. But before the shooter can make an informed assessment, they must sift through a plethora of mental frameworks to size up the potential threat. Relying on socially constructed metaphors of blackness as dangerous, the result is often to discharge the weapon, swing the baton or restrain in handcuffs in efforts to "control" the supposed menace. This reality was made painfully clear in a viral YouTube video of a pool party in McKinney, Texas recently where a white police officer drew his weapon on two unarmed black teens who approached to aid a young black female being accosted by the officer. In this instance, no shots were fired, but dozens of black teens were detained presumably for "partying while black." In a society that privileges whiteness as Herrenvolk--the master race, the white mind and society at large has been socialized to associate blackness with depravity and deficiency. But these automatic assumptions of black people that occur just below the surface of conscious thought are not limited to the coercive tactics of policing.

Black Americans of all stripes from Generation X to the Millennial professional who have been lucky enough to find employment in today's time are also vulnerable to systemic violence of another kind. These individuals are at risk of dying as they are slowly poisoned by feelings of isolation, self-doubt and harassment in predominately white occupations or workplace settings. To get into the door of any white organization, black applicants must take care to "neutralize" their resumes as to not appear too black. Studies indicate that the sound of one's name can be a liability for people of color as they submit resumes in search of gainful work. Once in the door, black people in these work locations get little reward for assertiveness. In fact, assertion is often misconstrued as aggression, which conjures up an irrational notion of the "angry black" caricature for most white co-workers and administrators. These racist attitudes and beliefs, often gleaned from media representations and second hand sources, inform white ways of knowing that dictate their interactions with blacks and other people of color. Just like their deputized white law enforcement counterparts, these white gatekeepers have been racially primed to hold negative views of black folk, often devaluing them in ways barely perceptible to human cognition. But whereas police use the bullet, a nightstick and tasers to subjugate the masses of black people they are sworn to protect and serve, the office relies on the paycheck, promotion eligibility and evaluations as a tool of oppression. This treatment is a form of inequality that stems in part from the racist and existential framing of blacks as "less intelligent" than whites thus branding them as incompetent, unprepared or mindless. And because Americans spend most of their time at work, these thoughts in turn fuel decades old distrust between management and employee.

The office can be every bit as hostile as any hood where, instead of abuse from racist and unprincipled law enforcement, it is department heads, supervisors and administrators that can make life difficult for their black employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received over 33,000 race discrimination claims nationwide in 2012 and again in 2013, an average of 92 claims a day. It is estimated that black Americans lose over $120 billion in wages each year due to labor market discrimination. The field of medicine is no stranger to crimes against humanity. In a soon to be released study on the workplace mistreatment of black Physician Assistants (PAs) in the healthcare industry, a large portion of interviewees said they overheard racial jokes, slurs, stereotypes and other comments while on the job. In one example, a black female PA reported being told, "you smoke weed because you're black." And in another instance, a black male PA reported being subjected to harsh treatment on the job and was labeled as not being a "team player" by his supervisor for not joining the staff at happy hour after work. Most blacks face workplace antagonism in some fashion, killing creativity and choking the life out of their productive work years. It is difficult to foster enthusiasm and loyalty under such circumstances, which can lead to low job satisfaction much of time. Indeed, virtually every private and public corporate entity works hard to keep their settings uniformly of one mind in culture, habitus, climate and in policy. Only recently have laws been crafted (begrudgingly) to equalize the American workplace, allowing in a few blacks on occasion provided they "fit in," making whites feel comfortable in their own space. This is typically achieved by following directions and not speaking out of turn. In many cases, the black employee is expected to provide comic relief or speak on behalf of their entire race as they teach their white colleagues about difference. Blacks who work in these austere environments carry an enormous psychological burden as they provide "window dressing" for their respective places of employment that merely pay lip service to racial diversity and the practices of inclusion.

The emotional turmoil caused by the systemic maltreatment and disenfranchisement of black Americans give rise to a perfect storm for development of disease within the physiology of the body. The body responds to stressors by activating the stress hormone, cortisol. Though cortisol is necessary for the human body in short bouts, it is well documented as having a pernicious affect on the body the longer it remains elevated. For example, cortisol has a blunting effect on the immune system, leaving the body more vulnerable to illness. With long-term exposure to the scourge of racial discrimination and daily grind of micro-aggressions, the body's stress response is in a continued state of arousal. The end result of all that stress is metabolic imbalance with an elevated risk of diabetes, high cholesterol, certain cancers, hypertension, depression, anxiety and other forms of life-style related maladies common among people of African descent. In other words, African Americans have paid a significant price for living in a white supremacist society in a number of reprehensible ways, not the least of which being the cost to their physical and emotional health.

American racism affects the soul of black Americans making it difficult to thrive, leading many to self-doubt. The white racial knowledge about the inherent inferiority of people of color as "less than human" can be detrimental to their emotional well-being. Adding to that is the abundance of emotional labor that African Americans are required to expend to cope with the indignity of racial mistreatment and to counterframe the racist portrayal of black people as anathema. These misinterpretations of the black body have lead to tragic consequences in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore and many other cities. The same can be said for black Americans employed in white organizations where they are often invisible and the only representative of their group. In these spaces, black people must contend with second-class status where they frequently encounter the injustices of living while black through no fault of their own. And just like in the streets of Ferguson, the results can be every bit as deadly.