Encouraging bravery and fortitude in dismantling the insidious stronghold of racism

the Mississippi flag against the sky

As the Mississippi governor signs a bill to retire the state flag featuring a Confederate battle emblem, there’s hope for substantive and symbolic change. This is part of the moral reckoning that was spurred by the killing of George Floyd last month by a Minneapolis police officer and the resulting peaceful multi-racial protests and marches around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The rest of the U.S. needs to capitalize on this moment and follow the lead of Mississippi in garnering institutional courage to create change. 

There is some research on who speaks up when witnessing discriminatory and uncivil behaviors, as well as studies on who aids others in times of need. There are also many reasons why individuals, communities, and organizations may not speak up against hatred, discrimination, and violations. Indifference, avoidance, misplaced justification of wrongdoings, codes of silence, and institutional betrayal, to name a few.

Some of us are well-intentioned, but bitter complainers. We wait and watch. Never taking formal or substantive stances. Nevertheless, those who do confront uncivil, discriminatory, or immoral behaviors often possess a few key characteristics. Those with altruism and persistence are more likely to confront prejudice and fight against injustice. There’s also a scientific study indicating ways to promote both a courageous mindset and courageous behaviors. In the teaching of ethics, students who have critically and openly engaged in reflection can move forward in demonstrating moral courage.

One relatively newer area of scientific investigation is on how organizations and systems can engage in courage. As more research is conducted on what factors contribute to institutional courage and what factors impede such action, there are things we can do now. Dr. Jennifer Freyd, a psychologist and professor at the University of Oregon, introduced the term institutional courage just six years ago

According to Freyd, who recently founded the Center for Institutional Courage, “Institutional courage requires an institution’s commitment to seek the truth and engage in moral action, despite the unpleasantness, risk, and short-term cost. Institutional courage in action,” Freyd explains “requires accountability, transparency, actively seeking justice, and making reparations where needed.”

The process of institutional courage needs to be intentional, deliberate, and iterative. We must acknowledge, address, and correct this oppression. We must systematically and critically take an inventory of discriminatory practices in policing, voting, education, housing, health care, and employment. And then we must act to change these practices individually, systemically, and culturally. 

Inauthentic and sincere relationships with one another, we must openly engage in painful ongoing conversations, reflective learning, and plans for endurance. Each of us must take responsibility for using our voice in speaking up and taking charge of change. With humility and grace, we must find equitable and sustainable solutions. 

Demands for serious and substantive dialogue in the U.S. about systemic racism call for change in underlying power structures in policing, voting, education, housing, health care, and employment, while fighting structural oppression at the societal level.

A partial road map for some of the potential multitude of reforms include disavowing White supremacy in all the ways it manifests; taking responsibility for our roles in inequality; changing local, state, and federal governments — and all institutions — that perpetuate disparities; abolishing laws and policies that relegate Blacks to lowered status; making Juneteenth, the day that the news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached some of the last enslaved individuals in America, a national holiday; removing confederate statues and White supremacist monuments; renaming of military bases that hold the names of prominent Confederates, and incorporating in-depth historical and multicultural education in schools and parenting programs. Importantly, once the spotlight on racism fades into the background of U.S. society again, those with the most societal power must remember this moment in time and continue to engage in anti-racist change. 

And of course, while radical healing in communities of color can and should happen amidst oppression, we can’t underestimate the value of actual change and actual equality in promoting healing for individuals, communities, and society. Thus, such institutional courage can mean that this societal moment, instead of being fleeting, is a turning point that leads us to the right side of justice and healing. 

Dr. Ken Pope, a psychologist and internationally-recognized leader in ethics in individuals and organizations had this to say: “We’ve grown used to the pattern- An earth-shattering wrong marks a “this time it’s different” moment that seizes attention and makes change seem certain. What can each of us do to keep this moment from following the pattern of so many others where time passes, resolution fades, and attention moves on without real change? How do we move past words and wishes? One key is courageously committing to structural change. What structures that allow, nourish, or enforce racism do each of us commit to change? Authentic commitment also requires a structural change in ourselves and our own lives. What will we do differently than we have been doing to fulfill our commitment? What costs — in terms of time, work, risks, disappointments, and defeats along the way — are we willing to bear? How will we hold ourselves accountable — not just now but in the weeks, months, and years ahead — until we get the job done?”

As the Mississippi governor and state legislature all voted to abolish their state flag, they engaged in institutional courage. They show that true change is achievable. As psychologists and fellow citizens, we encourage you to join with bravery, boldness, and fortitude in advocating for and participating in institutional courage to dismantle the insidious stronghold of racism in the U.S. 

Joan Cook is a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.


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