Behavior economist Dan Ariely was explaining an experiment of learned helplessness conducted on two dogs during the fifties. The first dog is put into a room by itself. It hears a bell followed by an electric shock. The dog has access to a switch. The dog can use the switch to turn the electric shock off. The dog learns that when it hears the bell to run and engage the switch to turn the electric shock off. A second dog is put into the room by itself. It hears a bell followed by an electric shock. However, unlike the first dog, the second dog does not have a switch to turn the shock off. The people conducting the experiment randomly turn the electric shock off. But the dog is unable to equate any cause and affect principle to what is happening. The dog learns that it is not in control of its environment. The second dog is forced to learn helplessness.
The experiment continues. The two dogs are put into the room together. The bell rings and the first dog engage the switch while the other dog simply hunkers down and starts whimpering. The experiment changes again. The room is redesigned so that when the bell rings half the room is electrified while the other half is not. The first dog learns that when it hears the bell it has to jump to the other side. The second dog continues to do nothing but endure its torture. The helplessness the second dog has learned is applied to other situations.
I’m pretty sure this experiment was conducted on relatively few dogs with only half the dogs getting the helplessness treatment while the other half remained pretty much normal. And when the experiment was over, the dogs that received the treatment that inflicted them with their learned helplessness condition would have to go through a deprogramming process so that the damage done to their psyche could be undone so that the dogs would not spend the remainder of their lives dreading the sound of bells and reacting with the expectation of pain. Something has to be done to make the dogs whole again.
I thought about this experiment and how it actually mimicked the helplessness imposed on our African ancestors who were brought to America to become white people’s slaves. The institutionalized slavery of America was designed to impose a real sense of helplessness to the entire African population without exception. Black people were publicly abused physically and spiritually and emotionally until they abandoned their African culture in favor of the new culture of subservience to white people. This was the way of America for an entire population for generations to come. And when slavery ceased to be a way of economic life, it was supplanted by institutionalized racism that was little different than its legal slavery counterpart.
Black people who have done the work necessary to take control of their lives by working hard at school or paying dues at the job are constantly rejected or bypassed or held back in favor of non black people who are believed to be better candidates if for no other reason than they are not the black candidate. Case in point, Senator Barack Obama, who graduated from school at the very top of his class and top of his game, has to compete with Senator John McCain, a man who barely graduated coming in just six places from the bottom of his class of nearly nine hundred. Why did Mr. McCain do so well against his black counterpart? Regardless of what euphemism applied, the predominant reason for way too many people is that they were uncomfortable with the black man.
If Mr. Obama can have it so rough when he was obviously so above average, what chance does the average black person, or even the less than average black person, have? It really is a hopeless situation to see black people having to struggle so hard just to be recognized.
Too many black people respond to this hopelessness by becoming as inert as the second dog. And unlike the dog used in the experiment, there was nothing done to deprogram black people from the helplessness that was inflicted on the black community for generations. Essentially, the dominant community thinks that all it has to do to make black people whole again is stop hanging black people from trees and pass a few civil rights laws that are easily subverted by claims of reverse discrimination. Black people suffer the crappy end of every social measure. But that’s just coincidental because no one is oppressing black people now, at least not as blatantly as the racially generic dominant community predominantly controlled by white people did in the past.
Just like many black people have learned the futility of doing anything to try and seize control of their own destiny, too many non blacks have learned the effectiveness of keeping black people from competing fairly in issues of economics and education. The scientist who might experiment on a few dogs is not interested in a way of life to get ahead. That’s probably why the scientist would take the time to make the dog whole again. The dominant community, stuck on keeping the advantage of non black privilege, would never think to do anything to correct its infliction on the black community.