The Psychology of Unfairness
Anger has been studied extensively in the psychological community and there have been various proposals regarding its origin. Some have proposed anger results from blocked goals. You experience this when you are trying to get somewhere and hit traffic. Or when you are working on a project and your computer crashes. Some have proposed it is a secondary emotion, a reaction to a deeper, more primal emotion such as disappointment, shame or fear. Others have proposed that it is a result of unfairness.
Interestingly, it is not always the circumstance that elicits anger but the context relative to others. Trevor Noah once talked about growing up in South Africa, but states he didn’t realize he was poor. He and his friends would play with bricks as toys and no one was the wiser. But when there is disparity, there is opportunity for anger. I was recently talking to a friend who has 3 kids. During Easter, she laid out 3 baskets and in the morning she noticed they were counting the number of eggs each had. If the numbers were off, there was a tantrum. If there was an unequal number of candies inside the eggs, there was a meltdown. “Why did he get 6 jellybeans and I only got 3?”. The observation of justice and fairness is ingrained in us from an early age.
It is through the unfairness that anger emerges. Since we know we often learn best through stories, let me provide an example: Let’s take the previous example and make it a little more obvious. Let’s say 2 kids get their Easter baskets filled to the brim and one child gets a single egg with a few small jellybeans. When the child asks why they got only one egg, they are met with “Look how ungrateful you are. We gave you candy and you don’t even thank us.” As the child looks at his siblings’ baskets overflowing with chocolates and candy, his parents insist “Of course we love you equally”. Now its time for the Easter egg hunt. Each parent walks alongside each of the other children and helps point out where the best eggs may be hidden. They teach, guide and give attention. The child with one egg is confused and less motivated to search. At the end of the day, he has less eggs and his parents insist he was allowed to search for Easter eggs just like everyone else. He is mad and he is now on "time out" for his attitude. But, of course, they insist they love him equally.
You probably feel badly for this child and the metaphor is clear. But if we have empathy for a hypothetical child in a hypothetical situation over candy and Easter eggs, then we should surely be nothing short of outraged at the history of Black Americans. Stolen, trafficked, and enslaved for centuries. An entire country’s economy built on their backs. The breaking of families and the selling of children. This was followed by decades of Jim Crow, separate by not equal, lynching and terror, inadequate military recognition, inadequate medical care, COINTELPRO, segregation, unequal lending practices, redlining, unequal voting rights, discriminatory hiring practices, unequal access to education, unequal opportunities to build wealth and leave an inheritance to their own families, unequal portrayal in the media, unequal police treatment, unequal prosecution, unequal sentencing at trial. The list goes on and on. The system is so overwhelmed with the injustice, it is almost insulting to compare it to an Easter egg hunt. And yet, when the concerns were raised, America smiled back in a patronizing, paternalistic grin and said “Why are you upset? Of course, we love all our children equally”.