Sunday, December 19, 2004

On Racism in American Culture

As parents are won't to do, mine would occasionally tell people embarrassing anecdotes about me. One of the more humiliating stories pertains to an event that happened when I was three years old (and yes, I know that I shouldn't be embarrassed by something that happened then; never the less, I am). Apparently, they invited a friend of theirs over to our house. When I saw this man, I started screaming my little head off. When asked why I was so upset, I pointed at him and said, "He's a monster!"

The man was black.

Putting aside my own residual (and irrational) shame, there's a few things about this incident that strike me as curious. The first and foremost is that my father was clearly humiliated by my reaction. To understand why this is a curiosity, you need to understand that this is the same person who told me that he would disown me if I "ever brought a black girl home" and who dozens of racist jokes that he'd tell at the drop of a hat (his favorite being about a black astronaut with the punch line being "too late, the jig is up"). Just to add another twist to the story, my mother is Spanish (from a colony of Spaniards who've been living in the Southwestern United States since the 1500's, but that's another story). My own complexion is best described as a kind of light olive tone and not really white – and I'm lily white compared to some of my nieces and nephews. I should hardly be the child of a racist and, yet, quite a few of my father's attitudes (the same father, I remind you, who was mortified by my juvenile reaction to his black friend) were patently racist.

You may well ask why I'm brining up these tangled family memories. In my own convoluted way, I am trying to demonstrate that the subject of racism is complex. This should be an obvious statement but it is clear that many people do have a simplistic view of the subject. The simplifications break down into two mutually incompatible perceptions of race relations in America.

  • Racism is endemic and ubiquitous.
  • Racism is negligible and isolated.
I believe that neither view genuinely approaches the reality of the situation but that both views are the result of self-perception.

The view that racism is negligible is driven by the perception that the majority of Americans do understand that racism is a bad thing. In this view, racism only persists in isolated pockets (the stereotype is of rednecks in the Deep South going to Klan meetings) and in the presence of a few isolated individuals who tarnish those around them by association. In this view, accusations of racism are typically the result of oversensitivity and that much of what is called racism is actually an overreaction. Let us call this a Type 1 stance.

The converse view, that racism is prevalent, is driven by the perception that the majority of Americans (in particular, the white majority) secretly harbor racist sentiments and that this persistent (albeit submerged) racism exposes itself in terms of hiring practices, housing opportunities, police harassment, and so on. It is believed that many comments and statements that are passed off as being innocent are, in fact, laden with racist implications which further expose the bigotry of those who say them. Even many of those who try to go out of their way to deny being racists are, in fact, only overcompensating for their core racist views. Let us call this a Type 2 stance.

The sharp disjunction between these stances can best be illustrated by the issue of affirmative action legislation. The policy of affirmative action grew out of the civil rights movements of the 1960's as a direct reaction to manifestly unfair hiring and enrollment practices. At the time, it was considered to be a necessary antidote to a pervasive social poison. Almost immediately, it became the subject of controversy as charges of reverse discrimination were levied at the policy.

Things came very much to a head with the advent of California's Proposition 209 which effectively ended the state's participation in affirmative action programs. Those who opposed the measure considered it to be anti-progressive while those who supported it argued that it was egalitarian since the text of the proposition specifically stated that "[t]he state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."

The real root of the controversy was an issue of perception. Those who believed that racial bias had become a rare anomaly felt that affirmative action was an unnecessary and harmful legacy meant to address a problem that, essentially, no longer existed while those who believed that racism continued to be a prevalent and persistent factor in American life felt that affirmative action remained a necessary counterweight to a culture that was still rife with bigotry and discrimination.

There is no question that America has been a racist culture and that fact of racism did not end with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (a document, it must be noted, that was largely motivated by political considerations and not humanitarian ones). So-called "separate but equal" apartheidistic policies were living institutions a mere four decades ago. I would contend that the fear of racism in American culture is neither unreasonable nor irrational. What, however, is the reality? That is a much more difficult question to answer.

Last year the University of California and MIT conducted a joint study where nearly identical resumes were sent to prospective employers in the Boston and Chicago areas. The one variation between the resumes was in the names put on them. The researchers culled black and white birth records to find names that were more statistically "white" and "black" sounding. What they found was that resumes with white sounding names got call-backs at an average rate of 1 in 10 times while those with black sounding names got call backs at a rate of 1 in 15 times.

I think that this and similar studies suffice to demonstrate that there is a bias in racial perceptions in America and that it's not limited to in-bred yahoos who dress up in bed sheets to burn crosses. At the same time, however, I do not believe that these studies support the contention that the typical American is either overtly or even intentionally racist. One may well wonder why the researches focused on resumes as opposed to the results of face to face interviews. I suspect that the answer is that face to face interviews would not have yielded the same dramatic levels of racial disparity in hiring practices. The study is well designed to ferret out subconscious racial biases. The very fact that the researches felt the need to go after subconscious motivations may well indicate an ironic sort of progress against the days when deliberate racism was the norm. Certainly it is a fact that one of the most harmful accusations that can be leveled against a person in our culture is a charge of racism. If racism were, in fact, embraced by our culture, such accusations would not be harmful, they would be laudatory.

I think that one of the major problems in discussing race in our culture is that we tend to engage in a false dichotomy: either one is a racist or one is not. The implication is that someone who occasionally tells an mildly offensive joke that employs stereotyping (bearing in mind that even blond jokes utilize stereotypes) is in the same epistemological category as someone who advocates racial genocide. I would contend that racism is not a binary state but rather that it is something that exists on a graduated scale. I would further argue that many political and socially active groups have systematically ignored that very gradation in an attempt to advance progressive policies – a methodology that I believe is now backfiring and likely to cause more harm than good.

I would like to propose the existence of at least three different types of racial bias. In order of increasing severity, I would like them as biases of racial stereotype, racial hierarchy and, finally, racial antipathy. I would describe a racial stereotype bias as one where a person subscribes to any number of generalizations regarding the characteristics of a given race. It is important to note that racial stereotype biases come in both negative and positive flavors. Believing that all members of race X are thieves may be more hurtful than believing that all members of race X are law abiding but both cases remain examples of racial bias. A bias of racial hierarchy, by contrast, is a view where one believes that different races exist in a hierarchy of relative virtue. A racial hierarchy bias will almost certainly include a set of racial stereotype biases but not necessarily vice versa. It should also be emphasized that racial hierarchies don't necessarily preclude limited egalitarianisms – one may admit that certain races are equal while, never the less, believing that races, in general, exist on an ordered scale. Finally, we have the bias of racial antipathy where the holders of the bias actively hate members of certain races (with the most extreme form being the hatred of all other racial categories). Again, one may have a hierarchical bias without having a antipathetic bias but it would be rare to have an antipathetic bias without having a converse belief in racial hierarchies and, in turn, holding to a set of racial stereotypes. A such, I would suggest that racial bias has a pyramidal structure with the more extreme forms of racism being supported on a foundation of less virulent forms of racial bias. In addition to distinctions of kind there are also distinctions of degree within a type. A person who dislikes Asians would qualify as having an antipathetic bias as well someone who advocated the internment and extermination of Asians. Never the less, the first person, while agreeing that Asians are undesirable may, never the less, be appalled at suggestions of genocide.

At this point, we may well ask why this should matter. Isn't any sort of racial bias a bad thing? Yes. Indeed, the interlocking nature of the pyramid gives us cause to be concerned that any type of bias can enable worse types. The more stereotypes one has regarding other racial groups, the easier it becomes to categorize races on a hierarchical scale. Once one starts employing a stratified racial perspective, it becomes easier to believe that some races deserve contempt. As with any sort of slipper slope argument, we must caution ourselves not to presume that path down the slope is inevitable, however, I think that it is clear that such a path does exist, at least, in potential which ought to be worrying enough. So why ought we not consider these divisions to be nothing more than an academic distinction without any practical value when it comes to addressing the realities of racism? I think that these divisions are important precisely because ignoring them not only gives a distorted view of the degree of the problem but that it gives us a distorted perspective on how to solve the problem.

One common tactic that has been employed by minority advocacy groups has been to diligently and publicly ferret out anything that hints of racism and to expose the perpetrators of racists sentiments in a very public manner. For a long time this has been an effective policy precisely because all forms of racism have been treated as though they were biases of antipathy. Given that antipathetic racism is strongly associated with such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi genocides, people have had a natural aversion to being associated with anything that smacks of them. In modern American culture, there is an immense stigma to being branded a racist. In recent years, however, the effectiveness of this tactic has shown signs of weakening. Indeed, there has been a quite (but growing) backlash against those groups that have employed this technique. The reason for this is that people who may hold biases of stereotype justifiably don't see themselves as being like people who have biases of antipathy. Since the common implication is that anyone who holds racist views must, in fact, hate members of other races, it is reasonable for someone who does not, in fact, actually hate other races to conclude that they aren't, in fact, racist and to, in turn, come to resent charges of racism and to, furthermore, conclude that any charge of racism that don't involve overt statements or acts of racial hostility are, in fact, suspect. In short, by lumping all racially biased conduct and belief under one banner, advocacy groups eventually end up looking like the boy who cried wolf even though their general position that any sort of racism is a bad thing is, in fact, defensible!

I will return to my father as an example. It is my belief that he was subject to a bias of hierarchy. He did, in fact, believe that some races were objectively better than other races. This is why he didn't want me to "bring home" a black mate. In his worldview, this would have represented an inappropriate mixing of racial categories. This view of the world was, in turn, built upon an elaborate foundation of racial stereotypes that he wholeheartedly embraced. He did not, however, actually hate the members of other races. He was genuinely mortified by my "monster" comment and was not being at all disingenuous when he said that he had friends in other racial groups. Most people would properly consider his hierarchical perspective to be racist but he, himself, rejected the claims of racism precisely on the grounds that he did not harbor any racial antipathies. I won't deny that there was more than a little cognitive dissonance in his stance but I think that it is, never the less, a fact that we lump all racist perspectives under a single umbrella of equivalency made it much easier for him to deny that he, himself, belonged under that umbrella.

How much easier is it for someone who does not, in truth, feel that any race is superior to any other to excuse themselves for, never the less, believing that there are differences between the races? So long as we insist that any racism is an act of hatred, such a person will be able to excuse themselves from thinking of their views as racist because we have foisted a definition of racism that does, in fact, exclude them. Given that there is a path up the pyramid, this implied exclusion is not one that I believe that we can afford to make as a culture.

Because there are different types of racism, I believe that there must be different approaches to the issues of racial bias. Insisting that every racist statement is an act of hatred may be morally satisfying but the ultimate result is that we end up diluting the effectiveness of the charge while leaving the basic problem unresolved. I would suggest that biases of stereotype are the most common sort of racial prejudice in modern American culture and that the bulk of our efforts should be directed as resolving it. I think that such efforts should eschew implications of hatred and, instead, resort to implications of ignorance and naïveté. I would also suggest that while some of shaming could still be utilized (no one wants to be ignorant), it may be better to positively emphasize the aspects of education and self-improvement. By appealing to a higher standard, I think that people can be motivated to voluntarily purge themselves of the urge to stereotype.

Biases of hierarchy will be more difficult to deal with, however, the problem is also less severe. I suspect that the best way to contradict a perception of hierarchical differences between the races is by example. As more and more members of minorities obtain the status of cultural icons, the view that the races are naturally distributed along a hierarchy will be harder to support. I do, also, believe that there may be some worth in indicating that hierarchical biases are closer to antipathetic bigotry, but I think that such efforts should be employed selectively and not as a cudgel lest they suffer from the eventual effects of backlash.

I would contend that biases of antipathy are, in fact, in the extreme minority and that efforts directed against them should be narrow albeit intensely focused. Once a person has crossed into the realm of actual racial hatred, I suspect that there's very little than can be done to convince them that they are in the wrong. Calling them racists won't do any good for the simple reason that they would tend to wear the appellation as a badge of honor. The best that can be done, I fear, is to use the force of public shame and the rule of law to minimize the actual amount of harm that they can do with their prejudices. Grass roots efforts can keep them from public office and the weight of state and federal law can be used to circumvent the material harm that they can do to others.

These are merely my suggestions, of course. Whether or not you think that my proposed approach has merit, though, I think that it is undeniable that any approach based on an oversimplification of the problem is doomed to failure. I believe that it is beyond doubt that the issue has been oversimplified and that our methods of trying to combat the problem, while yielding initial successes, are reaching a point of diminishing return that is only going to continue to diminish. I think that we must admit that the problem has dimensions that go well beyond the simple binary dichotomies that have traditionally framed the issue. Even if you don't agree with my particular distinctions of bias, I think that the contention that all racial prejudices are alike in simple untenable. Even if you aren't convinced that my framework is accurate, I think that we can agree that a better framework is needed all the same.

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