You Guys Wanted an Honest Conversation About Racism? Here You Go!
We keep hearing that it is high time for this nation to have an open and honest conversation about race and racism. Usually, what those who ask for such a conversation really mean is an entirely unilateral “dialogue” where one side does all the talking and the other side shuts up and listens as it gets demonized and browbeaten for real, perceived and wholly imagined misdeeds stretching back to the dawn of time. The organs of the mainstream media and the infotainment industrial complex never seem to tire of drumming up such intellectually vacuous j’accuses and free-form fantasias on the theme of “White supremacy as America’s original sin.” But, increasingly, there are many of us getting fed up with these farcical distortions of both history and of our modern-day psychology. On the subject of history others have spoken at length, and suffice it for me to say here that ours is not a Manichean tale of Black heroes and White villains, but rather, a nuanced, multivalent tapestry in many shades of gray. What I want to address here is the second issue, the issue of psychology. I want to ask a simple and basic question, perhaps the simplest and most basic question in this whole discussion, and yet one that the voices of the orthodoxy seem uninterested in asking, much less answering: if many White people and other people are indeed racist against Black people in the America of 2018, why are we all so racist against Black people?
That the rest of us are racist against Blacks is something that is just widely assumed as having been established beyond any reasonable doubt. If we dare to subject this creed to questioning, we get vague statements about “implicit” or “unconscious” bias. Many people who bandy about such terms do not appear to realize that the “implicit bias” tests widely circulated online and constituting the principal count in the indictment of universal White racism have been utterly discredited as yielding results that are both not reproducible and not predictive of actual behavior. Nor do virtually any of these same gullible race hustlers appear to have any inkling of the fact that the rest of the foundation on which the sandcastle of contemporary White supremacy is believed to stand is equally rotten to the core. We hear about “institutional” and “systemic” racism, unarmed-Black-killing cops, mass incarceration and rest, but to take just the two most prominent examples, the empirical evidence shows unequivocally that cops are actually slightly more likely to kill White people than Black people when we actually care enough to compare apples to apples, and in lieu of the fiction that we have Blacks rotting away in our prisons on low-level drug possession charges, the vast majority — 87% — of our nation’s prisoners are in state (not federal) prisons, and in such prisons, nearly all prisoners are there for non-drug-possession crimes (viz., violent crimes, property crimes, drug trafficking, etc.), with a mere 3.6% imprisoned for drug possession. In federal prison, that number is 1%. See here for a discussion of the actual data.
But let us suppose that there are other indications of extant racism against Blacks. Many of us may have heard, for instance, about that 2003 study in which job applicants with résumés containing White-sounding names got more callbacks for interviews than those with Black-sounding names. And if we introspect, we might realize that we, in fact, do hold negative stereotypes about Black people. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we might imagine them as more likely to be poor, uneducated, loud-mouthed, uncouth, thuggish, boorish, law-breaking, lazy, unemployed and living on welfare or other public assistance (more on these later). So, with that in mind, let us table the discussion of whether or not racism against Blacks still exists and just assume it does, even if the main forms of legal and overt racism in 2018 largely operate in Blacks’ favor.
Now we can move on to my principal question: if such racism against Blacks is still around, why is it still around? Let’s start with some obvious considerations that actually don’t explain anti-Black racism. Take skin color. The hypothesis here would be simply that Whites are racist against Blacks because Blacks have dark skin, and, as that famous Jane Elliott brown eyes/blue eyes experiment intro-to-psych students learn about shows, we’re just good at keying in to obvious differences and making judgments of superiority and inferiority in our own favor based on such distinctions. The problem with this explanation is that other groups — take Indians and other South Asians — have skin as dark as or darker than that of Blacks. While mild racism against South Asians may exist to some extent in some quarters, such racism has clearly not stood in the way of their economic advancement in America: Indians as a group have the single highest average income of any ethnic or racial grouping on these shores. Similarly, if we’re talking about overt physical features, East Asians have readily recognizable physiognomies that could make them ready targets for racism if superficial distinctions of this sort were the true drivers of racist thinking. But, like Indians, East Asians are among the most economically successful groups in America. With the notable exception of very explicit racism deployed against them in the form of affirmative action at elite universities, no one can credibly speak of “systemic” or “institutional” racism keeping them down.
Here is another possibility: racism against Blacks is a product of cognitive dissonance. It is an obvious fact of life that Black Americans comprise a persistent underclass in this country, and it is likewise hard to dispute the reality that slavery, the failure of Reconstruction, the era of Jim Crow and other such infractions by White America were responsible for giving Black Americans a leaping head-start into poverty. Thus, to evade their responsibility for and complicity in the plight of Black Americans, White Americans deploy racism as a ready tool to shift the blame to Blacks and away from themselves. If Blacks are simply inferior or inherently dysfunctional, the fault for their condition is entirely their own. In fact, we can draw back the curtain even further: if it was okay for Whites to have brought Blacks to this country as slaves, there must have been a reason it was okay. The reason, to borrow a concept from Aristotle, must have been that Blacks are “natural slaves,” that they are an inferior form of humanity. Erected on this original foundation of cognitive dissonance, racist tropes and stereotypes justifying an unjust social order proliferated and infiltrated our mass culture and society at every level (this is what the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci would refer to as “hegemony”), passed on by parents to children, by the media, by government, by organizations and institutions.
At first blush, the idea is compelling enough, far more compelling, surely, than the notion that racism is a purely irrational reaction to a different skin color. But, on more careful consideration, this house of cards also topples. However accurate this picture once might have been, the reality is that for many decades now, the overwhelming force of mainstream institutional power embodied in systems of media, education, culture, and government have been going at such relics of White racism with all guns blazing. Outright White supremacists have been relegated to the extreme fringes of society, and for every one Charles Murray making a quasi-“respectable” academic argument suggesting Black inferiority, there are a hundred anti-racists ready to pounce and denounce. School curricula teach the evils of slavery and discrimination and celebrate the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Workplaces root out and purge every shred of overt racism, if for no other reason then because racism is bad for business. The institutional and political interests of the Democratic Party, influencing and marshaling all its allied forces in media, culture, and academia, require the aggressive courting of Black voters, and this, in turn, requires convincing displays of anti-racism, both in word and deed. And, as I alluded to in my brief mention of #BlackLivesMatter and “mass incarceration” above, Hollywood and the mainstream media have been all too eager to bend the truth in order to fight the specter of racism. If anything, therefore, the weight of “hegemony” is now and has for decades been deployed against racism rather than in its favor.
The media’s latest overreach may yet generate blowback, but polling shows that aspects of the general campaign of anti-racism have worked. Even between 1990 and 2015, for instance, the percentage of Whites who think they are more intelligent than Blacks declined from 57% to around 25%. The percentage of Whites who believe they are more hardworking than Blacks declined from about 67% to 34%. See Trends in Racial Attitudes (Figure 9 and ensuing discussion). Between 1955 and 2015, opposition to interracial marriage among Whites declined from being nearly universal to hovering around 15%, see id. at Figure 10, with other polls showing an even steeper decline. Nor is such openness to intermarriage mere idle talk generated by political pressure to give pollsters socially acceptable responses. Since 1980 alone, the largest increase in intermarriage rates of any racial group was experienced by African-Americans, whose rate went up from 5% to 18%. About 11% of newlyweds now represent a Black-White pairing. See id. I am focusing on intermarriage here because it is, I would argue, an excellent general proxy for others’ perceptions of Black inferiority: it is a reasonable supposition that most people would not consent to marry — or approve of their kids marrying — someone whom they deem inherently inferior.
Let me say this another way: there is a reason much of the current sociological and political chatter is about “unconscious,” “implicit,” “systemic” and “institutional” racism; express, conscious racism of the Blacks-are-inferior variety is our past, not our present. And in lieu of cognitive dissonance undergirding racist beliefs, what we have is cognitive dissonance impelling Whites to rush to dissociate themselves from “Whiteness,” “White supremacy” and the real and perceived sins of American history by virtue-signaling through checking all their alleged privilege, dramatic displays of anti-racist passion and sweeping denunciations of America itself.
The question we have to ask, then, is how it could be the case that such Whites, committed to anti-racism, and the much larger proportion of Whites like myself who simply eschew racist beliefs, could still harbor biases against Blacks. To answer this question, it would help to list out some of the most prevalent stereotypes Whites and others may have about Blacks. Going through a list like this might be unpleasant for some of us, but if we’re going to have an honest conversation about racism, it’s a necessary exercise. So, here we go. Many of us believe that Blacks often tend to:
- be poor
- live in dangerous, impoverished ghettoes
- be unemployed or hold low-skill, low-wage jobs
- be uneducated
- have broken and/or fatherless families
- have “strong,” authoritative, overburdened mothers
- be oversexed
- be materialistic and eager to show off name brands, flashy clothes, and jewelry
- dress and behave in a vulgar fashion
- wear their pants down below their underwear
- lurch and/or drag one foot behind them while walking
- act and present themselves thuggishly
- speak in a fashion we think of as ungrammatical
- include lots of profanity in their speech
- be warm and extroverted
- be rule-breakers and norm-defyers
- have a generally angry, defiant attitude
- be bumptious and confrontational
- be rude to and inconsiderate of others
- disturb the peace
- be obsessed with their Blackness and with race issues
- be blaming everything on Whites and racism
- eat large quantities of greasy fast food
- take up a lot of space, both with their big bodies and with their loud voices
- be either freakishly muscular or grotesquely obese
- be good at sports and overrepresented in professional athletics
- have a culture described as “vibrant”
- be into hip-hop and to be going around spitting out hip-hop lyrics
- be blasting their music in public spaces for all to hear
- have rhythm
- dance in a fashion that is rhythmic, adept and dexterous but crass and vulgar
- be drug abusers, especially marijuana abusers
- be criminals
If these are some of the stereotypes about Blacks that we hold, most of them negative, the next question is why we hold them. And here, I’m afraid, is where we arrive at our you-can’t-handle-the-truth! moment. Examine the list again and find the items on it that you think aren’t accurate, at least as far as being categories in which Black people are overrepresented. You may find some … but, if you are being honest with yourself, most likely, you will not find many. Some entries on the list, such as the notion that Blacks are more likely to be criminals, are amenable to — and, of course, supported by — empirical evidence, while others, such as the notion that Black people are more likely to dress and behave in a vulgar fashion, are obviously value judgments, and yet they are ones that will ring true to most of us. Nor is the notion that most such stereotypes are accurate just my educated guess. It is also solidly supported by research, with the work of Lee Jussim of Rutgers University on the subject of stereotype accuracy, some of which he discusses here, being a good place to start.
Let me put a finer point on this: leaving unapologetic, virulent racists and White identity extremists aside, the reason the vast majority of perfectly well-meaning people harbor race-based biases against Blacks, our best intentions notwithstanding, is that we live in the real world and experience Blacks in our midst and in the media in this fashion. As humans — creatures who tend to be bad at making subtle distinctions but who are very sensitive to large, overt patterns that seem to characterize our various sub-groups — we cannot avoid noticing what we notice.
Now, as humans, we are also capable of reasoning. And I certainly do reason with myself about such issues all the time. I tell myself, first, that the patterns I see are true of some Black individuals but not others, and many of these observations likely reflect just a small minority of Blacks. I tell myself, moreover, that the patterns are not generalizable to all people who would be described as “Black.” Rather, they are true only of African-American Blacks, not of Blacks from Africa, the Caribbean or elsewhere. This, in turn, tells me that nearly all the characteristics and behaviors at issue (perhaps some such as athletic ability and body type are exceptions?) are cultural, not inborn. This leads me to further thoughts along these lines: many of the behaviors — lack of education, criminality, thuggishness, vulgarity, bumptiousness, eating fast food, being inordinately eager to display name brands and other material possessions, etc. — are really little more than direct outgrowths of poverty. It is because Blacks are disproportionately numbered among the poor that much of everything else on the list follows. If I am being thoroughly truthful with myself, however, I cannot stop there. I recognize that there are other cultural patterns at work. I have written extensively in this magazine about the self-destructive complex of tendencies sociologists have termed African-American (primarily, African-American male) “cool-pose culture,” which exerts pressure on Blacks to embrace the role of ghetto-brad street thugs, stands in the way of economic advancement and closes off avenues of escape from bad circumstances, even dragging Black males born into more prosperous families back towards the bottom. And I cannot ignore the empirical evidence showing the devastating toll exacted by the lack of fathers in African-American communities.
The causes of the negative behaviors and characteristics we associate with American Blacks are, in other words, complex and manifold, and some may be rooted in historical America’s failings with respect to this population, while others may be attributed to failings internal to Black American culture and lifestyle choices. But the attribution of blame is beside the point. The salient fact here is that many of the specific beliefs constituting the substance of anti-Black racism in 2018 are rooted not in irrational hatred, but rather, in our wholly rational reactions to deplorable realities. It is hard to argue, after all, that criminality, fatherlessness, lack of education and boorish behavior are good things, such that we ought to revise our subjective evaluations of such tendencies. From this follows one more conclusion: however much we may try to shame and browbeat “racists,” we will not succeed in altering their views — and will, most likely, ultimately just antagonize them further — unless and until we succeed in altering the realities to which their “racism” corresponds. And the first critical move in that process is being frank about those realities.
I recently read an article in NPR’s Code Switch series that spoke of our concept of “White trash” and suggested that the term is, among other things, “a backhanded way of demeaning people of color” insofar as “‘White’ is the only racial group that needs a modifier for it to become a slur,” whereas Black people (and others) are simply assumed to be “trash.” Leave it to our crazed contemporary identity politickers to find a way to twist a clear slur against poor White people into a slur against all non-White people. But instead of fulminating against the nonsense, why don’t we take this writer up on her implicit suggestion? The more we start thinking and speaking openly and honestly of “Black trash,” to be distinguished from ordinary Black people, and attributing our negative racial stereotypes about Blacks to this debased sub-group of Blacks, the more we will free ourselves and Black people as a whole from pernicious negative attributions. Instead of tarring and demonizing Blacks as a whole, while engaging in overbroad race-based stereotyping, we will be voicing a critique of specific behaviors, aimed at the specific people who deserve it. Coining another racial slur will certainly not solve the problems of Black poverty, Black fatherlessness or dysfunctional Black culture, but those problems — and, therefore, the problem of anti-Black racism — will never get solved unless we are able to recognize the roles these pathologies play in the lives of too many Black Americans.