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Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist?

July 8th, 2008 · 16 Comments

Update: Skip to the bottom for the Cliffs Notes version.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a post about the intersection of race and crime that dovetails with a conversation I had shortly after learning my friend Brian had been shot last week. I got to thinking about how the economic effects of past racism create breeding grounds for new racism—at once more subtle and more difficult to extirpate. And I even found myself wondering whether, paradoxically, the healthy social consensus about the unacceptability of racism doesn’t make it more difficult to root out in its less obvious but arguably most pernicious forms.

There are parts of America—DC is one of them—where, for basically economic reasons, most violent street crime is committed by (and, indeed, against) African Americans and Hispanics.  This should not be terribly surprising if you think about it for a moment. DC is full of relatively affluent, educated white people and a mix of middle-class and crushingly poor black people. The historical reasons for this scarcely need rehearsing. And as a rule, affluent educated people do not go around robbing poor people with guns.  That’s what lobbyists are for.

The effect of this over time, as Coates suggests, is not terribly hard to predict. People gradually begin to be a little more alert and guarded if the only other person walking by them on the street late at night is young and black and male. This can be overridden by class signals, of course: Nobody gets nervous walking past the guy in the Armani suit, of whatever race. But hold those markers constant—make it T-shirt and jeans—and race will play into a lot of people’s reactions, maybe most people’s.

The disturbing thing here is that while these reactions are at least arguably racist in some sense, they’re not obviously irrational as a kind of statistical heuristic. In light of the facts on the ground—facts that are themselves substantially the product of past racism—they eventually become instinctive.

If it were limited in context, if it were only a matter of how conscious you are of the guy on the street at night, it might not be a serious problem. But that’s not how reflexive reactions like this work. They tend to bleed over into contexts—the temp agency, the corner store—where they are both inappropriate and destructive. And the contexts aren’t even all that separable: The skittish convenience store owner may have a statistical reason for being more nervous when a group of black or Latino male teenagers walk in, but the atmosphere of suspicion that creates for the vast majority who have no designs on the till is so toxic it’s become a trope. Thinking in stereotypes comes easily to us, and it takes conscious effort to at least keep them cabined away where they will do least harm. And that requires entertaining that uncomfortable thought: I might, in some sense, be a racist.

Which leads me to wonder: Is it possible to be so opposed to racism that it becomes more difficult to root out racism?

Just follow me for  a second here: What image springs to mind when you think of “racism”? A Klansman burning a cross? Adolf Hitler? George Wallace barring the schoolhouse door? Images like these are iconic, easy to invoke, and extreme. They remain current because they are potent illustrations of where racism leads; their ugliness, their repugnance, is manifest.

There are still, of course, sectors of American society where the crude racism of the epithet and the noose is casually accepted. But, happily, this sort of thing is largely beyond the pale in polite company now. And this makes it beguilingly easy to conclude: “Well, I don’t go around slinging racial epithets or fuming with hatred at this or that group. Therefore I can’t be one of those awful people. Why, some of my best friends…”

But the variety of racism more common today is more subtle than that, and in a way more pernicious for it, since the overt bigot is unlikely to wield much social power. It’s the subliminal reaction of the manager looking for a new cashier who, for some reason he can’t articulate, just doesn’t think the minority candidate seems quite trustworthy enough. It’s this person who we most want examining his own attitudes. But to do that means being prepared to start from the difficult premise that even he—educated, urbane, kind, and so on—may indeed harbor racial biases. Like Hitler! Like a Klansman!

Now, there’s an obvious way around this, though it should make us uncomfortable for different reasons. We could make a point of talking about race bias and stereotyping in a more gradated way. At one pole is the Klansman. At another, there’s that “typical white person” who is more guarded and alert walking past a black guy at 1am on 7th and V than he would be walking past a similarly-dressed white person.

The discomfort here comes from the thought that allowing these gradations entails licensing some forms of racism—regarding them as understandable, even acceptable. And for very good reasons, this is not the kind of conversation we want to have: “So, is this particular instance bad racism or sorta-understandable racism?” There are whole modes of thought we just want to be entirely beyond the pale.

But think about the defensiveness, even outrage, we saw in response to Obama’s “typical white person” comment:

The point I was making was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity, but that she is a typical white person. If she sees somebody on the street that she doesn’t know (pause) there’s a reaction in her that doesn’t go away and it comes out in the wrong way.

Is this really controversial? As a descriptive matter, if we’re all honest with ourselves, I suspect it shouldn’t be. But it is, in part because we resist these finer distinctions. What at least some whites apparently hear is: “All white people are racist! Like the Klan!”  The charge of racial bias, it sometimes seems, only comes in Howitzer gauge. So we end up unable to event talk calmly and seriously about a patently real phenomenon without touching off this sort of defensiveness from people who don’t want to be—and shouldn’t be—lumped in with full-blown bigots.

So reservations notwithstanding, maybe there’s something to be said for acknowledging that, as the Avenue Q song has it, “everyone’s a little bit racist.” I’ll accuse myself here: At 2am on 7th and V,  I am not color blind.  Maybe that bias is defensible at that time and place. That doesn’t mean it’s not a bias, or that it’s not potentially dangerous.

But once I recognize that this kind of bias, unchecked, could poison my reactions in other contexts, I can at least be conscious of it—can acknowledge that I need to be conscious of it—and try to keep it from metastasizing. I like to think I do. It’s hardly ideal—bias domesticated rather than eradicated—but it might be better than letting it fester under cover of denial, or trying to muster some kind of egalitarian concern that the pale dude walking home from the Black Cat might pull a .45 on me. And while I’ve largely left this in the background, most of the above, mutatis mutandis, probably goes for reaction to class signifiers as well.

The tricky part here is threading our way between, on the one hand, a sort of blunderbuss condemnation that creates a counterproductive incentive for people to conceal their biases even from themselves, and on the other, a lazy complacency about those biases. I don’t know exactly how we do that. It seems beyond grotesque to ask the law-abiding black guy on the wrong end of a thousand suspicious glances to indulge the skittish whites. It seems unrealistic to expect the skittish whites to just knock it off.

So consider all this a fumbling gesture in the direction of… some sort of conversation. For the moment, and against my better judgement, I’ll leave the comments open for thoughts.

Update: Since it seems to be impossible to write anything on this topic without being misunderstood by someone (not commenters here, so much, but around the Interets), let me try a quick summary that I hope will be a little clearer.

I’m emphatically not saying that racism is unproblematic because “subtle”; just the opposite. Something can be extraordinarily harmful without being overt.

I’m also not saying that the kind of wariness-on-the-street I’m talking about, when it reflects empirical realities about crime in a particular area, makes you a bad person, or even that people shouldn’t think this way in certain narrow contexts. I’m pointing out that there’s a real and difficult problem here insofar as a set of attitudes and reactions that are rationally defensible in a particular set of circumstances can still, given the facts of human psychology, have consequences that are destructive and unfair. And the way we talk about race and race bias makes it difficult to address this in any sane way. So with that in mind, feel free to detail the ways in which I am, as you prefer, either a crypto-racist or slavishly PC.

Tags: Sociology · Washington, DC



16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Ray // Jul 9, 2008 at 7:39 am

    A fearful silence reigns!

  • 2 John Bragg // Jul 9, 2008 at 7:54 am

    I, for one, would be stone don’t-forget-to-breathe terrified of a white guy hanging around 7th and V.

    Why is he there, why is he safe there (and why am I seeing him there, actually.)

    That guy isn’t just going to take my wallet. He’s going to have me killed for seeing him and my body will never be found.

    cf. Men in Black, 10-year old white girl with Calculus books in the ghetto. She’s about to start something.

  • 3 x // Jul 9, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Umm, my black friends are as wary as I am under the circumstances. They don’t want to get mugged/shot either. They definitely aren’t concerned about whether that makes them racist or not.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Jul 9, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Maybe they should be.

  • 5 John Markley // Jul 9, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    I hadn’t thought about it before, but it’s interesting that racism is, as you point out, usually treated as something that has only two degrees (racist/not racist), because so few moral failings are treated that way. Taunting someone and breaking him on the wheel are both cruel, for instance, but people have no problem recognizing one as more cruel than the other.

  • 6 Micha Ghertner // Jul 9, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    To quote myself:

    Phoebe Maltz has an article in a recent issue of the fusionist magazine Doublethink (unfortunately the article is not available online) titled “The End of Anti-Semitism.” Maltz argues that because of the Holocaust, it is now next to impossible to accuse someone or something of being anti-Semitic, because unless the offense rises to the level of the Holocaust itself, the accuser is brushed off as engaging in hyperbole. There seems to be no middle ground anymore: either someone is Judeophile or the second coming of Adolf.

  • 7 Jeffrey Harris // Jul 9, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Interesting topic. I popped over from Andrew Sullivan’s website. I think that this is one of the better explanations I’ve seen written about this subject. In many ways, I agree that everyone harbors racial biases. But it is the devil to get folks to acknowledge them. I live in DC, I am black, and I am just as likely to be mindful of the brotha I don’t know. Yet, I can still have some difficulties catching a cab, or I’ll be asked where I am going before I go in. Luckily Logan Circle passes muster. I hope this discussion continues, because most of us get where you are coming from. It’s the containment of those biased feelings that indeed is the issue.

  • 8 Mike P // Jul 9, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    John Bragg,
    That sounds like the Dave Chappelle formulation about how the most dangerous dude on the street is the one white dude you see with a crew of black dudes. DC says we can’t have any idea of what kind of crazy shit the white dude had to do to get the respect of the black guys.

  • 9 A. Mathew // Jul 9, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    Speaking as a parent of a young son and as one who was born in India, what I sense these days, especially among my son’s classmates, is not racism but social exclusion, a social exclusion based on differences in home life and cultural style between children who do not share the prevalent cultural background. For example, the other children assume that my son is interested in hanging out at the swimming pool, fishing, all sports and sports teams in a way that he is just not and never could be–based on the fact that at home, we do not regularly expose him to the same things as the parents of these other children.

  • 10 jbd // Jul 10, 2008 at 8:21 am

    I have to reflect a little on the substance. But I just want to say, in all sincerity, that the writing style shown in this post is very fine indeed.

  • 11 Dave // Jul 10, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    As a man I get a taste of what black people,get when you sometimes get treated as a potential rapist. No fun. I also often encounter black people who are trying to be extra nice.They are fighting this stereotype. For instance in Boston my wife and I were always looking like we were lost. Two separate times black people asked if they could help us. I’m from Georgia and my wife is from MS. Stuff like that happens there too. People of any race dressed like thugs are scary and intend to look that way.

  • 12 Andrew // Jul 10, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    You realize that your argument places Avenue Q on the cutting edge of social thought. I think the notion of everyone being a little racist is actually less daring than trite. It’s true that racism is so (rightly) deplored that people have too binary a view of it, but that doesn’t mean that someone who recoils from recognizing racism in himself because he thinks it makes him like Hitler is anything other than an idiot. I wonder if we could impute less pure motives than urbane discomfort: some people simply have high standards of what qualifies as racism because they like being moderately racist without having to consider themselves as such.

    I think you gloss over an important point when you say that this goes for class signifiers too. Actually, it goes for lots of things. Racial prejudice of course has particular significance for historical reasons, but the ways in which a person might be discriminated against at a temp agency are fairly endless: race, class signifiers, weight, a weak chin, a bald head, short height, simple ugliness. I think the historical attachments of racism cause us to make it more unique than it is. Racism is one (especially pernicious) species of judging substance by superficial appearance. That we should all be conscious of when we judge someone superficially seems uncontroversial; that we cannot hope to eliminate this from our nature also seems uncontroversial.

    This is why your dilemma seems a little overwrought to me. What’s so uncomfortable about the thought that I might be, in some sense, at some moments, a racist? As the saying goes, I contain multitudes.

    I’m skeptical that anyone really took Obama to mean that all white people are racist. The enthusiasm with which people took offense at that comment suggested to me a satisfaction with the tables being turned that was itself racist. A lot of right-leaning whites think blacks over-claim racism, or are overly belligerent about claiming it, and this perception itself feeds into racism. This could be called whites considering blacks distastefully uppity, but the fact that it’s actually based on a bit of truth makes the problem more difficult.

    This was the really notable aspect of Obama’s race speech. He put forth the idea that most race-related grievances have a kernel of truth, and that the solution is not to attack each instance of racism in turn, but to recognize the symmetries and analogues that abound in black/white relations in the country, and to empathize as well as criticize.

  • 13 Brian Macker // Jul 10, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    “A Klansman burning a cross? Adolf Hitler? George Wallace barring the schoolhouse door? Images like these are iconic, easy to invoke, and extreme.”

    That’s what springs to your mind, white people? You racist. What about Hutus and Tutsis?

  • 14 Robert // Jul 11, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    It’s true everyone has their biases, prejudices, and stereotypes. They are all natural, and all formed from personal experiences. If someone’s first few experiences with black individuals are all negative, that person will quickly develop negatives biases, prejudices and stereotypes of all blacks based on his sample of experiences. They can change with additional experiences. Racism, however, is one form of bigotry, which is HOSTILITY toward an individual based on some trait of that individual, whether the trait is the color of his skin, his (or her) gender, his political beliefs, etc. I believe bigotry to be unnatural. Negative biases, prejudices, and stereotypes, and the experiences that formed them, may help feed the hostility behind various forms of bigotry, but they are definitely distinct. Maybe someone can expand on this.

  • 15 Shell Goddamnit // Jul 13, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    The conversation about all-or-nothing racism struck home; I quote a friend from a recent conversation – day before yesterday, in fact:

    > I’m thinking you and I have different definitions of racism, hence some confusion. When I think of racism, I equate it with irrational discrimination, stuff like the segregation and Jim Crow laws of the South, or the way voting laws were manipulated against blacks. The way “chinks” were treated in the Old West, or Jews just about anywhere in Europe. That sort of shit is intolerable and Needs To Go.
    > This “subtle racism” you seem to be implying, though, I disagree with. It reminds me of the “discrimination” in the word “woman” or using “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun. Not liking something about another group’s _culture_ does not make a person a racist, in my book. I’m repulsed by people who are coated in tattoos and piercings; that’s acceptable. Saying I don’t like gangsta rap makes me a racist? Nuh-uh, I don’t buy it.

    There it is. The pathology here is pretty clear; the denial of the “subtle” form of racism as racism has the corollary that this person is not racist. That in turn has the corollary that people who claim discrimination are frequently over-reacting or “playing the race card.” That in turn means that there is no such thing as subtle racism, it’s all just people over-reacting & using racism as an excuse for…whatever. It’s a nice tight little circular thingiebob.

  • 16 Kylopod // Jul 16, 2008 at 8:38 am

    I quoted this post in a recent blog entry of mine:


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