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.