Saturday, August 24, 2013
Racism Egregiously Misunderstood
© Charles D. Hayes
When I was growing up in the South during the 1940s and ’50s, I had no idea I was internalizing a racist attitude. During this period, Gordon Allport, one of the preeminent social psychologists of the twentieth century, was studying the nature of prejudice, and in 1954, he published The Nature of Prejudice, which remains a classic. He defined prejudice as follows: “Prejudice is a pattern of hostility in interpersonal relations which is directed against an entire group, or against its individual members; it fulfills a specific irrational function for its bearer.”
Today it is not unusual to hear declarations by white men claiming no responsibility for slavery because, they argue, they have never owned slaves. Others make adamant assertions that they are free of racial bias. Although my memories are mercifully vague, I don’t doubt that I spouted similar views as a young man. But years ago, when I realized how wrong I had been about the real nature of racial prejudice, the subject became a major focus of my scholarship, and I have been studying the pathology of prejudice ever since.
A common mistake in characterizing the nature of prejudice is to attempt to describe it as a conscious sense of awareness— a front-page choice that requires overt acknowledgment. To say, for example, “Since, at this moment, I bear this or that race no prejudicial thoughts, I am therefore not prejudiced” is a complete misunderstanding of racism.
Bias is often hidden. Culturally internalized bias doesn’t stand out as a discernibly educated opinion—it looks like straight-up reality. When we view the circumstances before us, our perception appears to be, as Allport described the process, a “single act of cognition.” If you are a bigoted cop, you will have no trouble rationalizing racial profiling because you will be able to give all kinds of reasons for profiling that have nothing at all to do with your hidden assumptions for doing so. As an ex-cop, I know this to be true from countless observations and personal experience.
That Mayor Michael Bloomberg attributes a decline in New York’s City’s murder rate solely to its stop-and-frisk policy is absurd. There are myriad reasons for the falling rates of violent crime. Even in large cities that don’t follow the practice, murder rates are down. Stop and frisk is an example of discrimination in its most refined form because, without a second thought, the mayor has given a pass to the humiliation minorities incur from being randomly detained and searched.
Seeds of contempt find fertile soil in acts of disrespect. Simply put: Stop and frisk legitimizes hidden bias. Supporters of stop and frisk argue that 94 percent of crimes against black people are committed by black citizens. Big deal. They neglect to mention that 86 percent of crimes against white people are committed by white people. Moreover, if you were to randomly stop and frisk more and more white people, their arrest numbers would go up accordingly.
If you are a prejudiced employer, you aren’t likely to perceive you are turning someone down for employment because of the person’s race. What will happen is that your subconscious will come into play, and it will offer rationalizations for not hiring the individual that simply seem like common sense. But in reality, those rationalizations might very well be conclusions based on a personal history of thousands of subtle observations and inferences.
Prejudicial judgments are something we internalize from life experience, and they can be so subtle that we don’t realize we are learning anything. When in our youth we hear friends or family members make prejudicial statements, we notice their body language at a level somewhere beneath our conscious awareness. Then at some point in the future, such experiences will have been repeated so often that they’re likely to be set in cement and will require a jackhammer of dissonance to alter.
Allport observed that prejudice is most often acquired via blind conformity. He noted that “not every overblown generalization is a prejudice,” adding that “prejudgments become prejudices only if they are not reversible when exposed to new knowledge.” Understanding this is crucial. Most people who have not studied how our minds operate assume their perception is unadulterated reality. Research has made clear, however, that it’s anything but.
Learned prejudice is like read-only software. It can take a long time to become written into a program, but once it’s set in gray matter, altering the code will take an enormous emotional and intellectual effort. You probably know scores of people, as I do, whose views on racial matters could not be changed with waterboarding.
Assertions by individuals who claim to bear no responsibility for racism bring to mind the work of Henry David Thoreau, who accepted the premise: That government is best which governs least. When used by itself in political arguments, the assertion completely misses Thoreau’s point about government. What he went on to advocate was better government, and the great misfortune in failing to realize the substance of his argument comes simply from not understanding Citizen Thoreau. If most people were like him, citizenship would be viewed differently and so would our expectations of government.
Thoreau assured us that we are clearly not responsible for what happened in the past, but we are unequivocally responsible for what is. If we grow up in a system that is unjust by design, Thoreau considered it our duty to make it right, because to benefit from an unjust system without working to correct it is to be an accomplice.
For Thoreau, just because we never owned slaves doesn’t absolve us of the current legacy of inequality that owes itself to centuries of oppression. We have made progress in race relations among many diverse groups of people, but it takes many generations of families who’ve made incremental but necessary advances into the middle class to provide the foundational stability for the future success of the generations who follow. Personal failure without an established family to fall back on is a roadblock to success. Social capital is extremely important. And if you don’t believe this, you simply haven’t thought it through or examined the statistical evidence.
Children are not born prejudiced. Prejudice has to be learned. Myriad psychological studies have demonstrated that children internalize the subtleties of race early on. We should find it hurtful and morally unacceptable that we cannot correct an environment in which young black children prefer white dolls because of what they’ve learned about living. Beneath their consciousness they’ve noted that white is good and black is not.
It’s hard to overstate how important it is to fully understand the way our worldviews are viscerally connected to our attitudes about race and identity. At a subconscious level, we compare ourselves continuously to those whom we perceive as different. Indeed, the fact that we are intuitively adept at discerning slight signs of otherness prompted Sigmund Freud to write extensively about the narcissism of minor differences.
All human beings are keen about noticing dissimilarities. This is why we tend to vote our identities and not our pocketbooks, as evidenced by the irrational antics of those who can’t relate to the president of the United States in any given administration. Patriotism, as Allport noted, is “often a mask for bigotry,” and “extreme bigots are almost always super-patriots.”
The current political obsession with freedom has very little to offer regarding the responsibilities of citizenship. The freedom slogans we hear so often today say nothing, whatsoever, about the role individuals must play in order to obtain and sustain a just democracy. Bigotry feeds on illiteracy. It’s long past time we stopped being slaves to ignorance and began to relate to all Americans as Americans, regardless of race, religion, creed, or color.
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