Posts Tagged ‘Racism’

The persistence of racial prejudice

August 31, 2013

A lot of my friends, including my fellow white liberals as well as Tea Party Republicans, think that racial discrimination in the United States is a thing of the past.   The only problem, as many of them see it, is the bad behavior of the black underclass.

I accept that there is such a thing as a black underclass, in which crime, addiction, ignorance and irresponsible sexual behavior are acceptable.  I don’t know enough to say to what degree these are problems of the African-American culture specifically and to what degree they are problems of the larger American culture, although I suspect the latter.

But I do not believe that members of the black underclass represent African-Americans.  They are not a majority of the African-American population.  The black people I’m acquainted with are all middle-class professionals like myself, or struggling poor people with middle-class values.   Most of them had harder struggles than I have had to get where I am.  This is not something I feel guilty about.  It is fact of life which I recognize.

My opinions are based partly on stories they’ve told me about how they have to shape their behavior around the fears and prejudices of what people—how they feel in danger when they encounter a police officer, or they have business in an all-white suburb, or how they have to make a special effort to seem mild-mannered because white people are afraid of aggressive black men.

A minister friend of mine told me about his brother, an aerospace engineer, who was stopped while riding his bicycle by police who believed he had committed a robbery or larceny nearby.  He showed them his corporate ID to no avail; they simply assumed he had stolen somebody else’s wallet.  It was only when he phoned his employer to have someone vouch for him that they believe he was who he said he was.  The important thing about this story is that it happened to the same person twice, in two different cities.

I remember once when I was a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, and was working on an article on what kinds of things people were buying as Christmas gifts that season.  To make the article more readable, I went out to stores and interviewed shoppers.

I approached a well-dress black man, and was struck by his stricken here-we-go-again expression.  Obviously he thought I was some kind of store official who thought I suspected him of shoplifting or something.  A great expression of relief came over his face, when I identified myself and he told me what kind of computer games he was buying for his grandchildren.

The white-sheet racism that dominated so much of the country in 1963 has been pushed to the margins of society.  American society has changed for the better, and white people of my generation who’ve made an effort to change their attitudes can take some of the credit for that.  But racial prejudice is still a part of American life.

The video above, which shows how differently people react to a white guy, a black guy and a pretty white girl doing the same thing, is an example of this.  Testers have found that a white person with a criminal record has a better chance of getting a job than a black person with a clean record.  Use of illegal drugs is just as common among white people as black people, yet the vast majority of arrests and jail sentences are of poor black men.

In New York City, the police with Mayor Bloomberg’s approval engage in racial profiling—singling out young black men in poor neighborhoods to be stopped and frisked in humiliating ways.  Black people that I know argue for affirmative action on the grounds that if they are singled out for bad treatment, it is only fair to get some special advantage as an offset.  I oppose both racial profiling and affirmative action, but my righteous indignation is reserved for the former.

But what about the dysfunctional culture of the black underclass?   I was brought up in the Christian tradition, which teaches that you should be more concerned with your own faults, the beam in your own eye, than with your neighbor’s faults, the speck in his eye.

I don’t believe that being lectured by someone like me is going to change the behavior of any black person, but maybe there is some slight possibility of influencing some of my fellow whites.

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Racism and diversity: country comparisons

August 15, 2013
racial-tolerance-map-hk-fix

Double click to enlarge.

Here is a Washington Post map showing the United States among the leading nations, and not in a bad way.

The United States is one of the nations in which the idea of racism is least acceptable.

That doesn’t mean that Americans are free of racial prejudice.  Far from it.  Surveys show that, all other things being equal, a black person is less likely than a white person to get a job—in fact, a white person with a criminal record has a better chance of getting a job than a comparable black person with a clean record.  Mayor Bloomberg of New York City justified singling out black people to “stop and frisk”.

Somebody took a video of a white person and a black person trying to break the chain on a locked bicycle.  Passers-by assumed that the white person had a legitimate reason and that the black person was a criminal.

Then, too, the question is over-simple as a measure of racism.  Southern white racists in an earlier era liked associating with black people, provided that the blacks were deferential and “knew their place.”

Still, I think it is significant that the idea of racism is no longer acceptable in the United States and many other countries.  I have lived long enough to remember when this wasn’t true.

It’s a bit surprising to me that people in India are so frank about not wanting to be around people of a different race.   I read somewhere that the Hindi word for “race” is similar to the word for “caste,” so maybe what the Indians were saying is that they don’t want to live next to somebody of a lower or different caste.

What does count as a race?  I imagine the answers reflect Jordanian Arabs’ feelings about Jews, and Vietnamese feelings about Chinese, even though outsiders might see them as members of the same race.

I have read that the Japanese value racial purity and treat Koreans and other minorities as second-class citizens.  Maybe the results would have been different if the question had been about what kinds of people you would tolerate marrying into your family.

Another Washington Post map, below, shows that ethnic diversity is not necessarily a cure for racism.

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Why I’m not voting for the black President

September 13, 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer and blogger for The Atlantic Monthly, wrote an essay entitled “Fear of a Black President” in which, among other things, he described what President Obama’s election means to black people, and especially to black parents.  It means that there is literally no upper limit on what black Americans are allowed to achieve.  As recently as five years ago, I would not have believed it possible for a black person to be nominated, let alone elected, by either of the two major parties.  I take satisfaction as an American that I was proved wrong.

At the same time, as Coates pointed out, Barack Obama is under constant attack based on his race.  He is accused, based on no evidence whatsoever, of being a product of affirmative action, of being a Kenyan anti-colonial radical, of hating white people.   When Obama said policeman James Crowley’s arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates on trumped-up charges was “stupid,” he was accused of stirring up black people against white people.  Given Obama’s difficult situation, Coates wrote, it is understandable that he has not actually done anything to help black people as a group.

I think this is correct.  As a matter of pure political calculation, it is more important for him to reassure white people than to stand with black people.  The fact that he has shown a black man can be elected President, plus the nature of the attacks made on him as a black man, is enough to assure him the support of the vast majority of African-Americans.  So he can afford to turn his back on Van Jones, on Shirley Sherrod and on ACORN, while he would give ammunition to his attackers if he had stood by them.

Obama’s political career, as Coates noted, is based on presenting himself to white people as someone more reasonable than a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton.  Obama was not, except for his short and ineffective service as a community organizer, an advocate of the interests and grievances of African-Americans.  Rather he was the person who could bring black people and white people together and get them to, if not forget about race, at least put race in the background.

Much has been made of Obama’s connections with the angry preacher Jeremiah Wright, the ex-revolutionary Bill Ayers and the racketeer Tony Renko.  Obama is not angry, revolutionary or a racketeer.  The significance of these three people is that they are part of the Chicago power structure, which he as an outsider worked his way into, just as he worked his way into the Washington, D.C., power structure.

Obama’s political advancement was based on his ability to convince people in power that what he advocated was reasonable.  That is how he persuaded the Illinois state legislature to pass a law requiring police interrogations to be videotaped and made available to juries; that is how he together with Senator John McCain persuaded Congress to create an Internet site on which all earmarked appropriations would be listed.   All his speeches—and he is a great speaker—are examples of walking through minefields, of satisfying and reconciling all sides.

My astute friend Oidin pointed out during the 2008 campaign that Barack Obama’s advertising and video biography showed him interacting only with white people, not with black people.  His black sister did not emerge into the public eye until election night.  Many successful black people say they have to purposefully be less forceful than is natural to them, in order that white people not feel threatened by them.  President Obama is the prime example of the non-threatening black person—although there are a certain number of white people who will feel threatened by him no matter what he does or doesn’t do.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

When I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, it was not in order to do black people a favor.  I voted for him because I thought he would stop the country’s drift into perpetual warfare, lawless authoritarianism and economic oligarchy.  I thought that merely replacing President George W. Bush would be a change for the better.  I was wrong.

I don’t think President Obama is any worse than the leading white Presidential candidates of the past 10 years.  Obama built on precedents set by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  He probably is no worse than Hillary Clinton or John McCain would have been in his place, let alone Mitt Romney.

But I am not demanding that the black President adhere to a higher standard than a white President.  The basic minimum duty of a President is to obey the law and to enforce the law.  I would vote for a Gerald Ford if I could count on him to do these two things.  President Obama has claimed the power to sign death warrants and commit acts of war based on decisions made in secret according to secret criteria.  He has refused to enforce the law against financial fraud or crimes against humanity.  The legal and organizational infrastructure for dictatorship exists in the United States, and Obama has not dismantled it.  He has strengthened it.

Human rights do not end at the water’s edge.  People in targeted areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have as much right as you, me or Trayvon Martin to not be killed based on vague suspicions.

Most of my friends and acquaintances intend to vote for Obama.  They tell me it is my responsibility to choose among the options on the table and, if they are all bad, to vote for the least bad.  I don’t accept that.  If I don’t insist on a candidate who upholds the Constitution and the laws, then I am an enabler for the violation of the Constitution and the laws.

Click on Fear of a Black President for the complete article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic Monthly.  It is well worth reading in full.

Click on Vertical Solidarity is nonsense for a rejoiner by “B Psycho” on Psychopolitik.

Click on Why Barack Obama Is the More Effective Evil for an important article by Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report.

Click on The Hard Right Is Paranoid About the Wrong Things for comment by Conor Friedersdorf, another Atlantic writer, on rational and irrational reasons for opposing President Obama.

Racial profiling and the Trayvon Martin killing

June 9, 2012

Is George Zimmerman a racist?  In my opinion (1) probably not, and (2) it’s irrelevant to the question of his guilt or innocence.

Murdering someone because of their race is a hate crime.  But being racist is not in itself a crime.  In a free country, people are not put on trial for their attitudes, or for what people think about their attitudes, but when they are accused breaking laws on the statue books.  I can imagine someone being an avowed racist, yet having the good judgment not to go around with a loaded gun playing policeman.  The issue in the Trayvon Martin killing is whether George Zimmerman was legally justified in taking a human life.

George Zimmerman

There was a time within living memory when a black man in communities such as Sanford, Fla., could be killed with impunity for speaking disrespectfully to a white person.  I remember the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was killed in 1955 in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman, and how the all-white jury acquitted the killers because they thought that was justifiable grounds for homicide.

I don’t believe the killing of Trayvon Martin was anything like this.  But I do believe that if it had been me, a 75-year-old white man, wandering through a gated community in Sanford, Fla., on the night of Feb. 26, instead of a 17-year-old black youngster, I would still be alive.  And if by chance it was my life that had been taken, I believe the local police would have been quick to treat it as a crime.

There are statistical disparities between how the criminal justice system treats white and black people, but they aren’t always what I would think.   The law comes down much harder on black people for victimless crimes such as drug abuse.  Surveys indicate that black and white people use illegal drugs in roughly the same percentages, but the overwhelming majority of people in prison for using illegal drugs are black.  But when it comes to crimes of violence, the important variable is the race of the victim, not the accused.  Black murderers of black people are treated more leniently on average than white murderers of white people.  But the small number of black murderers of white people are treated more harshly on average than the smaller number of white murderers of black people.

Trayvon Martin

My guess is that this goes back to the days of slavery and segregation, when white law enforcement officers didn’t care whether black people killed each other, and in the deep South thought that it was justified to kill black people to keep them in line.  Old attitudes persist, even among people who’ve forgotten the reason for them.

It is all too easy to jump to conclusions about other people.  There is a young black man who was a member of my church, an “A” student and an outstanding athlete.  He went to State University College at Albany on a football scholarship.  He was young giant, and at SUNY Albany was given a special diet and body-building exercises to build him up further.  He was quiet and good-tempered, nicknamed the “gentle giant” by his high school classmates.  Yet if I had met him on the street in a bad section of town at night, and not known who he was, I don’t know what I would have felt.

Many black parents try to teach their children how to appear nonthreatening to white people.  They see every encounter with authority as a potential life-threatening situation.  And if you read about all the cases where black men are shot and killed by police by mistake, you see this is not an overreaction.  Not that George Zimmerman had the authority of a law enforcement officer.  He was just a guy with a gun.

I am fortunate to have had parents who taught me to judge people as individuals, not by race, religion and nationality.  Like most human beings, I have my biases, conscious and unconscious, but I try not to let my judgments and actions be controlled by these biases.

Click on George Zimmerman: Prelude to a shooting for a sympathetic portrait of George Zimmerman by Reuters news service.

Click on Are We Teaching Kids the Wrong Lesson About Trayvon? for an argument that what’s needed is not for black parents to talk to their children about how to navigate racial prejudice, but for white parents to have conversations with their children about why racism is morally wrong and intellectually untenable.   I count myself fortunate that my own parents brought me up to judge people as individuals, and not on the basis of race, religion or nationality.   That doesn’t make me free of prejudice, conscious and unconscious.  It means I’ve been taught to try to overcome prejudice.

Click on Race plays complex role in Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law for the Tampa Bay Times analysis of fatal shootings under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which says that people have a right to use deadly force to defend themselves even if they could have avoiding the confrontation by retreating.  The newspaper found that killers of black people were treated more leniently more often than killers of white people, but there are other factors that may have explained this.

Click on Trayvon Martin’s Death, and What It Says About Race, Privilege and Homicide for interesting statistics from the CrimeDime web log.  These figures do not, however, prove what CrimeDime thinks they prove.  The comment thread is as interesting as the post.

Click on Sanford, Florida’s Long Troubled History of Racism and Racial Injustice for background on hate crimes in that community, including running Jackie Robinson out of town.  I think many black people and few white people are familiar with this background, and this may explain why black and white people respond on average so differently.  Of course this is neither here nor there concerning George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence.

Click on The Murder of Emmett Till for background on that case.  I don’t think this is something that could happen today.

Is it racist to criticize Obama?

May 23, 2012

Click to enlarge.

Click on Candorville for more Darrin Bell cartoons.

Food stamps and dog whistles

January 24, 2012

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Newt Gingrich on a number of occasions has called President Barack Obama the “food stamp President.”  An interesting choice of words.  Not the “unemployment President” or the “foreclosure President,” but the “food stamp President.”  Does he mean to imply that it matters less that so many people are unable to find work, and have lost their homes, than that there is a program to make sure poor people get enough to eat?  He said President Obama has “put” people on food stamps, but Obama didn’t write the law.  Would Gingrich have him refuse to administer the law as written?

Juan Williams, among others, asked Gingrich if he wasn’t appealing to a negative stereotype of black people.  Gingrich’s reply was that he would be happy to appear before the NAACP and lecture the delegates on why hard work is better than food stamps.

A few facts:

  • More whites than blacks receive food stamps.
  • Nearly half of those who get food stamps have jobs, and still are poor.
  • Most black people have jobs.
  • Jobs are not to be had for the asking (to put it mildly).

The expression “dog whistles” refers to coded words that are understood by a small group but unnoticed by the general public.  When President George W. Bush referred to the Supreme Court being wrong on the Dred Scott pro-slavery decision, members of the Right to Life movement understood him to be alluding to the Roe vs. Wade anti-abortion decision, since they frequently compare the two.

Newt Gingrich’s remarks can’t be called “dog whistles.”  Their appeal to racially prejudiced white people is not hidden or subtle.  It could not be more plain and obvious.

Many conservative Republicans seriously wonder why so few African Americans leave what they call the “Democratic plantation.” But then a lot of them probably think that the average NAACP convention delegate needs to be lectured on the desirability of hard work.

Newt Gingrich also thinks there is a serious problem with overpaid janitors.  In my biased opinion, the average janitor contributes more to the well-being of the American people than Newt Gingrich ever has.

Click on Newt and the Food Stamp President for comment from The Economist.

Click on Real Racists Do Real Things and On Looking Like a Ghetto Crackhead for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ comments.

Click on Slowpoke Comics archive for more cartoons.

The Ron Paul dilemma

January 3, 2012

Rep. Ron Paul opposes many things I am for.  He is opposed to civil rights laws.  He is anti-labor.  He wants to destroy the social safety net.  He opposes legislation to protect health, safety and the environment.  Under ordinary circumstances, I would regard him as a dangerous radical extremist.

But he is one of the few prominent political figures to oppose the perpetual war policy supported by both the Democratic and Republican parties.  He is one of the few to stand up for basic civil liberties.  He is among the few to stand up to the oppose the Wall Street bailouts.

So there is a dilemma.  Ron Paul wants to repeal the New Deal.  But the Bush administration, the Obama administration and most of the current Republican candidates are willing to repeal the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and rights of due process that go back to Magna Carta.

I think the Constitution is more important than the New Deal.  So long as the Constitution endures, it will be possible in the fullness of time to reconstitute the New Deal and the civil rights laws.

But that doesn’t resolve the dilemma.  Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Senator Bernie Sanders and other political figures that are just as clear-eyed about war and civil liberties as Ron Paul.  Why aren’t they as prominent as Ron Paul?  In my opinion, it is because Ron Paul’s anti-liberal backers give him a stronger base of support than liberals would give to an anti-Obama liberal Democrat.   Some liberals are willing to make common cause with Ron Paul supporters, but I don’t think many long-time Ron Paul supporters, or maybe any, who are willing to make common cause with liberals.

I don’t think I would vote for Ron Paul in the extremely unlikely event that he was nominated, and the equally unlikely event that the outcome in New York state was not a foregone conclusion.  But I am glad Ron Paul is in the race.  Even though I don’t agree with some of the things he believes in, I admire his grit and his willingness to speak the truth as he sees it.  He raises issues that need to be raised.

Click on Ron Paul’s Racist Newsletters for documentation on why Ron Paul’s old newsletters from the late 1980s and early 1990s were so inflammatory.

Click on Ron Paul’s Shaggy Defense and “Old News”  for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take-down of Ron Paul’s defense of his newsletters.

Click on Grappling With Ron Paul’s Racist Newsletters for Conor Friedersdorf’s commentary in The Atlantic on the significance of the newsletters.

Click on Progressives and the Ron Paul fallacies for Glenn Greenwald’s argument as to why Ron Paul’s views are no worse, from a liberal standpoint, that Barack Obama’s actions, and video links to Ron Paul’s statements about war and civil liberties.

Click on Why Ron Paul Challenges Liberals for Matt Stoller’s analysis of Ron Paul’s political views about the connection between the Federal Reserve System and the ability of government to finance wars.

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When evil came into the world

July 31, 2011

Evil did not come into the world with the first murderer.

Evil did not come into the world the first time the people killed a murderer in retribution.

Evil came into the world the first time the people knowingly killed an innocent person because that person was a member of the same race, religion or tribe as a murderer.

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Are white people picked on?

June 2, 2011

Some white people think they are victims of racial discrimination.  They object to a Black Congressional Caucus, a United Negro College Fund or a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on the grounds that any distinction based on race is, by definition, racist, just as a white congressional caucus or a united Caucasian college fund would be.

I doubt, however, that very many of the people who raise this objection would be willing to change places with black people, and be treated as black people still are treated in American society.

I have heard of black people passing for white, but I never heard of any white person passing for black. (I am not talking about people like the white firefighter years ago who claimed he was an affirmative action hire because he had a native American grandmother.)

The experience of black and white testers – equally qualified black and white people who apply for apartment rents, mortgage loans or jobs – shows that black Americans are not playing on a level playing field.  So long as black people are singled out for discrimination on the basis of race, they have a need and a right to organize on the basis of race.

The other relevant distinction is that the descendants of black American slaves are an ethnic and cultural group as well as a racial group.  Out of their experience, have created a distinctive music, art and literature as well as movements for social reform.  The black experience has significance for everyone, not just for black people.   If you interpret American history as a history of the struggle for freedom, African-American history is a prime example and central part of that struggle.

African-Americans as an ethnic group are comparable not to white people as a whole, but to particular groups such as New England Yankees, Polish-Americans, Appalachian mountaineers or American Jews.  We white Americans have nothing in common that we do not share with Americans of all colors, except for the history of white racism.  I am not one of those who says that American history and European history as a whole constitute White Studies, because that implies these subjects are not of equal interest to members of all ethnic groups, but certainly the contributions of Anglo white males are not ignored.

So it is not discriminatory to have African-Americans studies programs in universities and not European-American studies or white studies.  When I attended the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, there was a Department of Scandinavian Studies.  I heard that a liberal arts college in the Rochester area is thinking about starting an Irish Studies program.  These would be the true parallels to African-American studies programs.

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Racism vanishing, racial prejudice remains

June 1, 2011

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Racism and racial prejudice are not the same thing.  Racism is a doctrine.  Prejudice is an unconscious attitude.  Racists are usually proud of being racist.  Prejudiced people are usually unaware of being prejudiced.  Prejudiced people object to being called racist.  They’re right.

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Racism is a doctrine that some groups of people are genetically superior to other groups, and that the superior groups are justified in denying equal rights to the inferior groups.  Today few Americans will admit to believing any such thing, but I can remember a time (I’m 74) when racist ideas were part of the normal discourse of American society.  I wish I had a dollar for every time somebody said to me, “Tell, me, Phil, and be honest:  Would you want one of them to marry your sister?”

Prejudice is an unconscious attitude.  Prejudiced people judge individuals on the basis of superficial characteristics, such as skin color, or they project the negative traits on individuals onto every member of the group to which the individual belongs.  They sincerely believe their opinions are based on fact and reason.

While racism is marginalized, racial prejudice is very much with us.  The experience of testers – sending out teams of closely-matched white and black people to see if they’re treated different – shows that racial discrimination is not a thing of the past in American society.   At the same time, I’m old enough to remember when things were a lot worse.  Black people do not yet compete on a level playing field, but I can remember when they were completely barred from the game.  They have a harder time getting jobs or mortgage loans than equally-qualified whites, but I can remember when their race made them ineligible even to be considered.  In fact, I can remember a time when there were parts of the United States in which white people could kill black people with impunity, and sometimes did.

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