Why I go easy on the “R” word

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was a failed attempt to connect the Potomac and Ohio rivers, as the Erie Canal here in New York state connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes.  Construction was begun of a canal and towpath along the north bank of the Potomac River, but abandoned before it got further west than Cumberland, Md., in the Alleghenies.

In the course of time the C&O Canal became the property of the federal government.  In the 1960s, somebody proposed that the route be made a federal highway, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and others led a counter-movement to develop it as a national park and hiking trail.  At the time I lived in Washington County, Md., which included about 78 of the C&O towpath’s 184 miles.  I thought the national park was a good idea, but a lot of people in Washington County didn’t.

I remember a lady from the District of Columbia suburbs asking why so many western Marylanders were opposed to the project.  I explained that part of the proposal involved the possible taking of land through eminent domain, and many western Marylanders had a highly-developed sense of property rights.  They basically believed that property-owners had an absolute right to do anything they wished with their land except post it against hunters.

The lady said that, no, the reason must be that they were afraid that black people would be hiking the canal.  I said that wasn’t the case, but she wouldn’t listen.  By imputing racist motives to people she disagreed with, she was able to ignore their rights and their point of view with a clear conscience.

Later came the 1964 and 1968 Presidential elections, in which  “law and order” was a big issue.  Liberals said “law and order” were “code words” for being anti-black.  Next came the uproar over mandatory busing of children to non-neighborhood schools to achieve racial integration.  Opponents were branded as racist.  So were opponents of affirmative action.  Now you are considered anti-Hispanic if you are concerned about stopping illegal immigration from Mexico.  And of course the Tea Party movement has been widely denounced as racist.

But what if you are sincerely concerned about crime or illegal immigration?  Is it out of bounds even to take about such issues?  If you can’t talk about a problem, how can you resolve it?  Maybe there should be some place you could go to get a certificate of non-racism so you can get credit for arguing in good faith.

I’m sure that if I had the power to see into the hearts of Tea Party members, I would find a certain number have racial prejudices.  But the same would be true of white mainstream Republicans or white liberal Democrats. For that matter, the same might be true of me.

I’ve been called a racist.  Possibly other people saw things about me that I didn’t, but being called a racist did not make me more inclined to self-examination.  It only made me defensive.  That’s why I go easy on using the “R” word.

Click on When we practice to hate and to lose for an example of what I mean.

Click on C&O Canal wiki for background on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and C&O Canal National Park.

[Added 7/7/11]  Instead of talking about hidden motives, we should be talking about racial discrimination as has been proven objectively to exist.

In 2001, a pair of black men and a pair of white men went hunting for work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each was 23 years old, a local college student, bright and articulate. They looked alike and dressed alike, had identical educational backgrounds and remarkably similar past work experience. From June to December, they combed the Sunday classified pages in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and searched a state-run job site called “Jobnet,” applying for the same entry-level jobs as waiters, delivery-truck drivers, cooks, and cashiers. There was one obvious difference in each pair: one man was a former criminal and the other was not.

If this sounds like an experiment, that’s because it was. Watching the explosive growth of the criminal justice system, fueled largely by ill-conceived “tough on crime” policies, sociologist Devah Pager took a novel approach to how prison affected ever growing numbers of Americans after they’d done their time—a process all but ignored by politicians and the judicial system.

So Pager sent those two young black men and two young white men out into the world to apply for perfectly real jobs. Then she recorded who got callbacks and who didn’t. She soon discovered that a criminal history caused a massive drop-off in employer responses—not entirely surprising. But when Pager started separating out black applicants from white ones, she stumbled across the real news in her study, a discovery that shook our understanding of racial inequality and jobs to the core.

Pager’s white applicant without a criminal record had a 34% callback rate. That promptly sunk to 17% for her white applicant with a criminal record. The figures for black applicants were 14% and 5%. And yes, you read that right: in Pager’s experiment, white job applicants with a criminal history got more callbacks than black applicants without one. “I expected to find an effect with a criminal record and some with race,” Pager says. “I certainly was not expecting that result, and it was quite a surprise.”

Pager ran a larger version of this experiment in New York City in 2004, sending teams of young, educated, and identically credentialed men out into the Big Apple’s sprawling market for entry-level jobs—once again, with one applicant posing as an ex-con, the other with a clean record. (As she did in Milwaukee, Pager had the teams alternate who posed as the ex-con.) The results? Again Pager’s African-American applicants received fewer callbacks and job offers than the whites. The disparity was particularly striking for ex-criminals: a drop off of 9 percentage points for whites, but 15 percentage points for blacks. “Employers already reluctant to hire blacks,” Pager wrote, “appear particularly wary of blacks with known criminal histories.

Other research has supported her findings. A 2001-2002 field experiment by academics from the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, uncovered a sizeable gap in employer callbacks for job applicants with white-sounding names (Emily and Greg) versus black-sounding names (Lakisha and Jamal). They also found that the benefits of a better resume were 30% greater for whites than blacks.

via Mother Jones.

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2 Responses to “Why I go easy on the “R” word”

  1. Joyce Ireland Says:

    I have known you almost all of my life….You are NOT racist.


  2. philebersole Says:

    Thanks for your support. Joyce.

    I think racism and racial prejudice are two different things. I kind of conflated them in the pst.

    I think outright racism – the belief that members of certain races are inferior or don’t deserve equal rights – is rare nowadays. This wasn’t always true.

    I think racial prejudice – making wrong assumptions about people because of their race – is fairly common. The thing about prejudiced people is that, unlike racists, they’re not aware of being prejudiced. I might have prejudices I’m not aware of. So on this matter, I judge not that I be not judged.


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