Posts Tagged ‘Racial Prejudice’

My life history as a story of race

March 29, 2018

My previous two posts were about my reactions to Debby Irving’s Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race.  As I stop and think about it, I have been entwined with race and racism my whole life.

My parents

Some of my earliest memories of growing up in the little town of Williamsport, Md., are of my mother and father arguing about white guilt.  My mother would go on about how badly black people and native people were treated.  Finally my father would say, “I am not impressed with the American Negro.”

My mother would resume talking about how Negroes were denied basic rights and forced to ride in the backs of buses.  “Exactly!” my father would say.  “I’d never let anybody treat me that way.”

Or my father would say, “I am not impressed with the American Indian.”  My mother would resume talking about how whites stole the Indians’ lands and forced them to live on reservations.  “Exactly!” my father would say.  “If the Indians had what it takes, we would be the ones living on reservations.”

My father was not, in fact, unfriendly or unjust to black people or anyone else.   He was friendly and at ease talking to anyone, whether an African-American janitor or the Governor of Maryland.   He was not impressed by wealth or social status, and he did not look down on anyone.

I think this ability stemmed from a genuine liking for people, and interest in them, but also from a self-confidence based on knowledge of his own strength and competence.  He would not let anybody take advantage of him.

My mother was kind to everyone, but she had genteel standards of behavior, which included good table manners, correct grammar, no cursing and swearing, no dirty jokes and no racist epithets or remarks.

My mother was the daughter of a lawyer who’d fallen on hard times.  My father was the son of a poor farmer whose life consisted of unending physical labor.  My maternal grandfather died in bed.  My father’s father was found dead in his barn one day where he’d gone to do the morning milking.

Both my mother and my father were respected members of their community.  My mother was a school teacher all her working life, and lived to see the children and grandchildren of her first pupils pulling strings to get their own children into Mrs. Ebersole’s class.

My father was part of the first generation of his family to attend college, which is where he met my mother.  He had a varied career; at the time I was born, he was a clerk for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).    He ended up as a civil servant in the Maryland State Employment Service, which administered unemployment compensation benefits and a job referral service for the unemployed.

When he reached retirement age, he chose not to retire, which was contrary to the plans of his superiors.  They sent someone—who happened to be a black man—to take over the duties of his office, while my father sat on the sidelines.  He understood what was going on, and decided to retire after all.

He had no resentment of the black man who replaced him.  On the contrary, he praised him.  He said the man had the quality he most respected—”quiet competence”



Both my parents taught me to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, unless and until I had a good reason not to.  My mother in addition taught me to think of racism as both unjust and low-class.

In those days Maryland schools were still segregated.  I had a black playmate named Jim Tyler when I was a small boy.  He was a member of the Tim Mix Ralston Straightshooters club I organized, which was based on living up to the ideals of Tom Mix, the hero of a radio serial, and eating Shredded Ralston breakfast cereal.   As I grew older, I lost touch with him and never thought about him.

I was bookish, precocious and opinionated, and included to argue with my elders about matters of race and other things, mostly to their amusement.

“Be honest, Phil,” they would say.  “Would you be willing to have one of them marry your sister?”

I would answer that I didn’t have a sister, but if I did have a sister, in the highly unlikely event that she wanted to marry a black man, I wouldn’t be happy about it, but, if she really loved him, I could accept it.

The attitude of my elders was that I would give up my foolish theories when I became a mature adult.  Neither of these things happened.


College Days

At the age of 15, I won a Ford Foundation Pre-Induction Scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.   This scholarship enabled boys to go from the 10th grade of high school directly to college, on the theory that they could complete their college educations before becoming eligible to go fight in the Korean Conflict.   I learned later I got the scholarship based on a form of affirmative action.

Prof. Herbert Howe, who administered the scholarship program for the University of Wisconsin, initially decided to award the scholarship based on test scores and the letter of application.

What happened was that all the applicants with the highest test scores were from two high schools in New York City, the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School.   In the interests of diversity, Prof. Howe decided to restrict students of those high schools to 50 percent of the scholarships, and to set aside 10 percent for Wisconsin residents.

He told me later that my own test scores were little better than average.   He decided to take a chance on me because I was an interesting outlier—someone who chose to be tested in history and English rather than the sciences, and someone from a rural high school in the South (he thought of Maryland as the South) rather than a big city.

My college grades were all right, but below the Ford average.  My subsequent career was all right, but not as distinguished as my college classmates.  All the arguments against affirmative action applied to me.

I don’t feel guilty or embarrassed about having taken advantage of an opportunity that was offered to me.  I don’t criticize anybody for taking advantage of an opportunity that is offered to them.

During the time I was in the program, I knew of no black Ford scholar.  Maybe there was one later or at a different college.  I never thought about this at the time.

My student days were the first I ever had a serious conversation with a black person or a Jewish person.   One of my favorite professors was a Dr. Cornelius A. Golightly, a teacher of philosophy.  He was a brilliant man, and kind to me.  I heard that he didn’t get tenure, supposedly because he was a pragmatist, and the philosophy department only wanted logical positivists.

As a student, I wrote for the college newspaper, The Daily Cardinal.  I was a champion of academic freedom, an opponent of Senator Joe McCarthy and an opponent of fraternity charters that excluded black members.


Military Service

After graduating from college in 1956, I volunteered for military service, including two years active duty.  This was in peacetime, and military service can be a good experience in peacetime.

The U.S. armed forces were probably the most diverse and multicultural institution in American society, and still are.   I met people from even more varied backgrounds than I did in college.  I encountered more black people then in positions of authority than I did for a long time afterward.

Now is as good a place as any to say that I never had any problem taking orders from black people, I never had any fear of black people and I never, so far as I know, was ever harmed by a black person.


Journalism in Hagerstown, Md.

I worked for The Daily Mail in Hagerstown, Md., from 1958 through 1974.   I made a special effort to write about racial discrimination, civil rights and Hagerstown’s tiny black community, although I was often blundering and naive in the way I went about this.

My friend Jim Yeatts, who was white, married Georgiana Bell, who was black, and I attended their wedding.  The Chief of Police had a detective park in a police cruiser outside and take note of every wedding guest.  That night he phoned my publisher to let him know that I was the kind of person who’d attend an interracial wedding.  I never thought my job was in danger, but this shows the predominant attitude in those days.

The story I’m proudest of having written was about a black riot when Gov. George Wallace of Alabama came to town during his 1972 presidential campaign.   The Wallace staff had a policy had a policy of having campaign appearances on National Guard armories, and the armory in Hagerstown was on the outskirts of the black community.

In the middle of Wallace’s speech, a group of young black men started to interrupt Wallace’s speech by chanting.  Their leader was named Ken Mason.  He happened to be the son of Bill Mason, the chief sheriff’s deputy, whose appointment was resented by white racist rank-and-file deputies.     A group of deputies grabbed Mason and started beating him, while a city detective blocked me from getting close enough to see what was going on.

I was later able to quote eyewitnesses, including the chair of the local Wallace for President committee, as to what happened.  He was willing to speak to me because I had always reported on the Wallace people fairly.

Anyhow, I ran over to the nearby county jail, which was besieged by angry black people.  They went on a rampage all that night, but only within their own neighborhood, which, however, was on a main through street.  Bill Mason pleaded in vain to do the obvious thing, which was to set up roadblocks to divert traffic.

None of the heavily armed deputies or police ventured into the riot area.  Only I walked through it—admittedly walking very quickly.

After the bars closed, many drove their cars through the area.  One driver—a recently-discharged combat veteran of Vietnam—was killed by a brick thrown through his windshield.  Ken Mason was later tried and convicted on charges of inciting a riot, and given a suspended sentence.

I was able to write a fair and accurate article as a result of having previously written fair and accurate articles about all concerned.  I am proud that people who wouldn’t talk to each other would talk to me.


Still judged by the color of their skins

January 16, 2017

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech said he hoped that his children would be judged by the content of their characters and not the colors of their skins.

martin.luther.king.jrMore than 53 years later, this is still a dream.

As Michelle Alexander has written, mass incarceration of black Americans, many of them for drug offenses and other victim-less crimes, has provided an excuse to disenfranchise black voters in some states and deprive them of protection of civil rights laws everywhere.

As Greg Palast has documented, Republican state governments systematically cancel black and Hispanic voter registrations for bogus reasons.   And as Black Lives Matter points out, black people are sometimes killed by police or gun-toting whites without justification, with no consequences to the shooter.

And, as I have written before, old-fashioned racial discrimination in jobs and housing, which supposedly was outlawed under the civil rights laws, still exists today.  That is the main subject of this post.

Testers find that sellers, lenders and employers will favor the less qualified white person over the more qualified black person.

With all the talk nowadays of government favoritism toward African-Americans, I don’t think there is any rational white American who would want to trade places with them

Statistical disparities between races may have some non-racist explanation.  But the examples I’m going to mention, and which I listed in a previous post, are set up so as to rule out any non-racist explanation for the biases.

  • A group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania sent out 6,500 letters to professors at the top 250 universities in the USA.  The letters were identical except for the names of signers – Brad Anderson, LaToya Brown, Depak Patel, etc.  The white men got on average a 25 percent better response than white women or blacks, Hispanics or Asians, and that was true even when the professor was female, black, Hispanic or Asian.  Professors at private universities were more biased than those at public universities, the study found; the humanities professors showed the least bias; the business professors the most.
  • A sociologist at Northwestern University sent out four groups of testers in Milwaukee—whites and blacks, some of which listed criminal records on their job applications and some that didn’t, but otherwise were made to be as identical as possible.  The whites with criminal records had a higher chance of success than blacks with clean records.
  • racism-in-a-resume-92ebdafd521c4b23b83023db292f4f40Researchers for Abdul Lateef Jameel Poverty Action Lab sent out nearly 5,000 applications in response to more than 1,300 help-wanted ads.  They were divided into high- and low-quality applications, each with an equal number white- and black-sounding names.   The well-qualified whites got good responses, but the well-qualified blacks got 50 percent fewer.
  • Researchers at Harvard Business School found that white hosts were able to charge 12 percent more on average that black hosts for Airbnb rentals for virtually identical properties at similar locations.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development sent out 8,000 pairs of testers, one white and one black, Hispanic or Asian, to look for places to rent or buy in 28 cities.   More than half the time, they were treated the same, which is good.   But in many cases, the minority potential renter or buyer was asked to pay more, shown fewer units and/or charged higher fees than the white renter who had come by a few hours before.
  • The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston sent out pairs of testers to buy houses in eastern Massachusetts.  They, too, found that black and Hispanic buyers were on average charged more and offered less than white buyers.


Who’s deplorable?

September 19, 2016


Racism is the belief that certain races, such as black people, are genetically inferior or that they should not enjoy equal rights.   David Duke, a neo-Nazi and former Klan Wizard, is a racist.  Steve Bannon, Jared Taylor, and Richard B. Spencer, supporters of the Alt-Right movement, are racists.

It’s not just deplorable, but despicable, that Donald Trump has accepted their support, and even appointed Bannon to head his campaign.

Racial prejudice consists of judging an individual based on beliefs about average behavior of that person’s race.  That, too, is deplorable.   It is deplorable even if the belief has some basis.

The chart above shows that certain beliefs are common to white Americans across the political spectrum.  It is not a measure of racism.  It may or may not be a measure of prejudice.

For example, it is a statistical fact that violent crime is more common among black Americans than among white Americans.  It is not racist or racially prejudiced think that African-Americans are, on average, more violent than white Americans.

What would be deplorable would be to assume that assume that any African-American you encounter is a threat, possibly deserving a preemptive violent response.  What would be deplorable would be to ignore the fact that the vast majority of black people are peaceful and law-abiding.

The problem with being overly quick to charge racism is that it provides cover for the real racists.  If almost all white people are racists, then David Duke and Jared Taylor aren’t be so bad.


The persistence of American racism

June 22, 2015

Some thoughts inspired by the Charleston, S.C., church massacre.


As a college-educated white person whose friends are mostly other college-educated white people, I think of overt racism as a thing of the past.  Racial prejudice, yes, but not the ideology of white supremacy.

What the premeditated murder of the nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shows is that white supremacist racism has not disappeared, but just gone underground.

confederate_flagI can remember the bombings and burnings of black churches in the Deep South during the Civil Rights era, in particular the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.

White racists claim to fear the black underclass.  But what they hate the most are the God-fearing respectable members of the black middle class, because the existence of such people undermines their feeling of superiority.


The murder victims’ loved ones said they forgive the murderer, just as Jesus taught and the Rev. Martin Luther King preached.  I ask my secular humanist friends whether they could be capable of such forgiveness.  I know I wouldn’t.


Racial discrimination is not a thing of the past.  Just because we liberal white people don’t come in contact with it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still exist.

One of the members of the Sunday morning discussion group at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., is a white woman with an adopted black son.   I’ve met him, and he is a fine young man—intelligent, courteous and much more self-controlled than I ever felt the need to be at his age.

He once was traveling with white friends, stopped at a motel and was told there were no vacancies.  He went back to the car, and one of the white friends went in.  Unsurprisingly there was a vacancy after all.

He likes to visit Canada, but whenever he is driving the car with white friends, he says the car is inevitably stopped and searched.  When a white friend is driving, the car is always waved through.  When he is driving alone, he sometimes is refused entry to Canada—no explanation given.

He once was ticketed for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk and spent the night in jail.  I’ve never heard of anybody else here ever being jailed for a traffic offense.


Why haven’t poor black people done better?

May 24, 2015

I recently re-read My People Is the Enemy, a 1964 book by a white lawyer named William Stringfellow, who’d spent the previous seven years providing legal services in a poor neighborhood in Harlem.

He wrote about black people in New York City were barred from decent jobs, were denied credit and were  harassed by police.  This couldn’t go on much longer, he wrote.  Things were about to blow—which, in fact, they did.

about.race_nfcrpq8yMT1smopzxo1_500But as I read the book, I was struck by what was missing.  He didn’t give any example of an unarmed black person being killed by police.  He didn’t give any example of police cruising up and down the streets and arresting young black men for trivial reasons or not reason at all.

He wrote about how a young black man found life in the Rikers Island prison more comfortable than the slum he came from.  He had a clean cell, nourishing meals and access to a gym and a library.  That’s a far cry from the hellhole of violence that Rikers Island is reported to be today.

Which raises the question:  Why is it, in spite of all the civil rights laws and all the social pressure against  racist language and behavior, that things haven’t gotten better?

My answer is that things have gotten better, much better, but only for a certain segment of the black population—what W.E.B. DuBois called the “talented tenth”.


The passing scene: Links & comments 10/6/14

October 6, 2014

Populist Former Senator Jim Webb Could Give Hillary Clinton Major Headaches in 2016 by Lynn Stuart Parramore for Alternet.

I’ve long admired Senator James Webb, the former Senator from Virginia.  A Vietnam veteran and Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, he switched from the Republican to the Democratic party out of disgust for the Bush administration’s subservience to Wall Street.  He has criticized the Obama administration on the same grounds.

Webb is an opponent of reckless military intervention abroad, a critic of the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration and a friend of working people.

I admire Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for the way she stands up to Wall Street, but I agree with Webb on a broader range of issues than I do with her (for example, she goes along with the administration’s war policies).

Tech gives the rich new toys while perpetuating the criminalization of poverty by Nathaniel Mott for Pando Daily (via Naked Capitalism)

A new device allows subprime auto lenders to track the location of a debtor’s car and to disable the car if the debtor falls behind on payments.  The New York Times reported this has happened when the car is in motion.


The passing scene: Links & comments 10/1/14

October 1, 2014

Why I Hope to Die at Age 75 by Ezekiel Emanuel for The Atlantic.

Bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel, who’s now 57, wrote that he won’t undergo any medical treatment for the purpose of prolonging life after age 75.  He added that this is a personal decision, and not a recommendation.  But he sees the years after 75 as a period of decline that will add nothing to his life.

I am impressed that someone would be so satisfied with their life that they would be willing to wind it up at age 75.  I’m 78, going on 79, and I have unfinished business.

But it is true that, if I live long enough into years of decline, I will find life no longer worth living.  One disappointment is that I probably won’t be around to see if Emanuel carries through on his resolution.

[Added 10/2/14]  I note that Emanuel is a bio-ethicist.  In my opinion, the job of bio-ethicists is to rationalize doing things that physicians and others intuitively feel is wrong.

Another subtext to Ezekiel Emanuel’s “Why I Hope to Die at 75”: Hillary’s Too Old by Steve Sailer for The Unz Review.

If elected President in 2016 and 2020, Hillary Clinton would be 77 when she stepped down on Jan. 19, 2015.  Joe Biden would be 82; Jerry Brown, 86; Elizabeth Warren, 75 1/2; and Bernie Sanders, 83.  But Ezekiel’s brother Rahm, the Democratic mayor of Chicago, would be a vibrant 65.

ISIS at the Gates of Baghdad: Why Airstrikes Are Failing by Patrick Cockburn for Counterpunch.

Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn wrote that the only forces in Iraq capable of fighting ISIS are the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias.  But they terrorize Sunni Muslims, who look to ISIS for protection.  Cockburn doesn’t see any good way out of this dilemma for the United States.

World should not be oblivious to Russia’s calculated shift toward China by Hisayoshi Ina for Nikkei Asian Review.

Russia, China court India for regional bloc by Takayuki Tanaka for Nikkei Asian Review.

The world balance of power is changing, as the Russian government responds to pressures in Europe by strengthening its ties with Asia.

Andreatta: Cops and Manners on Short Street by David Andreatta for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, NY.

I think that if I was a policeman, I would find that every prejudice I had concerning any group of people would be confirmed by my experience, because the police see the worst of any group of people and see people at their worst.

This column by David Andreatta shows just how difficult it is to overcome such attitudes.

Slavery and racism did not benefit most whites

May 29, 2014

American slavery and white supremacy were crimes against humanity.  At the same time I doubt that most white Americans, in the past or present, got any benefit from slavery and racism, aside from the psychological benefit of having someone we could hate and despite.

I know that I as a white person had been treated better in almost any situation than a black person would be.  But if black people were treated better, I don’t think this would caused people like me to be treated worse.

In contrast, I know that I as a white person benefit from the force and fraud used to take the North American land away from the American Indians.  It is because of that crime that I am able to live in the house I own.   I don’t see any such cause-and-effect relationship in the crime of slavery.

SlavesAmerican slavery at its peak was of enormous economic importance to the United States.  The monetary value of American slaves exceeded the value of all American factories and railroads put together.   Slaves cultivated and picked cotton, which in 1840 accounted for nearly 60 percent of U.S. exports.   The whole industrial revolution was based on the textile industry, which was based on cotton.

But I ask: Did anyone benefit from this except for a wealthy elite?  The average white person in the South were better off than the average black person, but not never as well off as the average white person in the North.  Foreign travelers reported going down the Ohio River, and noticing the clean, prosperous, well-maintained farms on the Ohio side and the dirty shacks on the Kentucky side.  The difference was that white farmers in free states didn’t have to compete with slave labor.

Suppose there had been no slavery.  Cotton would have been picked somehow by someone.  It might have cost more, and some other nation might have had a comparative advantage over the USA.  But the United States would have been spared the death and destruction of the Civil War.

The economic development of the United States might have been more rapid without plantation slavery.  Southern planters opposed the interests of Northern manufacturers.   Under the Lincoln administration, Congress passed the Homestead Act and the Land Grant College Act, and granted subsidies for transcontinental railroads.  Without Southern opposition, these things might have happened years earlier.

Little_Rock_integration_protestThe appeal to white racism was a technique to divide and rule.   Poor black slaves and white indentured servants rebelled in Virginia in 1676 and nearly overthrew the colonial government.  The powers-that-be responded with laws enforcing legal distinctions between white and black.  Poor black and white sharecroppers in the South joined forces again in the Populist movement of the 1880s.  This was broken up by an appeal to the racial pride and Confederate nostalgia of the whites, and was soon followed by the Jim Crow laws.

Industrialists in the North also encouraged ethnic and racial divisions among their work forces—not just between whites and blacks, but among different immigrant groups.  Blacks were relegated to low-wage jobs and excluded from majority-white labor unions, which enabled employers to use them as strikebreakers.  This continued until the rise in the 1930s of the CIO unions, which opposed racial discrimination.

In more recent times, political propagandists such as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove have successfully split the working-class vote by subtle appeals to racial antagonism.   All these things work to the advantage of a small minority of rich people, most of them white but not representing the interests of most white people.

Yes, there are black people who are prejudiced against white people.   I don’t think they benefit from their prejudices either.

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.


The harm that stereotypes do

January 21, 2013


I read about a test given by experimental psychologists to black students.  Half the students were simply given the test, and the other half were told, before taking the test, that white students on average did better on the best than black students.  The first group did noticeably better than the second group.  The same experiment was done with white students, except that the second group was told that Asians did better than whites.  The same disparity occurred.

This kind of stuff really matters.  There is such a thing as being a victim of prejudice by others, and there is such a thing as being prejudiced against yourself.  Arguably the second kind of prejudice will hold you back even more than the first, if you don’t know you have to fight against it.

Click on The K Chronicles for Keith Knight’s home page and more cartoons like this.

Racism vanishing, racial prejudice remains

June 1, 2011

Click to view

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.


Why I go easy on the “R” word

September 23, 2010

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.


Racism in my lifetime

June 21, 2010

I’m 73.  I’m old enough to remember the 1940s and 1950s, where there were whole sections of the United States where not only were black American citizens segregated by law and denied the right to vote, but where white people could murder black people with impunity.

I always had faith that the American commitment to democracy and freedom would win out in the end.  But I never expected to live long enough to see an African-American elected President of the United States.

I can remember when it was taken for granted that not only could no African American be elected President of the United States, but neither could a Catholic, a Jew, a Southern white person or a woman of any background. In other words, prejudice barred a majority of American citizens from the nation’s highest office.

Barack Obama’s accomplishment in winning the Presidency was a remarkable one, apart from his victory over racial prejudice. He had to defeat the Clintons, leaders of the most powerful faction within the Democratic Party, and then John McCain, the most popular figure in the Republican Party. But Obama is not an outlier. The presence of people of color in American life is taken for granted to a degree I would not have thought possible 50 and 60 years ago.

Nobody is bothered by the fact that David Patterson, the Democratic Governor of New York state, is both black and legally blind.  Nobody thinks it remarkable that brown-skinned Bobby Jindal, the Republican Governor of Louisiana, is the son of immigrants from India, or that Nikki Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India, has a good chance of being elected Governor of South Carolina on the Republican ticket.

Some members of the Tea Party movement have been given to racist and sexist outbursts, but Tea Partiers mostly support the Hispanic Marco Rubio for Senator from Florida over Charlie Crist, a non-Hispanic white. I imagine most Tea Party members would be just as happy to see Clarence Thomas as Chief Justice of the United States as Sarah Palin as President.


Can black people be racist?

June 3, 2010

Yes, of course, black people can be racist, and, more to the point, black people can be racially prejudiced.  I make the distinction because racism is a conscious ideology while racial prejudice consists of unconscious feelings. Racists know they’re racist; racially prejudiced people are unaware they are prejudiced.

My experience is that black Americans are better at sizing up white Americans than the other way around, but all human beings are prejudiced to some degree.

The consequences, however, are different for the two groups.  When a white person makes false negative assumptions about black people, this is often detrimental to black people.  When a black person makes false negative assumptions about white people, this is likely to hurt the black person more than it does whites.

The argument against prejudice is not that you owe it to other people to be unprejudiced as that you owe it to yourself to accurately perceive reality.  Knowing someone else’s color or ethnicity does not tell you anything about that person’s character or abilities.

“…the most violent ethnic group in America.”

April 23, 2010

Science fiction stories generally have a short shelf life, especially if they’re set in the near future. Reality has a way of going in a different direction than predicted. But Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, published in 1998 and set in 2044, holds up well.

Distraction is set in a future United States in even greater disarray than at present. Government doesn’t function, the dollar has crashed, there are 16 political parties, the off-the-books economy is bigger than the legal economy and “Wyoming is on fire.”

The main plot is the struggle of a political operative named Oscar Valparaiso to keep a vital federal research laboratory from being taken over by a demagogic governor of Louisiana, who wants to make his half-underwater state a haven for rogue biotechnology.

The part that sticks in my mind is a subplot, involving Oscar’s championing of a despised ethnic minority called the Anglos, the politically-incorrect name for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  I am reminded of it when I hear white, self-identified liberal friends holding forth on the hopeless (as they see it) dysfunction of poor black families.

Oscar gets flack from his peers for hiring a roughneck Anglo as his chief of security.  As one of them says:

“It’s not that I have anything against Anglos!  I mean, sure, there are good, decent, law-abiding Anglo people. But — you know — look at the statistics! Anglos have white-collar crime rates right off the scale.  And talk about violent — man, white people are the most violent ethnic group in America.  All these cross burnings and militia bombings and gun-nut guys … the poor bastards can’t get a grip.”

Oscar considered this. It always offended him to hear his fellow Americans discussing the vagaries of “white people.” There was simply no such thing as “white people.”  The stereotype was an artificial construct, like the ridiculous term “Hispanic.”

Oscar’s peers are alienated by the bodyguard’s personal habits, such as smearing his body with Sunblock and his food with mayonnaise.  He shrugs this off.  “It’s an Anglo thing, man,” he says.

At another point in the novel, Oscar takes a date to a nightclub with an Anglo band.

Buzzy’s was a music spot of some pretension, it was open late and the tourist crowd was good. The band was playing classical string quartets. Typical Anglo ethnic music. It was amazing how many Anglos had gone into the booming classical music scene. Anglos seemed to have a talent for rigid, linear music that less troubled ethnic groups couldn’t match.