Friday, March 28, 2008

No Racist is Perfect

We are all imperfect racists, although some of us are closer to perfection than others. Let's all just admit that nobody is really color blind when it comes to racial-ethnic-gender-religious stereotyping. It isn't that we want to judge individuals on the basis of the social categories they fall into, but our minds just seem built to make sweeping generalizations. And we just hate to admit it. It is politically incorrect to bring up such stereotyping. We feel uncomfortable when it happens, and we often condemn those who make us uncomfortable.

What is really wrong with racial stereotyping? We see what is wrong most clearly when the stereotype is a negative one: Women are prone to hysterical behavior. Blacks aren't intelligent. Asians can't drive. We don't see quite as much harm in positive stereotypes: Christians are more moral. Women are sensitive and sympathetic. Blacks are good athletes and musicians. Asians are better at math and science. What racism does is it blinds us to the reality of individual behavior. We see a black kid get a bad grade, and it confirms our expectations. We see an Asian kid get a bad grade, and it happens in spite of our expectations. Given the choice of which kid to tutor, we might prefer to pick the one that our stereotype tells us is more likely to succeed. Given a choice between a clumsy black and a clumsy Asian for the team, we might prefer to put more coaching effort into the black kid.

Our behavior is guided by our expectations. That is what is wrong with racial stereotyping. And we are all racists to the extent that we let our expectations be guided by such stereotyping. Nowhere is stereotyping more evident than in political races. In a very racially mixed state such as New York, it is not uncommon to treat certain political offices as belonging to people of one group or another. We call it "balancing the ticket", and we simply expect voters to support the candidate of their particular ethnic group. We marvel at the fact that a black man or a woman can even presume to run for the presidency. (Still no atheists for dogcatcher, though.)

Now let me turn to some thoughts on the Reverend Wright controversy. Never mind the fact that his career as a preacher has been reduced to a few seconds of angry hyperbole--probably among the worst things he has ever said in the midst of a rant from the pulpit. Never mind the fact that white Republicans and Democrats have solicited the support of racist, homophobic preachers and gotten a relative pass from the press. Barack Obama is the black presidential candidate who specializes in not being too black to attract white voters. Until Reverend Wright came along, it was nearly impossible to oppose Obama on racial grounds, although the press has endlessly asked the question of whether white voters were ready for a black president. But Wright handed people a handy excuse to comment on his race again. It wasn't that Obama was black, because very few people are going to admit to being prejudiced against blacks. But Wright makes a wonderful proxy argument. We don't expect blacks, the stereotypical victims of racism, to themselves be racist, and we don't forgive them as easily for lapses into racially-tinged rhetoric.

Is the hysteria over Wright only racism? Well, he did work himself up in one sermon (when Obama was not present) into damning America. But much has been made about his "Black Liberation" style of preaching, and that certainly calls up whatever racial divisions exist in our minds. The uproar got so bad that Barack Obama was forced to give one of the best speeches on race in America that anyone has heard in a long time. He passionately denounced Wright's words without denouncing Wright. Some think he was courageous to do that, and others think he was foolish. I think he was just trying desperately not to lose himself to the temptation of letting the quest for power corrupt him completely, a struggle that he may find harder and harder to win as time goes on. But the damage is already done. Wright will now become a safe way for people to publicly oppose Obama without publicly endorsing racism. It isn't perfect racism, but none of us are perfect racists.

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