Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Katrina's lesson: racism is more than prejudice

One thing that Katrina's aftermath is doing is to heat up the true third rail of American politics, namely the discussion of racism. I have too much to do this week to go into this subject in anywhere near the depth that I'd like, so I'll restrict myself today to a simple matter of definition of terms. [Update: All of what follows is exceedingly elementary to anyone who's studied the sociology of race, but it bears repeating. If there's one thing that we all should learn from George Bush, it is the importance of repeating even elementary things.]

One of the most fundamental problems with the discussion of racism in the United States today is the tendency (most commonly found, it must be said, on the political right and among whites) to equate racism with prejudice. People of this persuasion define racism as being identical to (and, crucially, limited to) ethnophobia -- that is, dislike of or disdain for other people on the basis of their supposed racial characteristics. In this definition, racism is not a social condition but rather something that exists in the minds of "racists."

It is widely and correctly observed that this sort of racial prejudice, or bigotry, has waned a great deal in this country in the last half century. Though racial bigotry certainly still exists, many fewer people hate other people simply because of their skin color. This is true not only in terms of a reduction of the the number of bigots, but also in terms of a steady restriction of the social arenas in which bigotry manifests itself. For example, while many white people may still not want their daughters to date black men, the vast majority of whites no longer actively or even passively refuse to work alongside black people. And the idea that someone might be refused service at a bar or on public transportation on the basis of skin color is scarcely imaginable.

This abatement -- indeed, the taboo-ification -- of active racial hatred is what causes many people to say that racism today is no longer a major force in American society. What they mean by that is that active displays of bigotry are now widely regarded as completely illegitimate, not just politically, but also at work or even in social circles. This obviously represents huge progress for our country. However, while rolling back bigotry is a necessary condition for eliminating racism, it is not a sufficient condition. This is precisely the fulcrum of the political debate in this country today about racism.

When the Ward Connerlys of this world argue that the solution to racism is simply to strike any recognition of race from legal and administrative ledgers, it is because they believe that any recognition of difference is an invitation to discrimination. And while they're not entirely wrong that recognizing difference invites discrimination, they commit a basic logical fallacy when they stand this causal argument on its head and claim that simply striking race from the ledgers will in itself end racial exclusion. Connerly's argument is no so different from claiming that the way to get rid of the elephant in the room is for all of us to studiously avoid talking about the elephant. This is obviously silly. Racist language can create a racist reality, to be sure, but it's surely obvious that simply abolishing the discourse of race won't at a stroke do away with racialist sentiments, practices, and histories.

The problem with equating racism with prejudice or bigotry is that it fails to address the fact that racial discrimination is not just an interpersonal matter, but also a social and political and institutional matter. That is, historical patterns of race-based exclusion are not abolished by the disappearance or abatement of the cthonic prejudices that underpinned the original race-based exclusions. Long after white people cease to actively hate and consciously discriminate against racial minorities, there persist social patterns -- where people live, which social organization they belong to, what schools they attend, and so on -- that were built during those hundreds of years where active racial bigotry was the fact of ethnic life in America. These social and institutional structures, in other words, are constructed on prejudicial racialist foundations. As such, they are bearers of the racist past, even though they may today no longer be populated by active bigots. This social and economic exclusion on the basis of race is what "racism" is really all about.

The continued exclusion of blacks from social organizations (e.g., stereotypically, country clubs) is the archetype for this sort of racism. It's worth unpacking the archetype for its illustrative details. The barrier to entry for blacks into these sorts of institutions is rarely an active rule banning blacks from joining. Rather, what far more commonly excludes blacks from these clubs is the fact that no one in the club is actually friends with any black people. Now, it would be a mistake to conclude from this lack of black friends that the club members are actively bigoted against black people. Rather, the club is simply an institutional manifestation of a longstanding social network of (since longstanding, necessarily white) upper class people. For this social set, socializing with blacks is simply something that their social network has never really done. It's not that they're against the idea of socializing with blacks (though maybe their parents or grandparents were), it's just that as a matter of fact they don't socialize with blacks. In the meanwhile, the club facilitates the doing of business deals (within their narrow social circle), the pairing off pair of children (within the narrow social circle), and thus generally works to assure the social replication of the longstanding racialist pattern, all without a bigoted thought ever entering anyone's head.

It absolutely cannot be overstressed that racial exclusion, e.g. racism, today happens not so much through active bigotry as it does through the tacit exclusions created by these sorts of unstated, unconsidered social habits. And the follow-up point is almost as important: namely, that these sorts of social exclusions matter very much for one's total life opportunities, including crucially one's economic opportunities... and thus greatly affect one's opportunities to, say, escape from deadly hurricanes.

What is the connection between the tacit social exclusion and economic opportunity? As everyone will tell you, business opportunities are largely predicated on personal relationships. Who you hire is based on who you know and where you went to school, and who you do deals with depends on who you trust. That's natural and understandable (and it's also true that Americans are more open to trusting unknown people than are people in other countries). But think about what this means given the perpetuated pattern of social exclusion described in the preceding paragraph. It means that opportunities are based on who you know, and who you know depends on where you grew up, where you went to school, what you did during your summers as a kid, and so on. In short, overall life opportunities are hugely determined by the nature of your "deep social network." And if your social network is, for purely historical reasons, defined by color lines that were drawn long ago in a different and undeniably widely bigoted age, then you don't have to personally be a bigot yourself to be perpetuating the institutional structures of racial exclusion.

When two thirds of blacks believe that "racism continues to be a problem" in this country, while two thirds of whites believe that it is not, the divide in good measure can be explained by this differing interpretation of what constitutes racism. White people say to themselves "I don't dislike black people, and I don't know any white people who do" and conclude that racism is not a big deal; black people find themselves systematically outside the centers of power and privilege, and conclude that the lovely thoughts inside white people's heads really don't matter for much.

This social definition of "racism" also underpins the argument that while obviously anyone can be prejudiced or bigoted toward anyone else on account of their skin color (including black people who hate whites, of which there are more than a few), racism is something that only applies to blacks and other ethnic minorities. Since racism is a matter of racially-coded social exclusion from positions of power, and since white people are not systematically excluded in this country, white people therefore cannot be victims of racism. Yes, a white person can be a victim of bigotry, and a black person can be a bigot, but it is only society itself that is racist. Individuals can only meaningfully be described as "racists" insofar as their own prejudices actively perpetuate racism.

People on the right hate the argument that racism is not a matter of individual psychology but rather a social condition. They are not wrong to see that this definition flies in the face of the radical individualist premises that underpin the defining American mythology. Ward Connerly is not wrong when he realizes that to recognize the social rather than individualist character of racism and racial exclusion demands a non-individualist solution. (A larger point is that regaining the possibility of social progress requires dismantling the pernicious rightwing lie that, as Margaret Thatcher famously put it, "There's no such thing as society, only individuals and families." This literally anti-social and sociopathic perspective is not only the basis for much today's so-called "conservative" philosophy but also and not coincidentally the primary obstacle to dealing with most of our society's problems: if there's no such thing as society, the rightwing reasoning goes, then why devote any resources to solving society's problems?) Pace some rat-choicing economists, dissolving racism is not simply a matter of adjusting individual people's "preference sets" to non-bigoted settings. If ending racism is not about individual preferences, then the solution cannot happen in the marketplace, which means that... yes, it means that only the state can really develop a solution.

To sum up: "racism" is not a matter of the individual psychology of hatred; rather, it is a matter of the social structure of political and economic inclusion and exclusion. To deny this fundamental recognition of the social nature of racism makes you, I'm afraid, an active abettor of racism as it exists today. (In case it isn't obvious, however, being an active abettor of racism neithers makes you a bigot nor requires that you be one. In fact, that's the whole point.) Moreover, the recognition that racism is a social phenomenon, larger and longer-lived than the bigotry of individuals, leads nolens volens to the idea that some sort of continued social intervention is necessary to end this racism. Such a recognition is, one may hope, the one good thing that may come out of the Katrina catastrophe.

The one place where reasonable minds may disagree on all this is what form the "continued social intervention to end racism" should take. Specifically, what role the state should take in this social intervention is a very good and very hard question. But that's a topic for another day.

No comments: