revisiting my thoughts on a productive racial dialogue
Forgive me for rerunning a post and looking like I’m not doing my homework. But there’s been some discussion about our racial dialogue lately, and it seems to me that while genuine progress is made in racial disparities, our racial dialogue only grows more embittered, poisonous and unproductive. Anyway, I wrote about this last year, and I still feel largely the same way that I did, and I thought I would post the whole thing up here, lightly edited. Sorry if you’ve read this before.
And therein lies the problem, in a couple of senses.
Our racial dialogue is a hair-triggered and anxious phenomenon, and to no one’s benefit. Many white people feel that speaking about race is simply too dangerous, that the stakes are too high, that they stand little to gain and everything to lose from participating. There are few things more dangerous to our democracy than that which we don’t talk about, and nothing good can come from not having a frank national discussion on race.
There’s another sense in which that statement is a problem. For too many white people, fear of the consequences of being accused of racism has come to seem a larger problem than racism itself. I’m not accusing MegArdle specifically of this, and I don’t think most or even many of the people who feel this way are guilty of racial animus. But I do think that the tendency to see being accused of racism as a greater hardship than actually being the victim of racial discrimination or interpersonal racism is wrong-headed, and severely undersells the continuing pain and damage caused by racism. Again, no one is served in the current situation– white people are afraid to discuss race openly, black people are constantly cast as wolf-criers caught in a victim mentality, people who do not possess racial hatred have their reputations damaged by the accusation, and most importantly, the actual logistic effects of anti-black racism aren’t fixed. Our national conversation is very good at things like ending the career of Michael Richards; it is profoundly inadequate at things like ending continued racial discrimination in hiring.
What would I prefer? This may sound strange, but I would actually prefer more accusations of racist behavior– with the proviso that the accusation of racism no longer operate as the nuclear bomb of American public discussion.
Human beings are social animals. We correct most undesirable behaviors not legally, but socially. If someone is doing something in the workplace or in public that is contrary to norms or accepted etiquette, it is likely that person will be reminded of his wrongdoing and corrected or stigmatized for that behavior. (There’s something deeply creepy about all this, of course, and in certain situations this kind of thing offends my libertarian heart to its core. But that’s a discussion for another time.) Sometimes this social correction is done nicely and non-coercively; sometimes not. Rarely, though, do people not get a second and third chance. Rarely is this kind of social correction permanently damaging to the accused.
But not in the case of race. As the struggle for racial justice continued and the focus moved from ending governmental and structural discrimination to emotional discrimination, the social penalty for racism soared. This was all undertaken in good faith, and was a genuine effort to support the righteous cause of racial harmony, whatever neo-liberal contrarianism/doublethink would now claim. But it has had the perverse effect of essentially marginalizing our racial discourse, by making racism such a totalizing and damaging accusation that it is only used in extreme situations. (Like, say, shouting the n-word in a crowded theater.)
This marginalization has eliminated the powerful and necessary force of social correction. Now there are only two options for confronting racism, ignoring it (and essentially condoning it through non-action), or exiling the person accused– exiling them from the mainstream, from the good social order, from polite society.
This is bad business. The fact is that we all have racially-motivated preconceptions and biases, which we cannot control. I, like Bill Cosby and Jesse Jackson, do not feel the same way towards a black man walking down a dark alley towards me as I feel towards an Asian man. But here again existentialism is instructive. What matters is not how we think but how we act. Our thoughts about people of other races are not what matters. What matters is how we act in response to those thoughts. That, we can control, and that is how we create our own character, through what we do as agents in the world. (People tend to say that I’m not saying anything new by insisting that we judge others based on their actions; but in practice I find this a powerfully unpopular thing these days.)
There was a study in the last few years about unconscious racism, revealed through brain scan. Scientists can show how a person “really feels”, whatever they claim to feel about people of black or other racial minorities, by studying how their minds react to pictures of white, black, Asian, etc. faces. This has been taken by some to be the ultimate gotcha, a demonstration of the hypocrisy of some who say they desire racial justice. But it is almost entirely besides the point. I could care less about someone’s inherent racial prejudices if that person acts in a way compatible with racial justice. A person’s just heart means very little if he acts in a way that discriminates racially.
No, what we must privilege is behavior, and this is why I think we have to return social correction to our racial dialogue. We all have racial prejudice, and sometimes, we say and do things that are insensitive or biased. These behaviors have to be corrected the same way any are, through gentle– and if warranted, not so gentle– reminders about what is and isn’t socially acceptable behavior.
For this to happen, however, cries of racism cannot amount to “you are a bad person; you must be excommunicated. Prepare for your shunning.” People must hear “What you said or did was racist”, not “You are a racist.” Accusations of racism should become more prevalent, but have less at stake. Racism must become another socially corrected behavior, like mild sexual harassment, excessive profanity or boorishness. Familiarity must build moderation.
This is important because we must have corrigibility; we must have correctability. No one is an end. Everyone is a process. Even the most noxious racist must have the ability for repentance, though we are under no obligation to invite them back into respectability. I am not suggesting that we should never have harsh censure for those who are persistently, maliciously racist. But we must keep the question open, and we must give everyone the ability to make a good-faith effort at ending their own racially unjust behavior.
I would like, in short, for Megan McArdle to no longer feel she is walking a minefield. Only with mutual trust and understanding can we achieve a more open, and thus more effective and equitable, racial conversation. We won’t ever eliminate vicious racism; go to any Youtube video with a black person in it, and search the comments for awhile. Dreams of true racial harmony within you will die. But we can have a discussion of race that is fairer to all and more conducive to pragmatically addressing the problems of race.