The Best Best Friends for Black People


Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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43 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:


    Well done.Report

  2. Avatar Morat20 says:

    I have a sliding scale of racism based on age and specific offense.

    The older you are, the more forgiving I’m going to be of, say, verbal slips. When you grew up 50 or 60 years ago, you learned a different language, you lived in a far more racist time, and unless you’ve shown evidence you’re clinging to the belief that blacks are subhuman or something, I’m more willing to let it slide.

    If you’re 25 and say the same thing? Different story.

    It’s, admittedly, pretty contextual on their age, what exactly they say and what terms they use, and their actions.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Morat20 says:

      slip-ups require a humble-apology or they’re not slip-ups, they’re intentional-upsReport

      • Avatar Murali in reply to zic says:

        When you get to be past middle-age at least some people (particularly when dementia sets in) are unable to tell that saying racist things is not appropriate anymore. When we are talking about someone who was merely raised differently but is of sound mind, we expect them to be aware that saying racist stuff is inappropriate. But, when we are talking about the very old, especially people who have not been keeping mentally active into their years, dementia sets in and they start to lose this awareness (we might go Freudian and call it a chronic loss of ego and superego). All they have left is their Id and even then their reasoning skills can deteriorate quite severely.

        I imagine that we see old people say horrific things, at least some of this is going on. I would reduce somewhat my expectation of a retraction from them.Report

        • Avatar zic in reply to Murali says:

          I’m willing to make an exception for dementia. But if all the slip-ups are dementia instead of intentional-ups, there are a lot of demented people out there, and we’ve got a medical crisis on our hands.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to zic says:

            I’m willing to make an exception for dementia.

            Why? At least in the case outlined by Murali, anyway.

            Edit: As my otherwise Saintly grandfather aged, his racism became more and more pronounced. It changed my view of him, actually. Why should I forgive or explain that away because he was no longer of “sound mind”? I mean, those thoughts came from somewhere, yes?Report

            • Avatar Murali in reply to Stillwater says:

              Dementia and other neurological disorders cause frontal lobe disinhibition (which is what causes old people to say prejudiced stuff). But such inhibition is the stuff that lots of morality is made of. A person who suffers from such a disorder is not blameworthy in the way we expect people who do not suffer from such a disorder is.Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to Murali says:

                I’d want @chris to say for sure, but this sounds more-or-less right to me.

                Let’s say there was a drug that shuts down frontal lobe control, so that a lot of the governanability of aggressive behavior (both physical and verbal) is lost, causing a person to speak/act in a racially-abusive manner when they do not normally do so.

                If a person takes the drug voluntarily for fun, knowing that it lets their inner “racist Mr. Hyde” out, that is something they are responsible for.

                But it’s not really their fault, if they were involuntarily-dosed.

                Assuming dementia is more like the latter, I’d agree we should give such people some leeway.

                We don’t know what we ourselves would say, think or do if the composite sentience that we generally think of as a singular “I”, was forcefully disaggregated. Lots and lots and lots of weird and nasty stuff never makes it up to the level of conscious thought/action in a properly-functioning mind/brain.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Glyph says:

                Sounds right. What’s more, the damage may make it difficult to separate beliefs from other thoughts. So info that was once just in there before will get confused for belief, and spouted as such.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Murali says:

          When you get to be past middle-age at least some people (particularly when dementia sets in) are unable to tell that saying racist things is not appropriate anymore. When we are talking about someone who was merely raised differently but is of sound mind, we expect them to be aware that saying racist stuff is inappropriate.

          So, the argument is that we ought to cut some slack to racists for being either so senile or crude that they honestly express their views?

          I mean, I’m all for honestly expessing views. I just didn’t know that I ought to support dishonesty so much.Report

          • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Stillwater says:

            Consider it distance traveled. When my grandfather was a child, he lived in a time and place where speech codes were heavily enforced. He was raised in a society where the expressly subservient and second-class status of blacks was not just taken for granted — the very language used enforced it.

            Now days, the most offensive thing I’ve heard him say is something like “most blacks are lazy” — a stereotype that Reagan frankly used to get elected in the 80s. I’ll give my grandfather a pass. If, over his life, he’s moved from being raised with speech codes to just lazy stereotyping, I figure he’s probably done okay. And, frankly, he’d never actually say anything like that in company. So basically he’s just a bit racist inside his head, and given where he started from I’d say he did okay.

            OTOH, I know my grandfather. He’d never treat an actual black man any different than he would a white, nor be any less polite, nor even think to apply the lazy generalities to the specific person in front of him.

            And on the gripping hand, I’m not black. So really whether I consider that acceptable racism is, well, probably a statement on me and has jack-all to do with race relations.

            I’m just not gonna go full bore “You’re a racist” on people who were born when racism was the official stance of the state. Not unless they’re, well, really racist. If they’re still viewing blacks like they did 50 years ago, sure. If they’ve managed some decent progress, well — I’m gonna give them credit for that.

            A 20 year old holding the views of a 70 year old on race? That’s another matter. That 20 year old didn’t get raised in Jim Crow, live through Civil Rights, and vote Democrat the entire freakin’ time even after all the racists fled in 64 and the Democrats lost the south.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Morat20 says:

              We’ll also find reasons that our grandchildren are judging us harshly.

              I’m sure that my grandkids (or, more precisely, grandnieces/nephews) will enjoy pointing out that Great-Gramma did the white flight thing and moved to the parts of town that had the best schools and we were full participants in the structural “racism without racists” that was so popular in the 80’s and 90’s. We went to schools that had north of 80% White/Asian populations and, I’m pretty sure, it’ll be the nice ones explaining that it was a different time back then, people moved if they could move, and they sent their kids to the best public schools they could.

              And their grandkids will find similar things to say about them.Report

              • Avatar Zac in reply to Jaybird says:

                The fact that grandchildren are repulsed by the actions of their grandparents is the surest sign of progress. I personally hope my current views are seen as hopelessly retrograde and conservative by the time I’m an old man.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Zac says:

                I hope they see them as hopelessly retrograde and conservative because they’ve progressed rather than because they’ve merely moved and have mistaken their movement for progress.

                I mean, imagine someone saying this: “I can’t believe that you still think that women should have access to oral contraception. That is soooo 2020.”Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Zac says:

                What if the thing that they are repulsed by is the way we set age limits for sex? I think once we follow the logic of sex positivity to its logical extreme, our disapproval of a lot of underage sex looks quaint.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Murali says:

                There’s all sorts of stuff that they will be judging us harshly for.

                The best I can hope for is the stuff that I’m ashamed of right now.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Jaybird says:

                We would all like to think that where we differ from the crowd we are actually ahead of the curve, and that may very well be true, but is there any more reason to think that our grandchildren will be moral saints (relative to us) instead of moral degenerates?Report

              • Avatar Zac in reply to Murali says:

                Maybe I’m not being cynical enough, but when I look at human moral progress over the whole of its written history, I think that MLK was essentially right when he said that the arc of moral history is long but bends toward justice. I’m not looking for anyone to achieve sainthood, because there’s no such thing as a saint. But I have faith in the generations that follow us that they’ll do better than we have. Even if, as ever, it’s in the “100 steps forward, 99 steps back” sort of way.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Zac says:

                There’s mensches, but the few that actually deserve titles like “saint” have hands that are bloodier than the rest of us.Report

              • That is an amazing cartoon.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

                Heh. “Grampa, it’s so disgusting that you eat organics.” “This is corn! You’re supposed to eat it!” “Oh, sure, I’ll just rip off one of your ears and chew on it. It’s cool, you’ve got another one!”Report

              • Avatar Reformed Republican in reply to Jaybird says:

                Great-Gramma did the white flight thing and moved to the parts of town that had the best schools and we were full participants in the structural “racism without racists” that was so popular in the 80’s and 90’s

                I was just talking with my fiancee about that. My county had de facto school segretation until the early 80s. I did not understand it at the time, but I remember the zoning being redrawn. I remember my parents got my sister and I transferred to a better school, because they did not want us going to one of the school that had been most populated by African-Americans up to then. I think that was a very common attitude, because after a few years, the predominantly African-American schools were converted to Magnet Schools with specialty focuses.Report

              • Avatar Anne in reply to Reformed Republican says:

                I have the opposite perception growing up. The school I went to kindergarten through 8th grade (though it went to 12th) was 95% black It was small and I think our class of 100 had the most white people in it at 5 most had one or none. It was considered one of the better schools at the time (70’s) Quite a few of us transferred in 9th grade (1980) to a magnet school for the Arts and Sciences again probably 65% black again considered one of the better schools hence why 10-15 of us transferred from a really good school to another one. That is the norm for me. for the longest of course I assumed everyone had the same experiences I did. Apparently this is not the caseReport

          • Avatar Murali in reply to Stillwater says:

            It’s not about honestly expressing your views, not unless a person*’s views are whatever the most crude instantiations of his Id happen to be. If we think, ordinarily, that when someone successfully reasons his way away from some random biases, that reasoning counts as his genuine view. When a person’s reasoning and memory are gone and all he has left are those random biases, it intuitively seems like we should be reluctant to say that the person’s views has changed. Rather, we are more inclined to say that the person is not himself.

            Now, of course this intuition is problematic, since we are more likely to attribute discontinuity of personal identity when we negatively judge the “After” personality. For instance, when we describe a situation where a person undergoes brain surgery and their personality changes, where that change is for the better, people are more likely to say that it is the same person. Where the change is for the worse, people are likely to say that they are different people.

            *As in anyone and everyone.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Morat20 says:

      I am 52, so I was talking within that “50 or 60 years ago” span, though just barely. There has been some variation over my lifespan of acceptable language, but the really prominent words are not examples of this. The “n-word” has never been acceptable language in anything aspiring to civil discourse within my lifetime. For that matter, my mother was raised in the South. One day as a girl she used the “n-word” within my grandmother’s hearing, and got a tongue-lashing for it. The claim that it was simply the standard word designating persons of African descent, carrying no additional baggage, is an outright lie.

      Here is an example of baseball history. It is 1869, and the proposal has been floated to get up a game between the Pythian Base Ball Club, the most prominent black club in Philadelphia, and the Athletic BBC, the most prominent white club:

      “Five thousand persons would pay fifty cents each to see the Athletics play the Pythians. Now, as the Athletics want money, here is a chance to raise it in an honorable way. The Pythians think they can beat the Athletics. Why not give them a trial? Oh–but Fisler, who is a roaring, red-hot Democrat, objects; and so does that Black Republican Reach, and so does Cuthbert, and so does that other fine gentleman–that refined, educated, tasteful young gentleman–who says “the Pythians are d–d niggers!” ” Source: Philadelphia City Item August 7, 1869

      It is interesting which word needs to be elided rather than appearing in print, but the usage is clear enough. (A game was got up, but not involving the Athletics.)Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Richard Hershberger: The claim that it was simply the standard word designating persons of African descent, carrying no additional baggage, is an outright lie.

        This is in no way to disagree. I just want to note that even if there was originally no intention in using the word that way, it would acquire the associated baggage anyway. All words have baggage. That’s presumably one of the reasons academics use jargon. Sometimes it doesn’t work that way though.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Nigger is a bastardization of Negro, which was the polite term for a loooong time.
        With the education given to a lady during the antebellum years, it’s conceivable that the polite term might have not been mentioned to everyone.Report

  3. Avatar gregiank says:

    It’s nice to have black friends or friends of all sorts. It widens your experience. But what is more telling is if those people ( black, gay, left handed, etc) think you are their friend. Would they give you the shirt off their back. That says something.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to gregiank says:

      There are many kinds of “friends”.

      There are the ones who come over to your house (and you have gone over to their house) and you make food for and with each other. You go to the funerals of people important to these friends. You hug after visits and say “we don’t do this often enough” even if you did it a couple of weeks ago.

      There are the ones you work with and know you can rely on for work-related stuff. You go out to lunch together, maybe occasionally a dinner together, but you don’t know where they live. If they have a funeral to go to, you sign the card for them. You’ve never hugged this person.

      There are the ones you cheerfully interact with on a familiar basis as you do stuff related to other stuff. The guy who sells you a pack of smokes from the kiosk. The guy who sells you coffee. The waiter at that little place that has the great appetizers. You know these people by name and are pleased when you see them (as opposed to the neutral or displeasure when it happens to be their day off). You ask about their day and may even remember details from their answer the last time you asked and ask followup questions. If appropriate, you always tip. You’d never share a meal with this person. You’d never do more than a handshake/fist bump with this person.

      When people pull the “some of my best friends are X!” card, it’s not *ALWAYS* a false statement… but there have been so very many people whose “best friends” are the shoeshine boy, the guy in the kiosk, the janitor that it immediately signals that those relationships that have deeply different power differentials between them are the only ones that exist.

      If someone actually does have a handful of people who are in the first category rather than in the third, that’s a good thing. We need more of that. I suppose that the only way to get there is to power our way to the first category by way of the second which means getting there by way of education and, even there, tackling the lunch table problem and god knows what *THAT* will entail.

      Friendship and increased community and interrelationships are part of what is needed to solve the problem of racism (in any case, the problem of racism will not, absolutely not, be solved without these things) but… man. How much more daunting is saying “we need to solve the problem of not being friends” than saying “we need to solve the problem of racism”.Report

      • Avatar gregiank in reply to Jaybird says:

        I agree. I think people use the word friend waaaayyy to freely. It should mean something, not just the person you are pleasant with fairly regularly. Friend suggests to me, and fsm knows i’m peculiar in many ways, a fair degree of intimacy. Not just the chatter about Game of Fancy Seats or Sports Team Event.Report

      • Avatar Zac in reply to Jaybird says:

        I just wanted to say, Jaybird, that this is maybe one of my favorite comments you’ve ever written, and I’ve been reading this site daily since 2008. Great stuff, man. And spot on.Report

  4. Avatar LWA says:

    I think TNC’s observations come into play here as well.
    We unintentionally obscure the menace of racism when we reduce it to simple hatred when its true horror is plunder and looting.
    Slavery and Jim Crow were about hate, but the worst damage was the theft of labor and property and freedom.

    His observations come to me only because I have known racist people, as we all have, who are in fact very kind and loving people in all other areas of life. Painting racism as simply an irrational hatred makes it easy to disguise with the “black friend”.

    The current horror of racism isn’t that somewhere a white person makes a disparaging comment about black people. The current horror, practiced right here, right now, is what we saw in Ferguson, where the entire black community is effectively pronounced guilty of being criminal, and subjected to a regime of predatory policing that steals from them. Or the gun culture that celebrates white men with guns while making it a death sentence for a black man to carry one.Report

  5. Avatar zic says:

    So I’m guessing that some of these people who have black friends (Roof had black friends, too!) read the same website he read, published by The CCC.

    And I bet all these people have black friends. too.

    /both links go to the Southern Poverty Law CenterReport

  6. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I heard someone say this is how you respond to anyone who mentions their [insert identifier here] friends:

    “Have you been to their house? Them to yours? What are their kids’ names? What does their spouse do?”

    If they can’t answer those questions, they don’t have [insert identifier here] friends.Report

  7. Avatar Guy says:

    In the article you link, JohPaul Edge seems to be one of several students complaining about racist white parents preventing their kids from attending an integrated prom. He’s a weaker example than Terra Fountain, who appears in the paragraph immediately preceding the one you quoted most of, but I don’t think he belongs on the same list as the Booth quote.

    Otherwise an excellent point.Report

  8. Avatar zic says:

    Just need to give praise to Rod Dreher getting it right.

    I so often condemn him; but this post (and most of the comments) gave me hope of friendship.Report