Saturday, August 16, 2014

Causes of Racism

I started this post a couple of weeks ago but put it aside because I wasn’t sure if this was really an appropriate topic to discuss in public. But the events in Ferguson this last week made me decide to go ahead and finish this up. Though part of the problem in Ferguson was undoubtedly the over militarization of the police and an arrogance caused by them being treated as a separate class, a big part of the issue was also obvious the pervasive problem of racism that whole chains of cause and effect.
© Nevit Dilmen CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
    Any way this article in the NY Times about the Data of Hate is what I want to respond directly to. We know there are some people that identify openly as racists. The article exemplifies that there doesn’t seem to be a feeling that we understand why anyone would. So I want to explain the factors that I think would lead someone in this direction.

Rebellion against authority –
    These days we hear the racism is bad from schools, from the government, from law enforcement, from the church, from bosses at work. Think about it. Today’s young people are hearing that racism is bad from all the same sources that are tell them that drugs, sex, and violent video games are bad for them. When they decide that some of these things are really fun they may think why not consider racism too. In a culture where ‘question authority’ gained considerable traction as a mantra, all the authority figures are united in a chorus of anti-racism. I don’t think western culture’s ascetic of youthful rebellion will necessarily manifest in rebellion against anti-racism. But this factor does mean that have more authority figures yell louder does not work without other supports. We’re not a society where authority is never questioned so we can’t control people’s thoughts and emotions by fiat.     

Self fulfilling prophesy -
    On the other hand we are still humans and humans have a tendency to follow group norms. It has been one of the many ways this country has fought racism for the last forty years. But if someone does get the impression that racism is normal and expected for them, then they will conform to that too. If we give the impression that all Nazi skinhead with swastika tattoos are racist or all people who join Stormfront are racist, it’s both a true generalization and targeted at a fairly small group. However, sometimes activists, politicians, the media, and even ordinary people can tell stories in such a way as to imply that we should expect or assume a rich white or a poor white, or a redneck, or a political conservative to be racist. These are broad categories of people. If members of these groups start to believe deep down that racism is normal for their group there will be an increased tendency to conform to that norm. I think it is an important part of combatting racism not to use hyperbole about how common racism is. I think sometimes politicians and activists use the accusation by assumption of group racism to motivate people to “prove it false” by doing something the politician or activist wants. They need to realize that while this may give them short term gains it is also spreading a meme that is destructive to their long term interests. The cumulative effect of implications like ‘he was southern, so of course he was a racist’ can be very dangerous and we need to watch out for adding to it.     

Fire together wire together -
    This is all the more dangerous because the truth is, we are all a little bit racist. Implicit Association tests show that most people have a subconscious tendency to associate positive words more with white faces and negative words more with African American faces. This is true even of some African Americans. It is certainly the case the people can show this implicit bias and seem perfectly sincere in their conscious professions of disapproval for racism, in some case being anti-racism activists. I don’t think this contradiction is coming from a conflict in what these people want, but rather from the underlying neurology. Part of the fundamental nature of how our brains work is the it automatically builds in associations between things that commonly occur together or in very close sequence. This is sometimes called fire together wire together. This type of chemical and biological fact is just the type of thing an Implicit Association test would pick up. This is not the type of condition you can harrage someone out of. In fact if the “education” is a negative emotional experience about interacting with another ethnic group, then it will likely increase the problem.  It’s important to encourage society and media to show other ethnicities in positive lights. But we need to make sure that the campaigning for these does not itself induce a negative experience. We also need to be sensitive to the possibility that for some a story about the horrible and inhumane thing that were done to African Americans does not engender an unconscious association between African Americans and horrible and inhuman.

Dilution of the term -
    The statement that implicit associations mean we’re all a little bit racist points to another problem, the dilution of what it means to call someone a racist. Some one who participates in ethnic lynchings, who puts of discriminatory signs, who yells racial epitaphs is clearly an active moral agent who deserves to be called evil for his or her evil acts. But who has a neurological default imposed on them by experience is a much more tricky case. Yet we use the same word for both cases. I’ve even seen it applied to the behavior of someone who is overcompensating for implicit assumption bias by being awkwardly over friendly to an African American. Calling this racist has a lot of shock value. And it does draw attention to how uncomfortable or alienating it can be to the target of these behaviors. But the thing about shock value is that we become numb to it with repeated exposure. Pretty soon everyone has had the experience of being called on a racist reaction or of having someone they are close to called racist and going, ‘oh, I didn’t realize I was making that assumption.’ or “oopsie, should have thought about the phrasing more carefully.’ And then they have the experience of going on as a normal member of society, not much morally better or worse than average. This make the visceral revulsion at the term racist go away. It would be better if we could use a different word for the involuntary and unavoidable type of prejudice so that the word racism could only stand for something that is beyond the pail.   

Illogical arguments-
The authority figures don’t just declare racism to be wrong. They get reason, but other behavior often undercuts these arguments and renders them illogical in the context of society's actions in general. The first is that it’s never right to treat someone differently for something they can’ help, they didn’t choose how they were born. But then we turn around and do treat people differently this very same basis with affirmative action and similar programs. I think the best thing to do would be avoid undercutting our argument and not do this at all. If We aren’t going to do that I think the next best thing would be to do it very openly and definitely, with a limited time frame and a definite and disclosed amount of preference. We could treat this as the exception that proved the rule. But this vague furtive preference that we often give out makes the whole premise look hypocritical and illogical and I wish we could get away from this.
The other argument we usually use is that there is no real fundamental difference between people of different faces and if you use a stereotype you are letting yourself be mislead into a logical mistake. This works well in a one on one situation where  you get to evaluate someone as an individual. You will find all sorts of ways people you know don’t conform to a stereotype. The problem is that when you are talking about large groups there is going to be a difference in probabilities and averages.  There are various possible explanations for this, but the pressure not to talk about the possibility of several of them  makes it the whole  conversation seem less legitimate. When you’re making policy that deals with groups or complaining about average outcomes, if you don’t acknowledge that the situation is more complicated than with an individual, you delegitimize the entire argument a little bit.     

Impact on population segments -
        One of the big problem with affirmative action is that it doesn’t impact all whites and other disfavored ethnic groups evenly, it’s negative impact is concentrated on those who are already poor or marginal in some way. They are people who already have a lot of stress and frustration in their life who have to deal with this extra slice of rejection. And then don't have any socially acceptable way to talk about this. The fact that they often can’t prove or even tell for sure if they were passed over for preference because of their race just makes them more frustrated, the same way it does for African Americans who often situation where they suspect prejudice but can't get objective proof.

The fact that is really does hurt -
          Shouting a racial slur can make someone feel the impact of your hate the few other words can. For someone who is weak and powerless  being racist can be one of the few things that makes them feel like they are in control over something, even if it’s just there own thoughts or feelings, they know this is the opposite of what someone else wants from them. You can make people flinch with racism, you can see yourself  impacting the world around you. Unless you see for yourself why racism is wrong, the fact it has a damaging impact can be as much of a lure as a disincentive.

I think in the end it comes down to the fact that we need to examine the basis that our rejection of racism is built on.
          My reasons for opposing racism is that all humans are alike descended from Adam, alike made in the image of God, alike  fallen into sin. and alike can be redeemed through the death and resurrection of Christ.  If they are a Christian then they are my brother or my sister in a way that is more fundamental and more meaningful than any tie of blood. If they are not a Christian than my first duty towards them is to invite them to become one. Next to this commonality I have with them any slight differences in average talents or propensities they might have received from nature or nurture are insignificant.
         Of course this argument only works for people with a theology somewhat similar to mine. It might have been true 50 years ago that  most people would have had agreed with the premises of this argument. But today America is no longer an unambiguously Christian country. So we need to talk about what it means to be human and how we value that humanity.