Sunday, October 05, 2008

No Racists Necessary

One of the challenges facing America regarding racism is the tendency to equate it with the overt racist words or deeds of individuals. However, today racial injustice and inequality is not perpetuated by the conscious behaviors of "bad people" but the unconscious behaviors of "good people". Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times describes some of the research on this phenomenon in today's op-ed:

"“When we fixate on the racist individual, we’re focused on the least interesting way that race works,” said Phillip Goff, a social psychologist at U.C.L.A. who focuses his research on “racism without racists.” “Most of the way race functions is without the need for racial animus.”

For decades, experiments have shown that even many whites who earnestly believe in equal rights will recommend hiring a white job candidate more often than a person with identical credentials who is black. In the experiments, the applicant’s folder sometimes presents the person as white, sometimes as black, but everything else is the same. The white person thinks that he or she is selecting on the basis of nonracial factors like experience.

Research suggests that whites are particularly likely to discriminate against blacks when choices are not clear-cut and competing arguments are flying about — in other words, in ambiguous circumstances rather like an electoral campaign.

For example, when the black job candidate is highly qualified, there is no discrimination. Yet in a more muddled gray area where reasonable people could disagree, unconscious discrimination plays a major role.

White participants recommend hiring a white applicant with borderline qualifications 76 percent of the time, while recommending an identically qualified black applicant only 45 percent of the time.

John Dovidio, a psychologist at Yale University who has conducted this study over many years, noted that conscious prejudice as measured in surveys has declined over time. But unconscious discrimination — what psychologists call aversive racism — has stayed fairly constant.

“In the U.S., there’s a small percentage of people who in nationwide surveys say they won’t vote for a qualified black presidential candidate,” Professor Dovidio said. “But a bigger factor is the aversive racists, those who don’t think that they’re racist.”

Faced with a complex decision, he said, aversive racists feel doubts about a black person that they don’t feel about an identical white. “These doubts tend to be attributed not to the person’s race — because that would be racism — but deflected to other areas that can be talked about, such as lack of experience,” he added." (Read the whole thing here)

This reminds me of a quote from a statement of the Baha'i International Community prepared for the Racism Conference that took place in Durban South Africa a few years ago:

"Racism originates not in the skin but in the human mind. Remedies to racial prejudice, xenophobia and intolerance must accordingly address first and foremost those mental illusions that have for so many thousands of years given rise to false concepts of superiority and inferiority among human populations.

At the root of all forms of discrimination and intolerance is the erroneous idea that humankind is somehow composed of separate and distinct races, peoples or castes, and that those sub-groups innately possess varying intellectual, moral, and/or physical capacities, which in turn justify different forms of treatment.

The reality is that there is only the one human race. We are a single people, inhabiting the planet Earth, one human family bound together in a common destiny, a single entity created from one same substance, obligated to "be even as one soul."

Recognition of this reality is the antidote to racism, xenophobia and intolerance in all its forms." (Read the whole thing here)

On the other hand, we have to be careful that research such as the one noted in this post does not encourage us to psychologize racism as I have warned against in the past:

"When I refer to psychologizing racism, I mean the effort by individuals, groups, and institutions in our society to portray contemporary racism as primarly a problem of individual minds rather than a social problem. In brief, racism reflects the faulty thinking or bad feelings of individuals and not fundamental flaws in the social order itself. Thus for some people who psychologize racism, because large numbers of white Americans do not think or feel in racist ways then racism itself is no longer a problem. For others, white Americans (but others as well) do think and feel in racist ways and if you change their thinking and feeling, then racism will go away. People with this view spend tremendous time and resources attempting to educate (i.e., diversity training) or socialize (i.e., multi-cultural events) people out of their racism. Not surprisingly, neither of these forms of psychologizing racism have much impact on actual racial/ethnic inequality in our society. This is because psychologizing racism represents a misunderstanding, a misdiagnosis of the problem. The problem is not simply how people think or feel, the problem is the distribution of power as reflected in the social order. While our thoughts and feelings influence this distribution of power, the distribution of power often determines the contexts in which our thoughts and feelings are formed and how they can and cannot be expressed in behavior. Ultimately whether or not someone believes intellectually that I'm actually a human being or feels warm and fuzzy when I'm around is of little use if I have less power to determine my quality of life and that of people I love than they do. Until power is distributed in a more equitable and just way in our society, racism will continue to exist and the business of creating a truly United States will remain unfinished."

Ultimately unconscious racism, "racism without racists" as it has been called, becomes embodied in the kinds of institutional racial inequalities that persist in the U.S. In turn, these institutional racial inequalities perpetuate unconscious racial attitudes. The current racial order is at once misshaped by and misshapes the human mind. The Baha'i Writings put it this way:

"We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the
other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions."
(The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 84)