My new favorite blog has me thinking about these matters. That would be “We Are Respectable Negroes.” I posted something about it recently, I suppose that I am expanding on that post herein.
My wife and I were attending university in our mid-twenties, returning to our studies after a break for getting married and having a son. She had a student aid job, working as a secretary for the Human Relations branch of the Sociology Department. We were at Queens College of the City University of New York, one of the most working class campuses of that very working class institution, which had no dormitories, no football team, and no fraternities or sororities, almost all of the students were working class kids taking public transportation to school. Her duties took her to a retreat called a “Human Interaction Laboratory,” and I went along. While there I went to a session on inter-racial relations.
I had always found Black/White dialog easy, and I was happy for the opportunity to represent. I didn’t think that I was the prime example of open-mindedness, but I felt like my overall attitude was pretty good. On this occasion, I was the only White person in the room. The conversation started out with a question directed at me, “where are the White people?” All I could do was point out that I was there, and I couldn’t really speak for anyone else. Which leads me to my first point: the people who would most benefit from such discussions are rarely present.
There are problems with any kind of inter-racial dialog. “Prejudice” is generally perceived to be a negative emotion. To be “prejudiced” is to have already made up one’s mind about something, to “pre-judge,” which is not a good thing. But the truth is, most people are to some degree prejudiced when it comes to racial matters. Most people have opinions about the other races, more or less strongly held. These can be innocuous, like “Asians are lousy drivers,” or they can be more problematic, like “Italian men are criminals,” or “Blacks are dirty,” or “White people are racists.” Strong prejudices make dialog impossible.
Even well intentioned people can suffer from “prejudice light.” It’s enough to prevent real dialog from taking place at all. People may enter a new dialog with someone of the other race with a threshold question that is related to their own prejudices. They seek to discover, as soon as possible, if this person is what their prejudice tells them is a “typical” representative of that race. If the question is answered in the affirmative, the dialog is effectively over.
All races are guilty of this. No race is immune. Many Whites hold the conviction that Blacks automatically think ill of them, withholding approval and true fellowship on purely racial grounds. Or worse, they may feel strongly that most Blacks are culturally or morally inferior to White people. If the Black person offers any evidence at all, however slim, to support this prejudice, whoops! dialog over.
Blacks are equally guilty of this litmus-testing style. Many Blacks are convinced that Whites are contemptuous of their habits and their culture at best, and probably hold White supremacist views besides. In a very friendly manner, my delightfully personable new Black friend may be seeking confirmation of my bonafides.
A stereotype is set up, and the threshold question is, “does this person fit the stereotype?” It is disturbingly easy for most people to find evidence that the answer is, “yes.” Prejudice, even of a weaker variety, is a powerful mindset. Babies will be thrown out with bathwater.
Evidence is a funny thing. Lawyers know that “truth” is an impossible goal in a court inquiry. So it’s not so much “what does the evidence show,” as it is “what will the jury think that the evidence shows?” Different juries will come to different conclusions, based upon their prejudices. With no reference to truth, decisions will be made and then cut in stone.
There are so many aspects to this problem, honestly I don’t have the heart or the talent to tackle it in some systematic way. Just my usual shallow, unfocused rambling. This is a blog, not the New York Review of Books. I just want to make two points:
1. This shit is important. We live together, we serve together in the American military, we work together, our families are blended. People have value, all people. Strong prejudices and all generalizations must be eliminated as far as is possible. The weaker prejudices require our greater awareness, so that we may show a little smile when that filter is automatically engaged, and know that we are judging when no judgment is really called for; and
2. This shit is hard. We have, in America, a long history of torturous race relations, from the truly horrific to mere benign neglect and everything in between. The big groups, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, all have calcified positions that must be challenged, at least, and shattered if at all possible. And let’s not forget the poor American Indians, who have probably suffered more than any other group. Every group has sub-groups with their own grievances and prejudices. It’s complicated.
The current climate of the discussion is not good. That there are many so-called minorities represented at the top levels of our government does not mean that the problems of racism are behind us. We are not in any meaningful way “post-racial.” Those who are most likely to allege “post-racism” are also most likely to show up at a demonstration holding a sign displaying a banana eating monkey in the White House.
So please, if you love me, consider these things, and when the opportunity presents itself, walk a mile in the other guy’s moccasins, and do something gentle. And if you think that you know someone’s heart, based on thin evidence, in the immortal words of Oliver Cromwell, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, please consider that you may be wrong.”