Other Problems With Racism

Ronald ReaganIn this article, I’m talking about individual racism—the feelings that we all have toward others who we don’t see as our tribe or whatever. I focus on African Americans, because I think that’s the biggest problem in this nation and the biggest problem for me, having grown up among a lot of whites and Latinos, but very few blacks. What I am most definitely not talking about here is the much more important issue of systemic racism and the way that our country in various ways keeps down the African American community especially. For that, I would refer you to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent article, The Case for Reparations.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about Ronald Reagan over the past couple of months. And I have to admit, he does come off as a decent guy. His big problem was that when he saw things for real, or at least placed in a narrative he could understand, his impulses were distinctly liberal. Unfortunately, he was an ideologue. And not a very smart one. What’s more, what people now remember about him was all the radical ideology and absolutely false ideas like it was his buildup of our military that caused the Soviet Union to fold. But he did a lot of good in one way: he helped to lessen the threat of nuclear weapons. And that’s great.

But I still have a problem with the personable guy who everyone loved. And it all comes down to an issues that I’ve been thinking about a lot more over the last couple years: racism. But not just racism in a general sense, my own racist tendencies. I think anyone who claims that they aren’t at all racist are just lying—most likely to themselves. And the bad thing about that is that what we all need to do is fight against our racist tendencies. And that’s the thing about Reagan. Everyone admits that he was not a racist. But I think that’s just based upon the old definition of racism that really isn’t the way this disease usually presents itself. Of course Reagan didn’t use the n-word and of course he had friends who were wealthy and successful African Americans.

But just as I’m sure of that, I’m sure that if he found himself walking down a lonely street and saw a young black man approaching him, he was at least a little more anxious than if it had been a young white man. But it is primarily conservatives who won’t admit to this kind of thing. And I think it is because they think they can wish the problem away. Tim Wise tells an incredibly affecting story in his book, White Like Me. He’s on an airplane and he sees in the cockpit that the two pilots are black. And he starts to panic. “Oh my God! Black pilots! Are they any good?!” Now Wise spends his entire working life thinking about nothing but this kind of stuff. But still, that panic hit him, even though it was just for a moment. Then his rational mind came in and he realized that the fact that these black pilots were flying for a major airline indicated that they were almost certainly two of the best pilots flying.

So I don’t blame Reagan for the reactions that he certainly had, just as I don’t blame myself. I try to use all of these instances as learning experiences, just as I would like to think that Reagan did. These reactions come from deep down in our brains and we don’t have as much as control as we believe. Plus, they aren’t all bad. Having a tribal identity has a lot of good aspects to it. But it is mostly bad in the modern world. And it is mostly just our evolutionarily developed fear of anything that is different. The truth is that like most white people, most of the people I know are white. If I had more black friends (and that starts to get into the whole issue of systemic racism), these lower brain reactions would lessen at a much faster rate than they have with my very active efforts to think like a human and not like a reptile.

What I come back to again and again with Reagan, however, is how he used dog whistle politics. At the beginning of his 1980 general election campaign for president, he went to the Neshoba County Fair, just outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi where the KKK notoriously murdered three civil rights workers in 1964. And he told the crowd:

I believe in states’ rights and I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment.

That’s not just an appeal to Jim Crow; that’s an appeal to slavery; that’s a not at all subtle argument against stopping the southern states from seceding from the nation. It is one of the most vile things I’ve ever heard Reagan say.

And his states’ rights speech was hardly some outlier. Remember the “welfare queen”? The truth is that Reagan never used that term. You could possibly say that had no racist content. But during his 1976 bid for the Republican nomination, he talked about a woman from “Chicago’s South Side” who was arrested for welfare fraud. That signals about as clearly as you can that he’s talking about a black woman. He said:

She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.

It turned out the woman was not quite the criminal mastermind Reagan indicated. She was only charged with $8,000 in fraud and was convicted and given a prison term of 2-6 years. But Reagan wasn’t talking about that. He was implying that (1) all people on welfare are black and (2) they are all committing fraud.

So okay, Reagan was nice to black folks he met. But he pushed an ideology and policies that were extremely racist. And it is so much worse than that.

He wasn’t just hurting the African American community in the myriad ways that his ideology harmed them as a group. By using that kind of dog whistle politics, he was hurting everyone—regardless of their race and regardless of where they land on the racism number line. Because he was pushing fear and intolerance. He was making racism more acceptable. And he was making America more divisive. And he was making Americans more fearful. And he was doing it only in the service of gaining political power.

Of course, he’s not alone. When Bush the Elder ran for president, his most effective weapon was the infamous “Willie Horton” ad. And it continues to the present. Let’s not forget Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamp president.” The fact that Bush and Obama increased the food stamp rolls by an equal amount didn’t matter. Nor did the obvious reason that the economy had suffered through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Mitt Romney didn’t use the term, but used the issue against Obama. And why? It’s meaningless. It makes more sense to talk about unemployment or job creation. But “food stamps” skews black in the minds of most Americans, even though it most certainly doesn’t in fact.

I feel like I’m a victim of racism in the sense that I have some automatic reactions to different races that I’m not in control of. (One odd bit of this: I like the Japanese more than the Chinese more than the Indians, which is bizarre because I’ve only ever had close friendships with Indians.) And the more racist someone is, the most of a victim he is. When I see white supremacists, a small addition to all the harm that they do to our people and our culture, is the harm they do to themselves by living small, pathetic lives where they never have the pleasure of reading James Baldwin.

I will end with a question and my answer—but I’m interested in others’. Is the most important thing about individual racism just actively hating or feeling superior to other races? I don’t think so. I think those reptilian brain reactions we have that we struggle to control actually have a more pernicious effect on all of us. And politicians who use these individual weaknesses to gain power are the worst racist we have. And it doesn’t matter how nice they may be to individual blacks or how much money they may raise for the NAACP.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Other Problems With Racism

  1. I’m not a big fan of Spike Lee’s movies — I find them overdramatic and obvious, although many similarly hammy white moviemakers have made bigger careers for themselves despite the same flaws — but there was an interview I read with him once that, I thought, nailed this issue. (I think it was a "Playboy" interview after "Jungle Fever" came out.)

    Lee said there was a difference between racism and prejudice. He admitted to being prejudiced against white people, because of his experiences with them, and theorized that everyone is prejudiced. Racism is the use of power to harm members of another ethnic group. It’s different than prejudice.

    For example, if a bank loan officer denies someone a home loan because the officer hates that person’s ethnicity, that officer is engaged in racism. If the officer hates the person applying for the loan, goes to the washroom immediately after shaking hands with them out of disgust at being touched, and yet treats that applicant the same way as everyone else, the loan officer is prejudiced, not racist.

    (Lee’s point, which I largely agree with, is that it’s very rare for Black Americans to be racist, since they have less aggregate power than whites. Of course many Black Americans are prejudiced.)

    Orwell, before "racism" was a word, was against "nationalism," which he defined as an irrational need to identify with one group of humans and feel exulted when you perceived their interests to be winning over the interests of other groups. (He distinguished this from "patriotism," the desire to help your neighbors/immediate circle when possible.)

    For me, prejudice and racism are hard to separate. I routinely try and encourage the hiring of immigrant workers at my job, since I’ve had good experiences with many. I’m less enthusiastic about encouraging the hiring of poor Black or poor white workers, whom I’ve often had bad experiences with (in my field, which is unskilled labor.) Ideally, I’d encourage giving job opportunities to anyone from a disadvantaged social group, but crummy workers make my life much harder to handle. So I consider poor white and poor Black applicants to have two strikes against them before I even meet these people.

    In essence, I am using what limited influence I have to select for certain people against certain others, because my job is stressful and having crummy coworkers adds to my stress level. What makes this borderline racist is that the type of person I immediately try and prevent being hired has nothing to do with their resume or educational background, but whether or not they express an angry resentment toward those who have unfairly treated them in the past. This kind of resentment scares me; it makes me worry that ordinary workplace disagreements will cause that person to become irrationally obstinate.

    That’s a cultural prejudice I have, which is probably racist (or classist, or however one may describe it.) It unfairly favors immigrants who may have the same resentments as poor whites/Blacks but are far more frightened of expressing them. It also only generally applies at work. Outside of work, I try to treat everyone equally, which is to say be polite and hope every stranger in the universe will please refrain from talking to me.

    I’m not sure what to think of my attitudes or how to change them, but that’s what they are. I like poor foreigners (here, primarily, Ethiopians/Somalis/Mexicans/Hmong) better than than poor Americans. Although I also like the few middle-class foreigners I’ve known better than most Americans.

    Basically I’m sick to death of Americans.

  2. @JMF – Many excellent points and I don’t have time to answer in depth, but maybe I will later. I once had a professor who distinguished between racism and ethnocentrism. And to him, the distinction was hatred. I saw this a lot when I worked in China. The Chinese were highly ethnocentric but not racist as far as I could tell. I like that distinction. It, like all these kinds of theories, however, is only part of it.

    What Lee is saying is true. But I would counter that if I were a loan officer, that little voice in the reptilian part of my brain [i]would[/i] make me treat blacks differently from whites. Not in a big way, but if you looked at all the loans I gave out over a decade, you would find that I had (on average) given out worse terms to blacks than to whites. And in fact, we saw that in the 2000s: blacks got put into loans that were significantly worse than otherwise identical whites. That’s racism, even if none of those bankers has a conscious negative thought about blacks. And that’s a huge problem that very few people want to admit to, much less address.

    Oh, I want to be clear. When I’m talking about black racism, I’m not talking about racism against whites. Studies have found that blacks tend to have the same kind of racist feelings toward other blacks that whites do. It’s hard not to learn that when mostly you see nice white people reporting news about angry looking black men arrested for whatever.

    I had a recent experience of some racist behavior toward me as a white man coming from a young Native American. But he was drunk. And we totally turned it around. It helped that when it comes to Native Americans and Latinos, I feel a strong kinship. But that whole thing was about him being young and drunk, not about being Native American. He was just being a punk. So in general, I think the idea of racism against whites in this country is ridiculous. People in minority groups might be bitter and resentful of whites, but that isn’t racism. And it isn’t irrational.

    As I’ve said, I have a certain fondness for Latinos–I think to a large extent, growing up, they were always these hard working people who were friendly. I still hate it when people don’t smile back or wave back. That’s a cultural thing. I was raised on the edge of the Portuguese immigrant community and there are a lot of similarities. But in addition to that, I had the experience of working with a bunch of Latino gang members–young people. Some of them were psychopaths, but mostly, I was really impressed. They reminded me of the Black Muslim movement of the 60s (since then it seems to have gotten kind of corrupt). They were really hard workers and very respectful of other people. Ever since I’ve thought, "We could really use gangs to improve this country." But instead, the word "gang" has a kind magic effect on people like "murderer" or "drug dealer." I mean really: what do white people know about gangs? Just the worst stuff that they do. They could be a force to positive change.

    I understand what you mean about prejudice in he work place. I have all kinds of prejudices. As I learned recently from a test I took, perhaps my biggest prejudice is against young people. Part of that is irrational: young men especially frighten me. (Well, not totally irrational.) But part of it is just my own reaction to our youth-loving society that goes against my experience, which is that older people know more, have more skills, treat other people with more respect, have more humility, and are not controlled by their hormones. Still, I was surprised that the test showed by preference so strongly.

    And I agree with you about Americans generally–especially white Americans. They have been privileged for so long that they are much more likely to think that things ought to be given to them. (That’s a big part of the something for nothing attitudes in the finance industry.) But one thing that is really interesting is how entrepreneurial minority people stuck in hell holes like Richmond CA are. They do a lot of off-the-grid work that can be illegal or quasi-legal (selling pirated CDs). But they are out there working. They aren’t lazy. You don’t much see that in the white community.

    There is something very wrong with America. But I think it is overall a good system with good people. We just need to take it away from the oligarchs.

    That was my short response!

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