'Conserving' the Idea of Racism

British political scientist Eric Kaufman’s article takes on what is to me perhaps the most important question about race and race relations in the U.S. – “How is it that the objective facts about race have never been better, but the perception of racism persists almost intact?” We’ve come so far, only to be met with widespread denial of our progress. Perhaps worse, in order to deny that progress, those who do resort to denying basic facts that demonstrate it. We’re routinely told an outright lie - that black people are forever in danger of losing their lives at the hands of police.


Over the past 60 years, a sea-change in the facts and attitudes about race has taken place in this country. White voters elect black office-seekers, even in the deep South; blacks head up corporations large and small; we twice elected a black president; the black poverty rate today is a fraction of what it was in 1960; a higher percentage of blacks are registered to vote in Mississippi than are whites; in 1960, 4% of people approved of racial intermarriage while today over 84% do; there is no job category that’s not open to and occupied by black employees; we’ve spent trillions of dollars promoting blacks in every phase of education and employment; affirmative action programs help black applicants to college and in the workforce.


Yes, significant disparities among the races persist. But mostly (not invariably), those gaps can be closed by blacks acting on their own behalf. A drop in the black crime rate would see a drop in the black incarceration rate; placing greater value on education would urge more blacks to graduate from high school and attend college; acknowledging children’s need for two biological parents would mean a decline in out-of-wedlock childbearing that would in turn decrease the poverty rate and much dysfunctional behavior. To a great extent, blacks don’t need a white doctor; they can diagnose the illness and dispense the medicine themselves.


Despite all that and so much more, a vast chasm separates our narrative on race from its reality. The question is “why?” Why do we cling to the bad old days?


Black conservatives point out that white elites benefit from the persistent notion that the societal deck is stacked against blacks. If that’s the case, blacks can’t do for themselves and need white assistance to get by, handing whites power over black well-being.


Intellectually, that argument makes sense, but it doesn’t address why blacks would buy into such a narrative that’s both patently false and destructive to them. And yet many do. BLM and the miscellaneous woke couldn’t agree more with the notion of black incompetence and passivity. They cling to it in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary and are seemingly ignorant of the power they hand whites in the process. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and countless others would be outraged.


Kaufman gives another answer. Back in the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville addressed a similar issue – class - with words that apply well to the issue of race today:


The hatred that men bear to privilege increases in proportion as privileges become fewer and less considerable, so that democratic passions would seem to burn most fiercely just when they have least fuel. . . . When all conditions are unequal, no inequality is so great as to offend the eye, whereas the slightest dissimilarity is odious in the midst of general uniformity; the more complete this uniformity is, the more insupportable the sight of such a difference becomes.


No serious person doubts that the “playing field” for whites and blacks is not entirely level. Certainly, blacks face discrimination, even if it’s seldom overt. At least some of blacks’ perception of discrimination comes from having been sensitized to the issue, but, at the same time, all those blacks who see racism in their daily lives can’t be wrong. The convenience store cashier who stares sullenly at a black customer may suspect him of planning a robbery, or she may have just had a fight with her daughter. Some of their perceptions are likely misperceptions, but not all.


So Tocqueville’s observation is entirely applicable to today’s U.S. The more we reduce racism and racial discrimination, the larger the remaining inequalities loom. Kaufman quotes Coleman Hughes to exactly that effect:


It seems as if every reduction in racist behavior is met with a commensurate expansion in our definition of the concept. Thus, racism has become a conserved quantity akin to mass or energy: transformable but irreducible.


Indeed. Plus, it turns out that the very phenomenon Tocqueville and Hughes noted has itself been observed scientifically.


[W]hen participants were shown 800 human faces on a continuum of threatening to nonthreatening—when the prevalence of threatening faces was reduced in one group, participants expanded their concept of threat to include faces which they had previously defined as nonthreatening. In a third study, participants were shown 240 proposals for scientific research that were rated on a continuum from very ethical to very unethical. When the prevalence of proposals defined as unethical were decreased for one group, the group expanded their concept of unethical to include proposals they had previously defined as ethical.


From Tocqueville, the perception of class, from Hughes that of race and from experimentation, threatening and unethical behaviors. All are negative phenomena and all are, in Hughes’s words, “conserved.” For some reason, we humans don’t want to let go of the idea that a situation is bad. In this post, I marveled at our inability to accept good news and this looks like more of the same.


Perhaps our tendency to hold onto the bad stems from our evolutionary past. Survival puts a premium on knowing what’s harmful, what can kill you, more than on what’s beneficial. An individual can get by without knowing when the berries become ripe every year, but the failure to recognize the smell or the scat of a dangerous predator can be fatal. So we tend to pay more attention to the negative than to the positive. Maybe that explains the difficulty we have in accepting change for the better.


Whatever the case, it’s highly likely that the fight between the reality of race and the narrative preferred by many isn’t destined to end anytime soon.

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