We are ultimately held accountable for our actions, not for our thoughts, but insofar as our actions are guided and directed by our thoughts, it can be useful to consider the thoughts that cross our mind as we go about our daily lives.
Logically, then, the problem many of us define as “racism in America” should more properly be identified as the problem of “discrimination in America” since racism is just the thought that drives any discriminatory action.
Some 20 years ago, when Tiger Woods came onto the golf scene, he was both a hero to blacks and a multiracial darling to whites. But Fuzzy Zoeller, if you remember, referred to him as a “little boy” and made a reference to “collard greens or whatever the hell they serve,” implying, beyond any doubt, that he thought blacks were different from whites just because of their skin color. When he said that, he had no idea what kinds of foods Mr Woods enjoyed.
Mr Zoeller apologized profusely for the remarks and withdrew from golf tournaments as a sort of penance, since he wasn’t able to apologize to Mr Woods face-to-face. “The comments were not intended to be racially derogatory,” he said with sincerity. “I deeply regret what I said. I started this, and I feel strongly that I have to make things right with Tiger first before anything else.”
This was a prime example of what the US government can and can’t do: We can write laws that end discrimination against blacks, laws that make it illegal and punishable by the police and courts for treating blacks any differently from whites. I lump in here other protected classes as well, such as religion and ethnicity differences, but racism is at the root of our thoughts, for sure, since the very first thing people notice when they meet someone on the street is their color, not their sex, size, or religion.
Our thoughts, however, fall outside the government’s reach. In fact, the First Amendment makes thought police illegal. As far as the government is concerned, all Americans are free to think whatever they want about their race, their body size, their religion, their anything, as long as they don’t act on it. Any action would fall under different Constitutional amendments, such as the 13th, 14th, 15th, etc. We have enshrined “discrimination” into our national law, but the government can’t legally touch “racism.”
Mr Zoeller wasn’t discriminating against Mr Woods: he wasn’t failing to serve him at a restaurant, disallowing his registration for a golf tournament, or anything like that. He was rather expressing a racist idea, which is morally wrong but outside the purview of our laws.
We’ve come a long way in 20 years with respect to racism in America. Today, people forget about any distinction and just call all white people racists because of the color of their skin, not because of any action they have taken that discriminates against blacks.
Writes philosopher George Yancy in the New York Times:
As a sexist, I have failed women. I have failed to speak out when I should have. I have failed to engage critically and extensively their pain and suffering in my writing. I have failed to transcend the rigidity of gender roles in my own life. I have failed to challenge those poisonous assumptions that women are “inferior” to men or to speak out loudly in the company of male philosophers who believe that feminist philosophy is just a nonphilosophical fad. I have been complicit with, and have allowed myself to be seduced by, a country that makes billions of dollars from sexually objectifying women, from pornography, commercials, video games, to Hollywood movies. I am not innocent.
Acknowledging that we all bear some burden, at least a moral one out of love for our fellow human beings—in his case, women—he believes we all should be held accountable not only for any discriminatory actions on our part with regard to racial differences but for our thoughts and beliefs as well:
If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism. Don’t hide from your responsibility. Rather, begin, right now, to practice being vulnerable. Being neither a “good” white person nor a liberal white person will get you off the proverbial hook. I consider myself to be a decent human being. Yet, I’m sexist. Take another deep breath. I ask that you try to be “un-sutured.” If that term brings to mind a state of pain, open flesh, it is meant to do so. After all, it is painful to let go of your “white innocence,” to use this letter as a mirror, one that refuses to show you what you want to see, one that demands that you look at the lies that you tell yourself so that you don’t feel the weight of responsibility for those who live under the yoke of whiteness, your whiteness.
From a purely logical perspective, Mr Yancy’s ship sailed out of the harbor long ago. He deals with people’s beliefs, and while his objective of ending “racism” is a noble one from a moral perspective, he cannot make the leap to law based on, as he says, “lies that you tell yourself.”
Scientists who conduct actual experiments have come to a firmer grasp of reality and have found Mr Yancy’s “lies” to be nothing of the sort. Mr Yancy isn’t one of those scientists, and I therefore make no assumption about his inability to find the truth or any actual facts about our world, but based on his writing, he has failed to do so in this matter. I only quote his remarkable essay because I’m quite sure it accurately reflects the way blacks in Baltimore have treated me as a white person.
But research, using actual controlled experiments, confirms that our racist thoughts have more to do with people’s ecology than with the color of their skin. Whereas race ranges from white to black, ecology ranges from desperate to hopeful, say Keelah Williams, Oliver Sng, and Steven Neuberg at Arizona State University in “Ecology-driven stereotypes override race stereotypes,” published in the early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Ms Williams was quoted as saying:
In America, race and ecology are somewhat confounded—whites are more likely to live in relatively hopeful ecologies, and blacks are more likely to live in relatively desperate ecologies. We wanted to examine whether Americans were actually using race as a cue to ecology, and if so, whether providing ecology information independently from race information would lead people to decrease their use of race stereotypes.
Research subjects were prejudiced against others based mostly on their ecology, regardless of race. However, when subjects were given no information about their ecology, or the median habits of people in their neighborhood, including educational attainment, manner of dress, “health” value of typical foods consumed, observable hygiene, and so on, subjects were more likely to express prejudice against black people than white. These prejudices are thoughts, not actions, but these experiments get at the heart of racism in America and shine a light on how white people in Europe don’t express the same level of race-based prejudice.
This scientific approach to racism is closer to the truth and the reality of our world and of America, I think. Maybe #BlackLivesMatter should change to #DesperateLivesMatter.
Mr Woods is an example of a black person who wasn’t discriminated against, as far as I know, in the very white world of professional golf. And it is not a “lie” that most whites in America never do anything discriminatory against a black person or against blacks in general.
Rather, it is the #BlackLivesMatter movement that tends to focus our attention on the color of people’s skin. All we’re doing with that is spinning our wheels, taking steps to solve a problem that either doesn’t exist (if you think discrimination is the problem) or can’t be addressed (if you think the original definition of racism is the problem, as in people’s thoughts). Better to focus on people’s ecology than on their skin color, at least in a pragmatic sense of solving problems.
As the Arizona State researchers found, by conducting controlled experiments, it’s people’s ecology that drives most of their actions. People who come from a more hopeful ecology tend to behave in a way that looks to the future: they treat others with respect and love, they go to college, they pursue a career, they save money. Those who come from a more desperate ecology tend to behave in a way that looks to the present and may disregard long-term consequences: they steal other people’s property, they drop out of high school, they get a job, they spend money immediately upon receiving it.
It is not a “lie” that white people treat blacks disrespectfully, I don’t think, but viewing racism as something that’s in our sphere of influence is inaccurate and will lead us down a dark alley. The pursuit of fixing racist thought in America is a victory that can never be won, and all we do when we focus our attention on race is perpetuate the discrimination.
Discrimination, such as police stopping blacks more than whites or killing blacks more than whites, can be legislated. Insofar as those differential actions are based on the color of people’s skin and not on their direct actions, that discrimination needs to end. But since a person’s ecology isn’t something we can usually identify when we meet someone for the first time, we can only tell from their actions what their ecology is likely to have been: Did they drop out of high school? Did they accost me for money on the streets of Baltimore? Did they raise their voice at their kids on the light rail? What’s their vocabulary like? Do they read to kids?
White or black, if you are seen doing acts that are typically associated with a “desperate” ecology rather than a “hopeful” ecology, people will naturally downgrade their opinion of you before they get to know you. They will, in other words, feel prejudiced against you. If they then act with discrimination against you, those actions fall under our laws; trying to get them to stop thinking about those differences—or, to use Mr Yancy’s words, to “vulnerably” admit our guilt—is a complete waste of time and a waste of the efforts of well-meaning people who harbor serious hope for change in our country.