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Andrew Grant-Thomas, Ph.D.

Andrew Grant-Thomas, Ph.D.

Posted: January 7, 2010 11:58 AM

Accusing Someone of Racism Squashes the Likelihood of Fruitful Dialogue Like a Bug

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Continuing the dialogue from Mike Barber's article: Words of advice for White would-be writers on race

If last year's hullaballoos around Eric Holder ("nation of cowards"), Skip Gates, Sonia Sotomayor, the Birther "movement," Joe Wilson, Van Jones, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, the movie Precious, and so on ... not to mention the foreclosure crisis and economic recession, residential and school racial segregation, criminal injustice, wealth inequities, immigration, and more ... if these weren't enough to remind us that race matters and that how we talk about race matters, well, now here's Lisa Solod Warren (her original Huffington Post piece, entitled "Two Black Role Models Done In By Hubris," has since been removed) and Mike Barber, Lisa, Lisa's legion of critics (see comments), Mike, and Lisa and Mike and Lisa again (see comments) to remind us.

With a respectful nod to Mike's words of advice, here are a few broad takeaways of my own from all this.

#1: Accusing someone of racism squashes the likelihood of fruitful dialogue like a bug. The merits of a particular case aside, truth is that almost no one embraces the racist label. This is true even in the relatively rare instance where the accused has practically scratched the word into his forehead. Look, if Paul Lanzo, who placed a Klansman mannequin in his restaurant and a sign that read "Obama's plan for health-care: nigger rig it" in front of it -- if that guy can insist with a straight face that he is not a racist, good luck squeezing confessions from the rest of us.

Let's also acknowledge that the charge isn't very amenable to proof (to the satisfaction of the accused) or refutation (from the perspective of the accuser). Mind you, context and motivation matter. Many thousands of people attend anti-racism seminars and trainings in which they usefully confront their own biases and privileges. In most contexts, however, the likely result of calling someone a racist is a lot of sound and fury signifying frustration, resentment, more rigidity around race and race talk, and greater reluctance to re-engage in the future: lose-lose all around.

#2: Empathy must go both ways.
Mike, I think you're half-right: yes, whether we're white or not, when a lot of people insist we have a problem we owe it to ourselves to listen. However, the empathy must flow in all directions if the conversation is to move anywhere useful. That's just how most of us are wired. Given our usual understanding of racism as a character-defining, moral blight of heart and mind, it's not too surprising that most people accused of racism spend a lot of energy defending themselves, rather than "hearing where [their accusers] are coming from," as Mike and others urge Lisa to do.

Besides, when it comes to inequities and injustices on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, few of us are innocent. Seriously. I'm not saying that we're equally complicit in generating these injustices or keeping them alive any more than we bear their benefits and burdens equally. But on this point I'm reminded of Cornel West and his answer to the white people eager to assure him that while their old Aunt Eunice had regrettable issues with black people, they themselves had moved beyond that. Brother West's reply: Oh really? I'm a black man, and if there's some white supremacy in me, my hunch is there's still a little in you.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I just made that up. Here's another one: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

#3: Not all interpersonal bias is explicit. What's going on when whites assess neighborhood quality very differently on issues like safety, school quality, and housing values simply on the basis of residents' race? How do we make sense of the fact that people are more likely to identify as black and be identified by others as black if they've been incarcerated, unemployed or poor than if they have not? What to make of the finding that employers are 50 percent more likely to call jobseekers for interviews when their resumes have "white-sounding" names (e.g., Emily and Neil) than when they have "black-sounding" names (Tamika, Rasheed)?

My guess is that relatively few of the people involved in these examples are making the kinds of blatant, ugly racial judgments many of us associate with the likes of Sheriff Joe Arpaio or Paul Lanzo. Nevertheless, many of them, including those who profess consciously egalitarian views and values, surely harbor hidden biases. A large and compelling body of research makes clear that many of us do -- along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, age, weight, and more -- and that those attitudes are usually more negative than our conscious attitudes. Moreover, they affect everything from how we interpret routine social interactions to how we behave. We know more about the presence and effects of implicit biases than about how to deal with them effectively. Still, we have some insights (see here, here, and here).

#4. It's not all about interpersonal bias, whether conscious or unconscious. Get this. In 1997, 17 percent of California's public schools had 15 or more AP courses; 15 percent had none. Whites predominated in the neighborhoods with the AP-rich schools, blacks and Latinos in the areas with the AP-poor schools. In that same year the average GPA of 1st-year students admitted to UCLA was... wait for it, wait for it.... 4.15. So how do you earn a 4.15 on a 4.0 scale? By getting A's in your honors and AP courses, plus the +1 GPA booster given to grades in advanced classes.

In other words, the kids, mostly black and Latino, attending those no-AP schools had zero chance to earn the GPA of the average student admitted to UCLA; didn't matter how smart or diligent they were. This isn't about scheming college admissions officers or evil high school teachers and superintendents (though they all should be alert and responsive to such inequities). It's mostly about structural interactions between housing markets, K-12 education, and higher education. It's about how schools draw attendance zones and how they're funded, about residential zoning, how labor markets operate, and historical legacies of wealth inequality and segregation.

Whether we're talking about college admissions, health outcomes, or the economic crisis, disparate racial impacts are often driven by these kinds of complex and cumulative structural dynamics. I'm not saying that the interpersonal stuff isn't in the mix. I'm saying there's a lot more going on.

#5. Dialogue is not enough. Lisa Solod Warren described Tiger Woods and Barack Obama as two black male role models undone by hubris. Many of her critics called her, or at least her statements, racist. Mike Barber responded with some words of advice to white writers on race. Almost a year ago, Attorney General Eric Holder drew flak for asserting that we Americans are "a nation of cowards" when it comes to race talk. Sonia Sotomayor took grief for suggesting a "wise Latina" with certain life experiences might enjoy judicial advantages over a white male without them. A black professor allegedly said something about a white cop's momma and was subsequently arrested. A white member of Congress shouted "you lie!" at our first African American president during the latter's prime time health care address. Race matters. The way we talk about race matters.

However, if implicit and structural biases account for a lot of our grief around race, then what's most needed are hardcore changes in practice and policy: changing where federally subsidized housing is sited; making school funding equitable, rather than aiming for a gross "equality" of funding; meaningful criminal justice reform; a responsive mindfulness to the distributions of burdens and benefits that attach to "universal" measures like the stimulus package... And insofar as the right kinds of dialogue are needed, they must confront our hidden biases as well as our explicit ones.

The way forward may begin with dialogue. It cannot end there.

Cross-posted from Race-Talk.