(reprinted from July 18, 2010)
WASHINGTON — Can we talk? About race?
Your blood pressure is already rising? It need not. This isn’t a rambling diatribe or a harsh polemic filled with invective about tea partiers, Jim Crow and reparations.
Instead, it’s a plea for honest and thoughtful conversation about the ways in which long-held beliefs and biases, prejudices and predispositions pool in the back of our brains to form a feedback loop, a quick and unconscious Google which spits out judgments about people like us, different from us, unfamiliar to us.
This column won’t address the remnants of malevolent racism that linger at the margins of American society — whether expressed by a tea partier’s Photoshopped sign of President Obama as a witch doctor or a member of the New Black Panthers yelling about killing white people. Those remnants are too few and too feeble to merit serious attention.
The more challenging problem for a diverse society is harder to see, to pinpoint, to quantify, to tease out — the problem of lingering perceptions around race, deeply-held notions that still tend to hamper people of color. “Racism” is, I think, too harsh a descriptive for those judgments that linger in our lizard brains. The proper word is “prejudice” because of its precise denotation — to pre-judge.
Harmful stereotypes and faulty preconceptions are still very much with us, despite the election of the nation’s first black president. Indeed, Barack Obama’s ascension to the Oval Office should make it easier for us to take stock of the biases that remain.
President Obama was describing prejudices when he spoke of his grandmother in a brilliant speech about race in March 2008. Though she loved him dearly, she still harbored unflattering stereotypes about other young black men.
Obama described her as “a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
Those who later declared that Obama had described his grandmother as a “racist” where wholly and completely wrong. He described the late Madelyn Dunham as fully human, a case study in the warped and woeful complexities surrounding race, color and caste in America. She could love her bi-racial grandson fully and completely, while still keeping “implicit biases,” as researchers call them, lodged in her subconscious.
What else but implicit biases would explain the lingering employment gap between college-educated blacks and whites?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black men with college degrees had an unemployment rate nearly twice as high as white men with college degrees in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There have been studies — including one published a few years ago called, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” — showing that black job candidates were more likely to be rejected even if they had resumes identical to white candidates who were hired.
Given the paucity of black managers in positions of authority, black job applicants are left to appeal to white managers who probably believe they see only skills, not skin. Are those white managers bigots? I don’t think so. But they are allowing unsavory stereotypes to seep into their considerations.
As a Southerner who grew up in an era when black adults were not given the courtesy of titles and black children were bussed past white schools, I learned to distinguish between well-meaning whites who don’t know their own biases and malevolent whites who are proud of their bigotry. I’ve had white hometown acquaintances who’d be pleased to have me as a dinner guest but who’d be far less pleased if the new president hired at the local community college were black.
Are they racists? I certainly don’t think so. But I do think they’re unaccustomed to seeing black men and women in such positions of authority, and a changing America makes them uncomfortable.
Can we talk about this honestly? That’s half the battle.