So, what is racism? Is it just another word for hatred and fear of the “other,” that every human society is infused with? I mean, every tribe thinks it’s superior to that other tribe, right? I think that is using the term too loosely, and dilutes and devalues the importance of racism as a special kind of psychological and social phenomenon.
I’ve been reading a fair amount on racism lately (including these three books) and a host of very interesting civil rights-oriented blogs (such as this one and this fairly radical one). I think I’m starting to get the idea of what they mean by racism. A good working definition of the term might be that racism involves believing that:
- Differences in personality, intelligence, and so forth between people are the result of innate differences that sort themselves neatly by group based on physical characteristics. And, these differences are unchangeable, rather than being culturally- or socially-determined; i.e., physical characteristics go together with personality traits necessarily and cannot be changed by culture or socialization.
- These differences between groups are large enough and important enough that a hierarchy of racial/ethnic classification can be constructed using them. One group is morally or intellectually better than another group by nature.
- Institutions in society should reflect these inherent differences between the races/ethnicities and need not treat groups as equal because they are not equal.
A more detailed and slightly different definition of racism is here. (BTW, I love this academic sociologist’s blog.) It emphasizes the role of POWER. For any prejudice to matter, someone must have the power to enforce it through institutions, either formal or informal. Racial bigotry is a character flaw; racISM requires a dominant group to have power over (an)other group(s).
So, what? Nobody believes this stuff anymore, right? You never hear anyone express these views, and didn’t we leave institutionalized racism behind us? Well, the problem comes in the way the human mind consciously and unconsciously categorizes people. As the author of book #2, above, says:
[A]ll of us whether we think of ourselves as prejudiced or not, hold in our heads schemas that classify people into categories based on age, gender, race, and ethnicity. We cannot help it. It is part of the human condition, and these schemas generally include implicit memories that yield subconscious dispositions toward people and objects, leading to stereotypes.”
From what I’ve gathered, it is the power of these racial categorical stereotypes that give racism in the modern world its force. And, it’s a special problem in 21st century America, where a now formally colorblind society exists side-by-side with huge racial gaps in socio-economic status and achievement that are the results of a long racist legacy that we’re all trying to forget. When this reality collides with the American credo that we are now an equal opportunity society, most white Americans –like people everywhere – find a way to explain away the cognitive dissonance. They do it by subconsciously blaming minority status on a lack of merit and leave unstated the racist stereotypes on which it’s based. Those stereotpyes can even be unthought-of on a conscious level! By this indifference mechanism, once a racist society is built, it needs only our racial indifference to thrive – even when its legal foundation has been dismantled..
On Thursday, I’ll give a brief explanation of this modern American form of underground racism, and a little bit on its impacts.
Tomorrow, I’ll do one final post that will be mainly links to articles that try to explain the racial politics of the last few years. One you should all read is titled, “Liberal Racism.”
Don’t miss this one!