The State of American Racism

by Benjamin Studebaker

As black history month approaches, the question occurs to me–what’s going on with racism in the states these days? Paul Krugman drew my attention to a Gallup poll that seems to indicate that things are headed in a positive direction, and it got me thinking.

Firstly, what does the poll say? The core statistic is the number of people who approve of inter-racial marriages. This figure was a mere 4% in 1958; as of 2011, it’s 86%:

Approval of inter-racial marriage seems to be a fairly good indicator of whether or not an individual is racist. It is not very likely that a racist person would approve of marriages between people of a superior race and people of an inferior race. Certainly there was a significant number of people in the fifties and before who were not particularly racist, yet, by this poll, a mere 4% approved of inter-racial marriage. This suggests that even being slightly racist is enough to make someone disapprove of inter-racial marriage. It doesn’t take much.

What’s more interesting, however, is what happens when the poll breaks down the results by age bracket:

What we see here is that among young people today, a full 97% approve of inter-racial marriage compared to 61% of people over 70. This means that the majority of people who disapprove of inter-racial marriage will soon be dead. We can also see that each generation finds it harder to pass racism down to the next generation. The 38-49 and 50-69 groups average 88% approval combined, a full 27 percentage points better than their parents. Their children, the youngest group, are an additional 9 points better than they are. If we find this data believable (and I see no reason why we shouldn’t–Gallup’s methodology is quite meticulous), racism today in the states falls into three categories:

  1. Old Racists–people who were born into a society that was institutionally racist and have retained their racist views despite the demise of those laws and institutions. They are the largest group of racists, and within a couple of decades they will be gone.
  2. Inherited Racists–people who received their racism from their parents. The children, broadly speaking, of the first group, as well as the grandchildren. The poll shows that every generation the number of inherited racists is substantially smaller than the previous generation.
  3. Ironic/Implicit Racists–people who responded that they approve of inter-racial marriage but think pretending to be racist is funny or who secretly harbour implicit racist views that this survey would not capture.

The first category is dying off, the second category seems to shrink substantially each generation. This leaves us with the third category, people whose racism is ironic or beneath the surface.

It is dangerous to assume a tremendous amount of implicit racism beneath the surface because this racism is extremely difficult to measure. There is some danger in creating an irrefutable and self-perpetuating hypothesis in which it is believed that people who claim not to be racist are secretly racist. That said, it must be conceded that implicit racism is feasible and could exist in some difficult to measure number. As for the ironic racists, they are all over the internet engaging in internet trolling–taking up the racist argument in order to elicit shocked and angry responses from other people.

So, given that the first and second groups are fading out, what do we do about the third group? I propose that the response must be very different from what we have done over the last several decades. Over the last several decades, we have relied on education, often through black history month, to indoctrinate children with an opposition to racism. The message in the schools is one of “racism is bad; don’t be racist”. It has certainly been effective in making people less willing to be openly racist by illustrating to them that social expression of racist viewpoints will not be tolerated and will be frowned upon. However, it is not a logical argument against racism as an idea–it merely offers a baseless condemnation of it without inviting room for discussion or independent thinking.

When you use the tactics of a propagandist to squelch an idea, some number of people will respond by, rightly, questioning that propaganda. Unfortunately, while many people are smart enough to be suspicious of what they are told, a much smaller number of people will be smart enough to be suspicious of their own suspicions. A number of people will assume that because the manner in which they are being taught not to be racist doesn’t feel right that its underlying message isn’t right. This is the mistake of modern American racists. They are right that our education system does not invite a dialogue about race, that it has the character of indoctrination, but they are wrong about the truth value of the message being spread. To correct this problem, we need to change the way we educate people about race.

For one, against what they are told in school, racists have what they see in front of them–a society in which racial minorities, blacks and Hispanics in particular, are disproportionately uneducated and poor. “Aha!” go the racists, “here is evidence that what we were told in school was a lie, and I am clever enough not to fall for it.” They have never had it explained to them why blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately uneducated and poor–the cycle of poverty, its spread downward from one generation to the next, all this is foreign to the modern racist. Furthermore, for some of them, were they to have it explained, they would still not believe it. “Excuses”, they would say, “they should take responsibility for their lives rather than blame white people”. Ultimately, modern racism derives from the libertarian and conservative ideals of personal responsibility and the protestant work ethic, respectively. So long as these ideas persist, it will be difficult to fully eradicate racism, since, at this point, racism is really synonymous with blaming society’s victims.

This leaves us with two options for combating the remaining third variant of racism:

  1. Educate people not to believe in personal responsibility and the protestant work ethic–a totalitarian policy, indeed, and not one to which I would be eager to subscribe. This follows the same mistakes as our past racial education policy, in trying to indoctrinate and propagandise rather than educate and invite discussion.
  2. Remove the underlying cause of racism, the poverty and poor education of racial minorities that makes them appear to be inferior to the ignorant observer.

The second policy is by far the better, but the affirmative action we typically use to achieve it builds in an out for the racist–sure, blacks and Hispanics are doing better, but they are only doing better because they were given success, they did not earn it. While this may very well be wholly fallacious, the modern racist will still believe it, and since our objective here is to eliminate racism, affirmative action does not do the job. What else can we do?

Resume LBJ’s crusade against poverty and make a serious concerted effort to equalise opportunity throughout society, not with race as the explicit target, with as a side effect of helping the poor in general break out of their respective cycles of poverty. After all, poor white people are just as trapped by the forces that keep generations impoverished as poor blacks and poor Hispanics and are just as worthy of our help. The left in America has spent the last several decades whining exclusively about the misfortunes of the bourgeois middle class while entirely ignoring the nation’s poor. Black history month no longer cuts it–we need to do more for our poor and our minorities than merely pay lip service to their history of struggle for a month each year. With a colour-blind policy of helping the poor, we can break the cycles of poverty that keep minorities down without making them look like the sole beneficiaries. By opening up dialogue on issues of poverty and race rather than telling students what to think, we can remove the stigma attached to race that makes it cool and rebellious to play at being racist–after all, if Plato is correct, what we imitate we eventually become more similar to ourselves.

Or, alternatively, we can spend February posting Martin Luther King quotes as our Facebook statuses and telling ourselves what wonderful, socially conscious people we are while inequality increases and the first black president ignores the poor.