Racism vs. “Racial Insensitivity”

Racism is a big problem in our culture and the arguments about it get very superficial very quickly. Accusations of racism can be launched by anyone and  once made, it’s very hard to get the situation back under control; it seems that too often, the proper response to being called a racist is to allege reverse racism or to find other some problem with one’s opponent. Then someone, usually well-meaning, issues some bromides about the need for a “dialogue” on race in our country. I think one problem with such a dialogue developing is that we lack the tools for a such a conversation, and I don’t mean that in a nebulous way. I mean it very specifically: our concept of what racism is is hopelessly simplified which then make certain type of disputes inherently irresolvable and polarizing as well. Both sides simply get angry and yell.

First a relevant and interesting tangent. I watched Colin Powell on Meet the Press, and I thought he was easily one of the most reasonable and thoughtful guest that has been on the show in a long time. Undoubtedly I disagree with him on some things, but his answers were smart and sensitive to the opposition others were likely to feel to his views. One thing REALLY struck me, and forms the basis of this post.

When asked about Obama’s citizenship, place of birth, and religion, Powell strongly attacked rumors that Obama was a Muslim and was not born in the U.S. When told that more republicans than democrats believed these false accusations, he lamented this fact and gave some reasons, all involving unsavory politics, as possible explanations. This is in SHARP contrast to Mitch McConnell, who, when on the program previously, refused to strongly respond to David Gregory’s question which was essentially “as leader of the senate republicans, do you not have some duty as a statesman to dispel these rumors.” McConnell’s answer was pretty unimpressive.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me move on to something that seems to be related to this and has gotten a lot of attention this week, and this is the poll about the president’s own faith from the Pew Research Center.  Eighteen percent of those polled believe that the president is a Muslim.  Among Republicans, this is striking, 31 percent believe he’s a Muslim.  Of course, he’s not.  Why do you think these views prevail?

SEN. McCONNELL:  Well, look, I think the faith that most Americans are questioning is the president’s faith in the government to generate jobs. We’ve had an 18-month effort here on the part of this administration to prime the pump, borrow money, spend money hiring new federal government employees, sending money down to states so they don’t have to lay off state employees. People are looking around and saying, “Where’s the job?”

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

SEN. McCONNELL:  The president’s faith in the government to stimulate the economy is what people are questioning.

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MR. GREGORY:  That, that, that’s certainly a side step to, to this particular question.  Again…

SEN. McCONNELL:  Well, no, I–the–I–the president…

MR. GREGORY:  …as a leader of the country, sir, as one of the most powerful Republicans in the country, do you think you have an obligation to say to 34 percent of Republicans in the country–rather, 31 percent, who believe the president of the United States is a Muslim?  That’s misinformation.

SEN. McCONNELL:  The president says he’s a–the president says he’s a Christian, I take him at his word.  I don’t think that’s in dispute.

MR. GREGORY:  And do you think–how, how do you think it comes to be that this kind of misinformation gets spread around and prevails?

SEN. McCONNELL:  I have no idea, but I take the president at his word.

And what I want to suggest is our racial spectrum should beyond racist and not, but with racism marking the far negative extreme of a spectrum of “racial sensitivity” or “racial virtue.” This middle ground is very important in a range of national debates. Take McConnell, I don’t think his answer here is racist, of even in the neighborhood, but it is politically cowardly. However, Powell, as a black man, I think is quicker to come to the aid of the president on these matters because, and this is my hypothesis, he is more sensitive to the difficulties of being black in America.

Here’s what I take to be a clearer example: Skip Gates (I wrote briefly about this here). Was officer Crowley racist or just ignorant? Was he a white cop with a stereotypical view of blacks born from prejudice or a non-racist person who absorbed certain illegitimate shortcut inferences about race that cops can fall into very easily. I don’t want to rehash the case but merely to mention that we have no way of dealing with ambiguous situations other than saying that so and so was racist or that so and so was not racist. Why not recognize that there is an ambiguous middle ground. Someone may not be racist but still be racially insensitive. Couldn’t we see how officer Crowley, though not racist, might have been racially insensitive to some of the dynamics involving blacks and police in this country? What about a white person who uses the N word with a black person in an attempt to be colloquial? It does happen.

There are studies about unconscious racism (impulsive judgments about threats from black people) and what about policies that have other justifications, but disproportionately harm black people. If a politician decides to reduce money for low-income housing, could it be that he is not racist — he doesn’t desire to harm black people — but perhaps still he is racially insensitive, because he doesn’t think of the way that certain decisions create more nuanced and diffuse difficulties for black people.

I wrote before about how sentencing laws for cocaine disproportionately resulted in black people being put in jail for longer periods of time and that our prisons are filled predominantly with black people. If someone who wanted to continue these sentencing laws racists, or unappreciative of the ways that our justice system adds to the burdens of blacks in a multitude of subtle ways?

The point is not that we should excuse racism as mere racial insensitivity. We should not. And it might turn out that everyone either IS or IS NOT racist, full stop, but my point is that this middle ground might be a useful way to express the right amount of condemnation for various acts and thus at least a useful distinction TO ADD TO THE DEBATE, which might enrich our race debates.

Like I’ve said before, I don’t think most people who want to halt construction of the Cordoba House near ground zero are racist (more precisely, anti-Muslim), but I think they might be racially insensitive. They misunderstand how thinks look from another perspective. You NEVER hear someone saying “I know this looks bad, but I don’t want the Cordoba House initiative reminds me of. I’ll donate though to the house to show my good faith” or any other of a RANGE of possible good-faith gestures to try and diffuse the situation. Rather, its “we’re not racist, but tear down that mosque,” or is it really like that? Maybe the media just highlights those sort of die-hard people.

Anyway, I just think we could really use a shade of gray in our debates on race, even if it turns out in the end that the world really is made up of unrepentant racists and good tolerant people.


2 Responses to “Racism vs. “Racial Insensitivity””

  1. 1 dan
    September 21, 2010 at 3:31 am

    I think that you are talking around the issue of racism. Our understanding of racisn has been worked over by the people who have disproportionate influence on the language and concepts widely used to discuss society.

    Racism is not so much an issue of personal beliefs as it is an issue of systems and societal outcomes. We like to imagine that folks who shout racial epithets are the racists, but from a larger perspective it’s clear that, for instance, the american justice system, as you point out, is racist – it assigns outcomes based on a racial hierarchy. So, I don’t think it’s worth taking the word racist and watering it down to include assholes who shout mean things and burn korans or cops who arrest harvard professors. To me the easy answer is – the practices are racist. Those are the things we need to change. And there are enough good people in the country to do it if they just worked together. People participate in racism because they are encouraged to by our systems. If cops get promotions for booking bogus crimes on blacks, which I’ve read they do in certain cities, then they will act out racist attitudes. Environment affects our actions more than any sort of innate character.

    • 2 questionbeggar
      September 21, 2010 at 3:57 am

      Dan, thanks for this response because I was actually writing this post with the position you advocate in mind. You say that racism is structural, but I don’t really know what to think about that (I return to that later). You also say we should not water down racism to only refer to people hurling epithets, but this seems backwards to me. The reason racism is so awful is because it does (and should I think) attach to people who are racists is because the intent to harm in a particular way is present. If I hurt someone by accident its not the same as hurting them on purpose and racists go after groups on purpose, out of “animus” as the law says. This wantonness and targeted hatred IS precisely what makes racism so objectionable I think. Intent makes wrong actions worse in every other situation (I intentionally kill you versus accidentally killing you), why not with racism?

      But there are always people who say that racism is structural. Ok fine I’m not hostile to that point, but how does it work? Pretend that we instituted an egalitarian society tomorrow, but that the injustices from before this change still forced many blacks to turn to a life of crime, so that blacks committed disproportionately more crime than whites (again, not because anything about being black, but just because instituting a perfectly egalitarian society could not do away with the degrading effects of past wrongs). In such a situation, ANY CRIMINAL LAW would punish blacks disproportionately compared to whites (because ex hypothesi, they commit disproportionately more crimes), but would criminal laws then be inherently racist (as you suggest about our current justice system)? If you say yes, then I think it is the structuralist position that has diluted what racism is, because the society in question has merely instituted laws to prevent crime, and that this so happens to put many more blacks in jail. If racism can attach to such actions without intent, then this seems like a less objectionable type of racism compared to the KKK who did intend to harm only blacks. The society in question intends to harm wrongdoers who happen to be black due to unchangeable past actions.

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