Attorney General Eric Holder said the other day that we are a nation of cowards when it comes to talking about race. I’m not sure who he was talking about. Was he talking about Ward Connerly? Bill Cosby? They’ve taken a lot of heat for suggesting that not all of black Americans’ problems are caused by white racism, but they keep on saying it. I think that’s fairly courageous.
What people usually mean when they say that we need a frank talk about race is that they want you to sit still and shut up while they lecture you. Oddly, the people most likely to call for a frank talk about race are usually the most strident in shouting down a Ward Connerly or a Bill Cosby.
The idea that white Americans are all secret racists and that they must be outed before black people can progress further is an appealing narrative for a lot of people. Now, some white people are racists, of course, some of them quite openly. And no doubt others are secret racists. But a lot of us aren’t racists at all. How can we prove it? We can’t. All we can do is go on living in integrated neighborhoods, sending our kids to integrated schools, treating our black neighbors with courtesy and respect, and being honest and even-handed in our discussions of the profound links between race and social status in this country. And sooner or later we’re likely to be accused of racism anyway.
This is one of those non-falsifiable propositions that Karl Popper warned us about. Just as the Spanish Inquisition never let an absence of evidence spoil a good accusation of secret Jewishness, the idea of secret racism is irrefutable. There are people who will never be convinced that a white person can simply and honestly regard black people as peers (which of course includes the possibility of disagreeing with them from time to time). The myth of universal, ineradicable racism, unadmitted or suppressed, is just too appealing.
I’m tired of being a coward, so in response to Attorney General Holder’s exhortation, I’m going to toss out a few ideas here.
First, racism is a human universal and will always be with us. It exists everywhere on the globe and has existed at all times in history. People have always lived in tribes, and modern industrial society, while it has undermined tribalism along with a lot of other traditions, has not eliminated the fundamental human inclination to cluster with similar people and mistrust different people. People don’t even have to be of different races to hate each other. Ask the Bosnians and the Serbs or the Tutsis and the Hutus.
Second, a decline in racism is desirable and, furthermore, quite possible. Racism decreases when there is a perception that people are equal before the law and that nobody is getting special breaks. It decreases when disadvantaged minorities make significant social progress. It decreases in a dynamic, socially mobile society like ours. But it never disappears. Some people are always going to be happier blaming the other tribe for their problems. This is a pathology, but we’re probably stuck with it.
Third, racism can decrease to a level at which, while it is ugly and hurtful, it is intermittent, localized and no longer the primary determinant of a person’s chances of success in life. When this point is reached, that’s about as good as it gets in human society.
Now, I’m not about to declare that we have reached that point in American society. A consensus on that will emerge when it happens. But I imagine we’re closer than, say, Al Sharpton thinks. And I believe it’s a mistake to hold out for the end of racism when you could be getting on with the business of social and economic progress even though some people don’t like the way you look or talk.
The local YWCA where I live sports a sign out front that proclaims that they are “Empowering women, eliminating racism”. I’m fairly confident they’re accomplishing the first part of that proposition, but I wonder about the second part. I don’t think it’s possible. And I think it’s a waste of time to set our sights that high. We should be aiming for something much less abstract and much more attainable—a society in which the color of your skin is not the main thing that determines your chances in life, even if some people insist on being rude about it.
And that’s just a matter of taking care of all the obvious but labor-intensive things we need to worry about in a working democracy—institutional reform, the rule of law, and of course, free discussion. The kind of discussion where a Ward Connerly or a Bill Cosby can be heard as well as an Al Sharpton.
I wonder if that’s what Eric Holder meant.