NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wondered if everyone was a little bit racist. Prompted by the Ferguson incident, Kristof started his column, titled “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?,” by admitting that we really don’t what happened in Ferguson, but he went on to assert that we do know the following:
- But here’s what evidence does strongly suggest: Young black men in America suffer from widespread racism and stereotyping, by all society — including African-Americans themselves. Research in the last couple of decades suggests that the problem is not so much overt racists. Rather, the larger problem is a broad swath of people who consider themselves enlightened, who intellectually believe in racial equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.
If Kristof’s train of thinking confuses you, join the club. Although he begins by asserting “widespread racism and stereotyping,” he quickly walks that back to “unconscious attitudes.” And then, when he describes the various studies that provide evidence of the unconscious attitudes, he fails to explain why these unconscious attitudes exist, such as there are a plethora of psychological studies showing that people are inherently suspicious of people different from them.
Kristof seems to think that if everyone tries to be more sensitive to the issue, it can be willed away. He concludes his column as follows:
- Yet an uncomfortable starting point is to understand that racial stereotyping remains ubiquitous, and that the challenge is not a small number of twisted white supremacists but something infinitely more subtle and complex: People who believe in equality but who act in ways that perpetuate bias and inequality.
The problem with Kristof’s prescription is that it ignores the scientific fact and common-sense understanding that people behave based on their life experience. It is also a fact that young black males, especially those who present themselves like gangsters, are more likely to commit crimes and violence that almost any other distinguishable group. What sentient human being would not consider that fact?
When Kristof advises people to behave in a politically correct fashion, he reminds me of the Marx Brothers’ line – “Who are you going to believe – me or your lying eyes?”
Shortly after Kristof’s column, the Times published a similarly-themed column by Charles Blow titled, “Bill O’Reilly and White Privilege.” In the column, Blow takes O’Reilly to task for arguing that the problem in the black community is internal (black behavior), not external (white privilege). O’Reilly’s argument:
- “Last night on ‘The Factor,’ Megyn Kelly and I debated the concept of white privilege whereby some believe that if you are Caucasian you have inherent advantages in America. ‘Talking Points’ does not, does not believe in white privilege. However, there is no question that African-Americans have a much harder time succeeding in our society than whites do.”
O’Reilly also pointed out that Asian-Americans have achieved success despite their obstacles, which included a different language, but he also noted that the black experience was unique:
- “One caveat, the Asian-American experience historically has not been nearly as tough as the African-American experience. Slavery is unique and it has harmed black Americans to a degree that is still being felt today, but in order to succeed in our competitive society, every American has to overcome the obstacles they face.”
Blow explained away the Asians as “model immigrants” based on immigration policy, which he said resulted in high-achieving people being selected for immigration. [What an novel idea!]
Then for a solution, O’Reilly makes two points, according to Blow:
- In arguing that it isn’t, O’Reilly goes on to raise the seemingly obligatory “respectability” point, saying: “American children must learn not only academics but also civil behavior, right from wrong, as well as how to speak properly and how to act respectfully in public.”
- Then he falls back on the crux of his argument: “Instead of preaching a cultural revolution, the leadership provides excuses for failure. The race hustlers blame white privilege, an unfair society, a terrible country. So the message is, it’s not your fault if you abandon your children, if you become a substance abuser, if you are a criminal. No, it’s not your fault; it’s society’s fault. That is the big lie that is keeping some African-Americans from reaching their full potential. Until personal responsibility and a cultural change takes place, millions of African-Americans will struggle.”
Blow then turns the table on O’Reilly and seems to compare him to Al Sharpton:
- No, Mr. O’Reilly, it is statements like this one that make you the race hustler. The underlying logic is that blacks are possessed of some form of racial pathology or self-destructive racial impulses, that personal responsibility and systemic inequity are separate issues and not intersecting ones. This is the false dichotomy that chokes to death any real accountability and honesty. Systemic anti-black bias doesn’t dictate personal behavior, but it can certainly influence and inform it. And personal behavior can reinforce people’s belief that their biases are justified. So goes the cycle. But at the root of it, we can’t expect equality of outcome while acknowledging inequality of environments. Only a man bathing in privilege would be blind to that.
Finally, something we can agree on. There is a cycle between anti-black bias and the black personal behavior. O’Reilly’s solution is for cultural change in the black community while Blow seems content to merely vent against O’Reilly. At least Kristof has a plan, albeit a Pollyannaish one for non-blacks to will away their unconscious bias.