Subtle Versus Overt Racism
by David Shipler
29 December 2002
David K. Shipler is the author of the recently published
A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, the product
of five years of research on race relations in America. As a former correspondent
for the New York Times in Moscow, Jerusalem and Washington, Shipler
wrote Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams and Arab and Jew: Wounded
Spirits in a Promised Land, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.
In Washington recently, after a panel discussion on race, a black attorney
approached me with the following story. He had just headed a project for
a federal agency. Midway through the work, one of his subordinates, a white
woman, had confided to several other whites that she could not bear to take
orders from a black person.
The whites, one of whom had been regarded by the black attorney as a friend,
said nothing to him about her remark. Not until months later, toward the
end of the project, did the friend finally inform him of the white woman's
bias, and he then realized that the woman had been quietly sabotaging the
work. The Federal agency dismissed her.
Incidents like this pockmark the surface of America, but they're rarely
visible. Usually, whites camouflage their prejudices more deftly and are
seldom fired for them. Here, however, the contradictory contours of the
country's racial landscape were in plain view. On the one hand, a black
man had risen to be the boss, and the white woman lost her job for acting
out her bigotry -- testimony to the anti-racism that has evolved since the
civil rights movement.
But hidden roots of racial prejudice and tension were revealed: the white
woman said what many whites feel but do not say -- that blacks in authority
make them uncomfortable. And many whites, like the black attorney's friend,
are paralyzed into silence by others' expressions of racism. Where was
the white friend's loyalty to the black boss? Had the friendship survived?
I asked the black man: "We're working on it," he said.
The United States now finds itself in an era of race relations
more complex than in the days of legal segregation. Bigotry then was blatant,
so entrenched that it could be shattered ultimately only by the conscience
of the country and the hammer of the law. Today, when explicit discrimination
is prohibited and blatant racism is no longer fashionable in most circles,
much prejudice has gone underground. It may have diminished in some quarters,
but it is far from extinct. Like a virus searching for a congenial host,
it mutates until it finds expression in a belief, a statement, or a form
of behavior that seems acceptable.
The camouflage around such racism does not make it benign. It can still
damage life opportunities. Take the durable, potent stereotype of blacks
as unintelligent and lazy. In 1990, when the National Opinion Research Center
at the University of Chicago asked a representative sample of Americans
to evaluate various racial and ethnic groups, blacks ended up at the bottom.
Most of those surveyed across the country labeled blacks as less intelligent
than whites (63 percent); lazier than whites (62 percent); and more likely
than whites to prefer being on welfare than being self-supporting (78 percent).
Much of this prejudice is no more than a thought, of course. To inhibit
the translation of biased thoughts into discriminatory actions American
society has built a superstructure of laws, regulations, ethics and programs
that include affirmative action and diversity training. Still, images manage
to contaminate behavior, often subtly and ambiguously.
It happens that the Air Force, explained Edward Rice, a black B-52 pilot
who was a lieutenant colonel and a White House Fellow when I met him several
years ago. I asked him why, despite the military's exemplary record of opening
doors to minorities, only about 300 of nearly 15,000 pilots in the Air Force
were black. This shapes careers, since key commands are barred to Air Force
officers who are not pilots. Why do many blacks wash out of flight school?
Rice offered a theory. In the cockpit with a black trainee, a white flight
instructor must make split-second decisions about when to take control of
the aircraft. If he thinks the trainee is flying dangerously, he will grab
the stick. If in the back of the instructor's mind there lurks that age-old,
widely held suspicion that blacks are less intelligent and less capable,
perhaps he will move just a little more quickly to take control from a black
trainee than from a white. And if he does that repeatedly, Rice noted, the
black will not advance to the next level of training.
Consider another example. A white couple in northern California adopted
a bi-racial girl as an infant. Their two biological children, both boys,
were close in age, so all three youngsters attended the same high school
at around the same time. When the white boys fell behind in class, notes
and calls came home from teachers. But when the bi-racial girl had academic
problems, there were no notes or calls. She looked black and hung out with
black friends, and her parents concluded that the teachers had written her
Those teachers did not wear white hoods and stand in the schoolhouse door.
They came from the mainstream of white America, where the images of blacks
as less capable run strongly just beneath the surface of polite behavior.
Even in the finest integrated schools across the country, I found black
youngsters, pushed hard by their parents, who complained that white teachers
made insufficient demands on them, assumed that they would be satisfied
with less than A's, and discouraged them from taking honors courses or applying
to top colleges.
Echoes of the Past
Decoding such encryped racism is an uncertain art that requires
a sense of history -- the history of racial stereotyping in America -- and
a capacity to listen and observe how frequently the present echoes the past.
Many institutions that look integrated, or example, are often segregated
within, for integration has largely meant the mere physical mixing of people
of various races, not the sharing of power and the blending into an integral
whole. Therefore, blacks who enter mostly white institutions often feel
like invited guests -- and not always very welcome guests -- who are there
at the pleasure of the whites. Rarely do the blacks attain ownership, authority,
or the standing to set agendas. They are confronted by glass walls that
whites often do not see.
A black man worked for IBM for three years before learning that every evening
a happy hour was taking place in a nearby bar. Only white men from the office
were involved -- no women, no minorities. Had it been strictly social it
would have been merely offensive. But it was also professionally damaging,
for business was being done over drinks, plans were being designed, connections
made. Excluded from that network, the black man was excluded from opportunity
for advancement, and he left the job.
This is a common experience among blacks and women who have integrated the
workplace, and it raises questions about possible remedies. Two come to
mind: affirmative action and diversity training.
Assume that the white men at the happy hour are not extreme racists, do
not decide deliberately to exclude blacks and don't think about the implications
of their gatherings at the bar. They go to the bar with people with whom
they are most comfortable, and the most comfortable are people like themselves.
If an affirmative action plan were in place, promotions into management
would be monitored by race and gender, and the marginalization of minorities
and women -- whether intentional or not -- would become a matter of concern.
Just calling attention to the problem could be enough to make the white
men conscious of the need to consider the black man for promotion. They
might even reflect on how to bring him into the loop. Beyond that, diversity
workshops, where office dynamics are discussed and minority employees can
be heard, would highlight the happy hour as a tool of exclusion.
The difficulty is that one has to perceive the problem to embrace the solutions.
If you think that racism isn't harmful unless it wears sheets or burns
crosses or bars blacks from motels and restaurants, you will support only
the crudest anti-discrimination laws and not the more refined methods of
affirmative action and diversity training. If you recognize how subtle racism
can be, the subtler tools seem appropriate.
One of the great divides in the country is between those Americans who see
only blatant racism and those who see the subtle forms as well. It is such
a fundamental disagreement that it has shaped much of the current debate
over affirmative action.
Opponents of affirmative action believe that prejudice and discrimination
have diminished enough to have leveled the playng field for non-whites.
The argument holds that affirmative action introduces unfairness and demeans
non-whites by suggesting that they could not succeed without it.
Every solution, however, creates at least one new problem, and
affirmative action is no exception. It is designed in principle to require
that the best candidates be recruited from groups that have suffered discrimination.
Nothing in the concept calls for the acceptance of unqualified people. Yet
some managers have been so skittish about lawsuits or so eager to prove
themselves non-racist that they have pushed certain black employees into
jobs where they have foundered. That has played to the age-old stereotype
of blacks as less competent than whites.
Many blacks complain about being branded with an assumption that without
affirmative action they would not be in this college or on that construction
crew or in that corporate office. Occasionally that reinforces self-doubt.
A few black students at Princeton told me that when papers came due and
exam time approached, they wondered if they really belonged at such a demanding
But it is wise to remember that these doubts -- and even blacks' self-doubts
-- have existed for generations, since long before desegregation and affirmative
action. The assumption that blacks were less able was a major reason that
affirmative action was needed to overcome the obstacles to admitting, hiring
and promoting them.
The old stereotype of blacks as unintelligent and lazy remains a constant
as the remedy changes, and the constant changes itself on whatever hook
happens to be available. Before, it was said that blacks were unqualified
and therefore weren't hired. Now, the argument goes, blacks are unqualified
but are hired because they're black -- same belief, different outcome.
If we have to choose -- and apparently we do -- it is the outcome that matters
more than the belief. Would the black student rather be at Princeton and
be thought less competent, or be thought less competent and not be
at Princeton? Before affirmative action, Princeton and other top colleges
admitted precious few blacks.
Another key criticms of affirmative action holds that it works against more
qualified whites. Here again, the assumption is that whites are more qualified
than blacks. Polls and focus groups have found that while most whites
think that under affirmative action less qualified blacks are hired and
promoted over more qualified whites, most blacks think that without
affirmative action, less qualified whites are hired and promoted
over more qualified blacks. Both sides want fairness, but each
has a different notion of how to achieve it.
Surveys show that few whites can cite personal experience to justify
their fears. With the total black population at just 13 percent, and
a smaller percentage of blacks in a position to compete for jobs covered
by affirmative action, the change of edging out a more qualified white is
slim. Moreover, even when a white person thinks he has been passed over
for a less qualified black, he may be wrong. Some supervisors admit that
they have told whites whom they didn't want to hire or promote, "I'd
love to take you, but I've got to take a black -- you know how it is."
It's easier than telling the applicant that he doesn't measure up.
The Bottom Line
Paradoxically, just as affirmative action is being chipped away
by the courts, legislators, and by voters in referendums, it is putting
down deeper roots in colleges, corporations and government agencies. In
many places, institutional ethics have evolved to the point where an all-white
workforce or management team is automatically seen as inadequate and a diverse
staff is seen as beneficial. The rationale has shifted from altruism to
pragmatism, from high-minded compassion to bottom-line competition.
Business, for example, looks at the demographics of its potential employees
and of its customers and reasons that it must diversify racially to profit.
Colleges look at the world for which they're preparing students and conclude
that a homogeneously white setting does not provide the best education.
It may be sad, but morality is les potent than self-interest.
For the last 20 years, the military has managed race relations by emphasizing
behavior, not beliefs. "You can think anything you want -- that's your
business," the military says to its members. "But what you do
is our business. If you act in ways that deny opportunity on the basis of
race, you interfere with the cohesivenes of the unit, and it becomes the
concern of the service."
As practical as this is, it is a bit of a false dichotomy. Thoughts and
actions interact with each other, cause each other, reinforce each other.
And to assess behavior across racial lines, you have to keep coming back
to beliefs as a reference point. It is not an institution's role to enforce
certain beliefs on its students or employees, but in addressing racial dynamics
the entrenched stereotypes need to be kept in mind. They illuminate and
explain the actions.
Getting at the stereotypes requires some acknowledgement that whites
benefit from racial prejudice, even as society suffers as a whole. Few
white Americans reflect on the unseen privileges they possess or the greater
sense of worth they acquire from their white skin. In addition to creating
the traditional alignments of power in America, negative beliefs about blacks
tend to enhance whites' self-esteem.
If blacks are less intelligent, in whites' belief, then it follows that
whites are more intelligent. If blacks are lazier, whites are harder working.
If blacks would prefer to live on welfare, then whites would prefer to be
self-supporting. If blacks are more violent, whites are less violent-- and
the source of violence can be kept at a safe distance.
Many conservatives these days urge us to make an "optimistic"
assessment of the racial situation. At the same time, they refuse to see
the pernicious racism that persists. That blindness does not justify optimism.
Legitimate optimism comes from facing the problems squarely and working
to overcome the insidious subtleties of bigotry that still abide in the
Reprinted with thanks toThe Washington Spectator, a communications
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