On racism and race consciousness

I have Jonathan Kay to thank for the series of excerpts from my book, Enlightenment 2.0, that the National Post ran during the week of April 14-19. The paper did, however, do me a slight disservice by running the last excerpt under the heading “How to Beat Racism.” (It’s always important to remember, when reading a newspaper, that the headlines are written by different people than the articles.) This made it sound as though I thought there were some kind of easy formula that could be followed to overcome racism. (Ivor Tossell also took issue with this, in his Globe and Mail review, complaining about my attempt “to diagnose and prescribe a balm for America’s race problem in three pages, flat.”)

The fact that I go on to discuss “the eternal problem” of race in America might suggest that I am less optimistic about the problem being solved anytime soon. The main point I wanted to make was that racism is an almost inevitable consequence of race consciousness, and so the only way to eliminate the former is to get rid of the latter. I didn’t mean to suggest that this would be easy. (I described a “possible” solution, but I did not describe it as “likely to be implemented.”)

In fact, race consciousness is in many ways harder to overcome than racism – the more you tell someone not to think about something, the more likely they are to think about it. There is also the fact that many of the strategies adopted for combating racism have the effect, intended or unintended, of heightening race consciousness. As a result, there is a self-reinforcing dynamic at work in the United States, where many of the strategies adopted to combat racism wind up perpetuating it (but because it’s all interconnected, it’s very difficult to just stop any one component). This is why I wrote that:

From this perspective, the real problem in America is not so much racism as it is race consciousness… And yet this feature of American culture seems to be one that everyone, white and black, conservative and liberal, is involved in a giant conspiracy to sustain and reinforce.

In the original manuscript, there were actually two paragraphs at the end of the section that provided a more specific illustration of what I meant. They got cut (largely because the claim was based on my recollection, which was very difficult to verify – and you don’t want to say anything about race in America unless you’ve triple-checked it), but here they are for the record:

Let me give just one example, from when I was a graduate student in Chicago. In order to help African-American students feel more comfortable on campus, my university (Northwestern), decided to have a special orientation for incoming black students, held one week in advance of general orientation. The idea, I guess, was to let them become familiar with the campus, and to learn their way around, before the avalanche of white students arrived. This was all done with the best of intentions, but from a psychological perspective it was crazy. First of all, it made all the black students intensely aware of the fact that they were black – in case they weren’t already. But more importantly, orientation week is when most new students make friends, precisely because you don’t know anybody, and so you have no choice but to go and meet new people. Once you have a group of friends, your incentive to make new friends is severely diminished. Thus the “special orientation” session meant that black students were overwhelmingly more likely to become friends with black students. This created a pattern of self-segregation among black students on campus, which had very little to do with racism, and everything to do with the perverse and self-defeating way that the university had chosen to combat racism.

What Americans want, above all, is for race to go away. (Much of the enthusiasm for Barack Obama when he was first elected can be put down to this – he seemed like the man who could make that happen.) Unfortunately, there are powerful groups on both the left and the right who won’t let it go away. One because they are racists, the other because they think that racism must be confronted and overcome directly. They want people to remain race-conscious, but expected them to limit themselves to thinking only happy thoughts about other races. Anything less than this seems like a cheat. And yet, demanding that people maintain an attitude that is universalizing and impartial requires enormous force of will. The work-around is to let people remain partial, but to channel this partiality so that it no longer has pernicious consequences. It is not obvious that the latter is such a terrible compromise. The rider can seek to control the elephant, or he can just trick the elephant into going where he wants. As long as it is the rider who is choosing the destination, it seems to me inessential which method is used.

I’m not very optimistic about the prospect that Americans will find a way to break out of this mutually-reinforcing circle of counterproductive behaviors. When I sketched out my argument for an American colleague, she immediately got irritated and said in a sarcastic tone, “So you think we should all just ignore racism and hope that it goes away?” That of course is not exactly what I meant, but not totally wrong either. My response was just to say, “It’s not obvious that talking about it all the time is that much more successful at making it go away.” What Americans really need to learn to do is to chill out over race – but again, it’s difficult to imagine how that would come about, especially so long as racism remains a serious social problem.



On racism and race consciousness — 1 Comment

  1. Would you extend your line of reasoning to ethnocultural minorities in general? In that case, don’t you think the ”orientation week” example could be misleading? I see why this kind of well-intended program has the pernicious effect you describe, but most measures aiming at the integration of minorities can have the opposite effect. For instance, most measures of affirmative action – whether it is in employment, college admissions, etc. – can be effective in desegregating minorities and facilitating group identification not based on skin color or ethnocultural characteristics (like a temporary ”ethnicity conscious” tool that aims at ”ethnicity unconsciousness” in the long run). But if I look at reasonable accommodations, which favor national identification without smothering ethnocultural identification, I’m doubting that ”ethnicity unconsciousness” should be aimed at in the first place..