September 7, 2006 - Issue 196
Rationalizing the Irrational:
Racism and the Fallacy of Personal Experience
By Tim Wise
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To paraphrase a line from the movie "Forrest Gump"--which film I never liked much, actually--"E-mail is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." And here, I'm referring not so much to the bevy of ads for porn or weight loss remedies that seem to sneak through whatever spam filter I supposedly have on my browser. Rather, I mean the daily torrent of hate mail, sent my way by folks who feel the burning desire to tell me not only of their disagreements with my anti-racist views, but also to inform me of how badly I need to die, or to invite me to perform various sexual acts upon myself which I feel fairly certain are impossible.
Occasionally the message-writers feign a bit more substantive critique, supplementing their slurs with semi-coherent rationalizations for their racist views. Among these, in recent weeks, have been the following:
"If you'd ever lived around black people or Mexicans you wouldn't think the way you do. You'd see how trashy they were, and how loud. You'd see the drug-dealing and the crime up close, and once you'd been attacked by one of them, the way I have, you'd change your tune."
Or this, from someone who said we should "wall off" inner city communities from the places where "decent people" live: "If you think minorities are so great, why don't you go walk through the ghetto and see how long you last?"
Or this, from someone who said he hated all blacks and would "gladly pay for the tickets for all niggers and mescans (sp)" to go back where they came from: "I own rental properties...this is what caused me to become so mad. I got checks from the government for almost all my tenants but received no thanks, no courtesy, just racial slurrs (sp) when I was late to have the yard mowed or wouldn't change a light bulb."
I wish I could say that these were the only such messages I'd ever received, but sadly, they are not. I could fill a book with these kinds of notes, sent to me by folks who have read one or another of my articles, or perhaps come to one of my speeches, and then felt compelled to chime in about how naive I am to advocate for racial equity, or to criticize racial stereotyping. After all, their personal experiences have demonstrated to their satisfaction that those stereotypes are justified, and that racial bias is a normal and natural reaction to those experiences. Presumably, they insist, I've just been lucky to avoid getting mugged by a person of color (probably because I've lived in a sheltered, suburban environment all my life, they typically speculate--wrongly of course), but if I'd seen what they'd seen, I would change my views.
Yet, as it turns out, to generalize about entire groups of people based upon one's personal (and by definition limited) experiences with persons from those groups, is illegitimate on several levels.Personal Experiences and the Problem of Selective Memory
First, those who rationalize their racism on the basis of their personal experiences with members of the group they dislike, are being highly selective when it comes to the experiences from which they think we should draw conclusions. After all, if their negative experiences with blacks "prove" that blacks are bad people, then by definition, anyone who had had good experiences with black people would be able to say that all blacks are good people: an argument every bit as silly, but just as logical, given the original line of reasoning.
Or, if having been violently victimized in a black neighborhood by a black person proves that black people are dangerous, I could reply that since I have never been victimized by a black person in a black neighborhood--even when I worked in nearly all-black public housing projects, or lived in a neighborhood that was seventy percent African American--that blacks are therefore guaranteed to be no threat to me, ever. In fact, since I have been the victim of black criminals, but only in neighborhoods that were mostly white and fairly affluent, following the rationale of those who think personal experience is all that matters, I could argue--incorrectly of course--that poor black neighborhoods are the safest ones around, and that people should avoid affluent white areas at all costs.
Second, to draw conclusions about large groups (in the case of black folks, some 36 million people, and for Latinos, another 37 million or so in the U.S.), based on one's experiences with a handful of people from those groups is the very definition of statistical illiteracy. Even if you had encountered dozens of folks from a particular group who, for whatever reason, had rubbed you the wrong way, this would be such a small and obviously unrepresentative sample, that to reach any conclusions about that group as a whole would be absurd. This is among the reasons that it's nonsensical to harbor generalized dislike or suspicion of Muslims, as Muslims, or Arabs as Arabs, in the wake of 9/11. After all, nineteen such persons, out of 1.5 billion Muslims on planet Earth and hundreds of millions of Arabs is the walking, talking definition of an unrepresentative sample. Not to mention, we never reach generalized conclusions about whites when they engage in acts of terrorism, and indeed, did not in the wake of Oklahoma City, or the crimes of the Unabomber, or the Olympic Park Bomber, or any of the dozens of abortion clinic bombings over the past two decades, all of which were committed by whites, so far as we can tell.
Which points up the biggest flaw in the thinking of racist whites, who call upon their personal experiences with people of color so as to justify their bigotry: namely, how many bad experiences with other whites are such folks forgetting, which didn't lead them to generalize about white folks as a group? Studies have found that we tend to remember stereotype-confirming behavior in those who are considered different, while ignoring the many times members of our own group did the same things, because in the latter instance, such behavior doesn't trigger a pre-existing mental schema, or set of beliefs, that can be applied to explain the behavior. So whites can do all the same things as blacks, but still be viewed as individuals, while blacks who do anything negative are viewed through a racial group lens. Social conditioning is critical here: by training our minds to not only see differences--which they would see anyway, and categorize as a matter of evolutionary psychology--but also to attach dualistic value judgments to those categories in terms of better/worse, superior/inferior, etc., the culture in which we live has led us away from the ability to think critically, and ultimately in a rational manner about these kinds of things.
After all, how many whites who say they fear blacks--perhaps because of a fight they got in at school with someone who was black--also have gotten in fights with other whites? Or worse: how many of these folks have been physically or even sexually assaulted by a member of their own white family? In other words, how many white folks who claim their dislike of blacks is justified because of a handful of negative experiences with African Americans, have had years of bad experiences with other whites, but in none of those cases drew an inference about whites as a group?*
Think about it: The landlord who ripped us off and refused to give us back our deposit was probably white. The boss who fired us or regularly gave us a hard time, was probably white. The girlfriends or boyfriends who dumped us were probably white. White people probably ran the companies that made the shitty products we bought over the years. The service technicians who worked on our air conditioning, or our cars, or our plumbing, and never could quite seem to fix things, but always charged us plenty for their time? Mostly white. The politicians who lied to us were almost all white. The teachers who scared us, talked down to us and tried to control our every move in school, were probably white. In my case, most everyone who ever did anything to hurt me was white, but I would never think of holding that fact against whites as whites, because their whiteness had nothing to do with it.
Oh, and returning now to my electronic detractors' accusations, that I only believe what I do because I've never really been around people of color, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, I have lived in neighborhoods that were mostly black and mostly Latino (in New Orleans and Houston respectively), and the loudest and most obnoxious people on the block were always white--often college students, who could count on their behavior not being held against their entire racial group. Just this summer, my family and I moved from a neighborhood where the folks of color engaged in such mundane activities as mowing their lawns twice a week to keep them looking nice, but where white drug dealers kept us constantly guessing when police cars were going to roll up and raid their house, or when one of their inevitably white customers was going to break into our house looking for cash to spend across the street (they tried three times, actually). The dealers were brothers (how sweet), named Justin and Dustin, (no, I'm not making this up), who counted among their best clients a suburban soccer mom who would come all the way into the city to buy her Oxycontin, (or to trade sex for it, more often than not) after dropping her kids off at one of the area's elite private schools. So by the logic of the folks who write to me, I should therefore assume that white neighbors are all pill pushers, and that rich SUV-driving mothers of students at the Ensworth School are all Oxy-heads. Seems fair, no? No, of course not: but precisely where the illogic of racists leads us.
And I have been threatened and/or victimized by black folks before. A black guy stuck a gun in my face when I was a sophomore in college, in Uptown, New Orleans, and a few years later, I had another gun pointed at me from across the street, also by a black guy, who I had just witnessed trying to murder someone. Why he ran off and didn't actually shoot at me (and at the woman I was dating at the time, whose car I was in), I'll never know. And although I won't deny my own internalized racist views, which occasionally have caused me to respond to a person of color fearfully--a subject about which I have written extensively before--I make a point of trying to recognize the ultimate irrationality of those moments. After all, I have also been victimized by whites, including the two guys who broke into my apartment, my senior year, and stole everything they could grab. And I was once shot at by a white guy in a car, who was leaning out the window, shooting at people for the hell of it. And then there were the three guys who broke into my wife's car several years ago, who according to the police were a veritable rainbow coalition of criminals: one black, one white, and one Latino. The point being, if I were to use these personal experiences so as to justify generalized racial prejudices, I would have to be afraid of pretty much everyone, except Asians. So, based on the logic of the racists who write to me, I should move to the nearest Chinatown as quickly as possible, lest I be victimized again by some predatory white, black or Latino thug.
...And no, data doesn't strengthen the argument either
It is typically at this point that the unapologetic racist shifts gears, noting that their beliefs are not solely the result of personal experiences, but rather, are also rooted in an appreciation of crime statistics, indicating that black folks commit a disproportionate share of violent crime, relative to their percentage of the population. While this is true (because of the high correlation between concentrated poverty and crowded urban conditions on the one hand, and crime on the other), it still doesn't mean that fearing black people as a group makes sense (1). After all, with 30.1 million African Americans over the age of twelve in the U.S. (2) (and thus, eligible for consideration in crime data), if blacks commit a million violent crimes a year (the rough total for the most recent year on record) (3), this means that even if we assumed each crime had a unique perpetrator (in other words, if there were no multiple offenders--obviously not the case), the maximum percentage of blacks who were violent criminals, as a share of all blacks, would be 3.3 percent. Meaning that at least 96.7 percent will not commit a violent crime this year, let alone against a white person, let alone against a white stranger, let alone against us (4).
So, if the three percent of blacks who will commit a violent crime in a given year, somehow prove that blacks are dangerous and to be avoided, then why don't the 97 percent who won't commit such a crime, equally prove that blacks are non-violent and perfectly safe to be around? After all, why should the acts of a maximum of a million people, be seen as a better indicator of what the group is like, than the non-acts of the other 29 million or so?
And of course, if we are to take statistics such as these to indicate a group's dangerousness, then whites should have intense bias against other whites. After all, we are five times more likely to be victimized violently by another white person than by a black person (5), and each year, far more people are killed by occupational diseases and injuries--resulting from inadequate safety and health standards in white owned corporations--than are killed in street-level homicides, let alone those committed by blacks (6). Yet rarely do whites seek to avoid other whites because of our documented predisposition to corporate fraud and misconduct (think Enron, think the S&L swindle, think Bhopal, India).Pit Bulls, Poodles, and Pitifully Weak Analogies
Oh, and I know the response that will be coming here, from those seeking to hold on to their well-nurtured bigotry. It's always the same. It's the one about the different dog breeds. Yes, yes, of course--the one that goes like this:
"If we know that certain breeds of dogs are more likely to bite than other breeds, doesn't it make sense to avoid the more dangerous breeds, and to be more fearful of them than others?"
Putting aside the biological and genetic fallacy of comparing dog breed differences to the differences between whites and African Americans (given that the former are typically far larger than the latter, and that the former were also bred for behavioral and temperament differences over many centuries, unlike people of different "races"), there are several other flaws in the dog breed analogy.
To understand why, let's take an extreme example: namely, consider a person who had actually been bitten by a particular kind of dog. In other words, let's consider someone who was not only aware in a vague sense, that certain breeds might be more dangerous than others, but someone who had actually experienced that danger up close, by having been bitten. Would it be rational for them, after that point, to fear any and all other dogs that were members of that same breed? While we may certainly expect such fear to manifest in the person who had been bitten, the fact that something is predictable doesn't make it rational, if by rational we mean rooted in a logical assessment of actual risk. What would be rational would be to fear other dogs like the one who bit us, if those others were behaving in the way the biter had been prior to the attack, giving off the same kinds of signs that they were agitated, for example.
And this points to the fundamental reason why we might naturally recoil from a particular kind of dog, or other animal, but still shouldn't do the same with regard to other people. The reason we respond fearfully to an animal of a different species, when one of its kind has attacked us, is because we are responding in large measure to our fear of the unknown. We don't know how to read dog behavior, instinctively, the way we can read the behavior of other people. We are socialized among other humans, whose body language, facial expressions, and verbalizations give off clues as to when they are dangerous or unstable, or some such thing. Although non-humans no doubt give off similar signals, most of us are not trained to read them, so we are naturally skittish, in ways that it would make no sense to be with regard to others of our same species. To view others of our human family as if they were as species-foreign to us as a hyena makes no sense whatsoever. Dogs that bite, almost always do so because they were agitated. Avoiding agitated dogs makes sense, as does avoiding agitated people. But avoiding people who are black, irrespective of their level of agitation is nonsensical.
Additionally, we wouldn't respond with this kind of generalized hysteria to children, if a child bit us. Occasionally kids do bite of course--they bite other kids, they bite teachers or child-care workers, they even bite their parents--and yet we don't tend to respond to this fact by saying, "well, that's it, I'm getting rid of my kid," or "quitting my job at this school," or sequestering myself in my home, "never to play with a child again!" If we can see that individual behavior says nothing about the group from which the individuals come, in this case, why not see the same truth with regard to race?
Not to mention, while it may be true that Pit Bulls as a breed are more dangerous than poodles (the most common comparison made by those who really want to make their case), to analogize Pit Bulls to blacks and poodles to whites is ludicrous. Whites commit nearly three million violent crimes a year: far more than are committed by blacks (even though the per capita crime rate is higher in the latter case). Hardly poodle-like behavior, that. And since whites are five times more likely to be attacked by another white person than a black person, the only way the dog analogy holds is if we are also five times more likely to be bitten by a poodle than a Pit Bull. And if that is the case, then why should we be sweating Pit Bulls? It would make more sense, at that point, to get the hell away from poodles. And if you wanted to reduce the net number of dog bites each year, given the raw numbers, you'd euthanize the poodles, or separate them from polite society, rather than taking out your frustration on the Pit Bulls, who may indeed have higher bite rates, but who comprise a relatively small share of overall bites or attacks. (Note: No actual poodles were harmed during the writing of this sentence).Understanding the Difference Between Logic and Rationality
So why do people seek to rationalize their biases, either with reference to limited personal experiences, or by appealing to ostensibly objective data? Are those who do this simply bad people? Or perhaps unstable? While it might be easy and comforting to classify racists in this fashion, doing so would be not only unfair--after all, none of us can be free from racist conditioning and thoughts in a society that has studiously inculcated the same in its people for generations--but also flatly inaccurate. Despite the ultimate irrationality of racist thinking, such thoughts are far from illogical. Though it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that something can be both logical and irrational at the same time, there is nothing particularly radical about the suggestion. Racist beliefs, like any other set of beliefs, have their own internal logic, and make perfect sense, given certain realities and conditions to which persons in a social order are subjected. Exploring the conditions that make racism "logical" even if ultimately irrational in a larger cosmic sense, is a critical step in the process of figuring out how to dismantle racism, whether at the individual and personal level, or the systemic and institutional level.
To understand why people may, quite logically, come to develop biases towards others, and even act out in a racist fashion against them, consider the example of Irish immigrants to the United States. At the time of the most intense Irish immigration to America (the mid to late 1800s), the Irish had had almost no experience with blacks, such that they would have had an opportunity to develop anti-black biases rooted in first-hand negative experiences. Yet, they had had considerable experience with the English, most all of which had been negative: centuries of overt oppression, virtual enslavement and state terror imposed upon the Irish by Anglos.
Given that history, and applying the kind of thinking that says personal experience can justify prejudices, it would have made sense for Irish immigrants to the U.S. to detest and fight against the Anglo elite. It would have made sense for them to join the fight against slavery--indeed they were implored to do so by their religious leaders in the mother country--because they had been the "slaves of the British" for generations. But in fact, after a very short time in the states, Irish immigrants were rioting against blacks (as with the New York draft riots during the Civil War), joining in the barring of blacks from labor unions, and seeking to "become white" by assimilating to the white WASP system that was firmly in place. However irrational this racial bonding might have been in the long run--after all, it divided the Irish working class from the black working class, when both would have been better off joining together to push for more opportunities for all--it was hardly illogical: the Irish recognized the status differences between those who were white and those who were not, and, desiring to be closer to the top than the bottom, swallowed their pride, joined the club of whiteness, and collaborated with the oppression of black folks (7).
So engaging in racist behavior, and rationalizing one's racist thoughts makes perfect sense from the perspective of people hoping to improve their status, relative to a despised "other." Likewise, for whites who have accumulated various advantages and privileges, racism (and the rationalization of the same) becomes a mechanism by which those advantages can be justified, and viewed as earned, as opposed to being the outcome of an unfair process of unequal opportunity. Not to mention, the rationalization of racism becomes a means to maintain those advantages and privileges, and to protect them from being "taken." After all, civil rights protections force more equal opportunity and fairer competitions, both of which, by definition, reduce the hegemony of white dominance, and force whites, for the first time, to compete openly for things they would have simply been given before. If persons of color can be denigrated, however, and made to shoulder the blame for their economic condition and status in society, the pressure to equalize opportunity is lessened, and white privilege is maintained. So the logic of racism, in a profoundly unequal society, is nearly unassailable, at least at first blush.Conclusion: The Danger of Rationalizing Racism
But however logical it may be to harbor and rationalize racist views, and to defend racism in practice, in the long run, doing so is detrimental and counter-productive, even to those whites who, in the short-run, reap the benefits. After all, when folks start believing that a certain group is the dangerous one, to be avoided or repressed in some way, they are likely to let down their guards to the dangers posed by others--dangers that might, for them in fact, be greater than those about which they are hyper-alert.
So when white middle class families take up residence in Littleton, Colorado or Santee, California, or any of a dozen or so other "nice, safe" places to live and raise kids, and in the process pat themselves on the back for having gotten away from the city, they let their guards down to the emotionally disturbed young white men in their midst: boys who are plotting to blow up the school, or mow down everyone with a heartbeat, or some such thing. They let down their guards to the even more dangerous middle aged, middle class white men, who upon losing their jobs, or watching their stocks take a tumble, then tweak out and kill their whole families, not to mention co-workers. And then when the shit hits the fan, they're the first ones on TV, wide-eyed with amazement at the realization that white people from families with money can actually manage to kill. Imagine: murder from a people who can count among their number, Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Hitler and Stalin, just to name a few. Speaking of which, I guess according to racist logic, these men indicate ironclad confirmation that whites are mass murderers and genocidal maniacs.
Unless we begin to think critically about the way we respond to our personal experiences, in large measure due to socially-ingrained biases, we'll continue to seek explanations and justifications for beliefs that are not only unjustified and irrational, but ultimately harmful, and which put us in greater danger.
In this regard, we must come to see racism (and for that matter all other forms of bias) as not merely issues of ethical concern--though they are surely that too--but also practical matters of safety and personal well-being. To hold socially-defined and categorized groups of people up to scorn or derision, or to fear them en masse, on the basis of limited personal experience or horribly misinterpreted and misunderstood data, is to put not only those "others" at risk for mistreatment, but ourselves at risk as well: at risk of failing to see the dangers posed by non-stereotypical threats, while we stay on guard against the dangerous "other." It means worrying about Islamic hijackers, but not so-called Christian warriors seeking to impose their version of faith upon unbelievers by blowing up clinics or government buildings. It means worrying about carjackers, but not the drunk drivers (eighty-five percent of whom are white, by the way, according to the FBI), who kill and maim far more white people each year than all the black and brown street hoods combined. It means worrying about being killed by a gang member, but ignoring the risk of death or injury from corporations cutting corners on workplace safety or product quality, or from hospitals and doctors engaging in unnecessary medical procedures, and botching them terribly. Or from second hand smoke, or air and water pollution, neither of which risk has been contributed to mostly by folks of color.
In this regard, racism should be seen as a toxin, the first victims of which are folks of color, to be sure, but which then claims as collateral damage millions of whites as well. It does this by initially sapping the critical thinking abilities of the latter, and then by exposing us to the consequences of our own sloppy mental processing. Hopefully, we will come to our senses, before too much more damage is done. But if my e-mail browser is any indication, that hope may be more wishful thinking than anything else.
*This also plays out with regard to child sexual molestation and hetero/homosexuality. Even though the vast majority of persons who have been molested were molested by persons whose adult sexual orientation was/is clearly heterosexual, it is homosexuals, especially gay men, who are labeled as particularly deviant with regard to pedophilic urges. Not to mention, if a person's dislike of gay men is to be justified on the basis of having been molested by a man who happens to be gay, does that mean that persons who were molested by straight men should now dislike all straight men, or fear them all, or disallow their own child, if they have one, from being around straight men? And would such a bias be fair or justified? My guess is that very few homophobes and heterosexists would say yes to the latter scenario.
Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and father. He can be reached at [email protected].
Keep track of his lecture schedule and new commentaries, at timwise.org.
(1) L.J. Krivo and R.D. Peterson, "Extremely Disadvantaged Neighborhoods and Urban Crime," Social Forces 75(2) (December 1996); Barbara Chasin. Inequality and Violence in the United States. (NJ: Humanities Press International, 1997).
(2) U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstracts of the United States, 2006. The National Data Book, 2006, Table 16
(3) U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization in the United States, 2004, Statistical Tables, Tables 40, 42, 46 and 48.
(4) The actual number of black offenders in a given year is actually much smaller than this, and thus the percentage of blacks committing a violent crime in a given year will be much smaller as well. Criminologists estimate that a large percentage of crimes (about 70 percent) are committed by a small cadre of hard-core repeat offenders (about 7 percent of all offenders). (See, Peter Greenwood and Alan Abrahamse. Selective Incapacitation [Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 1982]; Todd Clear, "Backfire: When Incarceration Increases Crime," Oklahoma Criminal Justice Research Center, 1996). So, if blacks committed one million violent crimes in 2004, and 70 percent of these were committed by 7 percent of the offenders, then 30 percent were committed by the remaining 93 percent of offenders. 30 percent of one million offenses is 300,000 offenses. 300,000 represents roughly 93 percent of 325,000. If the remaining 70 percent of offenses (675,000) were committed by 7 percent of the population, this means that these crimes were committed by roughly 23,000 hardcore offenders (approximately 7 percent of 325,000). Thus, the overall number of black violent criminals in the current year would be roughly 350,000 persons (325,000+23,000), which would amount to approximately 1.1 percent of the black population, age 12 and over.
(5) United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization in the United States, 2004, Statistical Tables, (U.S. Department of Justice, 2006), tables 40, 42, 46 and 48, and calculations by the author.
(6) Jeffrey Reiman. ...And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996); Lisa Cullen. A Job to Die For: Why So Many Americans are Killed, Injured or Made Ill at Work, and What to Do About It. (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2002).
(7) Noel Ignatiev, How The Irish Became White. Routledge: 1995.
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