Daylon and Barack
The last post prodded me to finally sketch out some thoughts on racism in the light of my teaching experience.
As I say often, my students are not homogeneous, and neither are their families. While both of my schools have been homogeneously poor, neither student body has been academically or behaviorally or culturally homogeneous, nor has any racial subset of a student body.
It must be noted that race is, of course, not a biological category, but rather a social construct, albeit largely matching certain biological differences in appearance, such as skin color, hair texture, or certain facial structures.
And connections must be drawn between the construct of race, and that of culture. I normally find the latter construct much more useful, given both the imprecision and the baggage of the former.
Although the two concepts are perfectly distinct, culture does some close tracking with race. Not that culture is determined by race, or inherited along with race—certainly not. It just tracks with it in many ways. And some of the mechanisms of this seem to be rather simple and intuitive. For example, we primates are very visual creatures, and also very social—and socially competitive—creatures. So we designate our sports teams with different jersey colors, designate some of our teams in pickup games by shirts and skins, advertise our gang affiliations with gang colors, etc. The same dynamic seems to come easily into play with skin color. And this is likely intensified in settings like schools and prisons, where social stakes can run especially high, and violence can be especially common. Threats are everywhere, you’re trying to survive, maybe trying to jockey for status and dominance, and you look around—who are my friends? Who are my enemies? Who’s on my team? We seem to have quite a prominent tendency to answer that our team is whoever looks most like us (1).
However it is that it happens, cultural identities get bound up with racial ones. There arise, and take hold, various conceptions of what it means to be black, or to be white, or to be brown or Hispanic or Latino—which have nothing to do with the physical characteristics upon which those racial categories were initially based.
This leads some folks in the ghetto to identify an antisocial, or criminal, or “ghetto,” or “thuggish” cultural identity with their race. This happens with individuals and communities of different races—but seemingly not to the same extent. All the data on educational attainment, crime rates, and incarceration show African Americans with a clear “lead.”
As one very unscientific test of this, let me look back over all the students for whom I’ve posted referrals up to this point, according to considerations of frequent and memorable misbehavior. These were all students at my middle school, which was about 34% black, 29% Latino, 26% white, and 11% Native American. Of the students whose referrals I’ve posted, 2 are white, 3 are Latino, I am not sure about 2—and 22 are black (2).
This sees to be largely because of the strength and passion with which many poor, urban African Americans embrace a “thug” or “ghetto” culture, and identify that culture with blackness.
As I said at the outset, though, the black community with which I have interacted through teaching is most certainly not homogeneous—not at all! There is a hard core of out-and-out thugs, though. These thugs are not all black people. (And not by a long shot—consider, e.g., that only about 25% of African Americans even live in poverty.) Nor are all these thugs black. These thugs are not all of my students, or all of my black students, or even all of my poor, black, urban, criminals at an alternative high school! But they—this subset that I am talking about—are, in fact, just about everything that racists hate or fear.
If we draw the circle tightly enough, we can state what will follow categorically; if we draw the circle around a larger group, then most or all of these will be characteristic qualities, but admitting of individual exceptions. That being said, this group I’m taking about—this thuggish subset of poor, black, urban, youth—is just about everything that racists hate or fear. They are loud, rude, aggressive, violent; they use and sell drugs; they own and use guns; they are involved in gangs; they speak nonstandard English; they sag their pants, listen to gangster rap compulsively (3), and idolize criminality and violence; they proudly have children out of wedlock starting in their teens; they are poorly educated, and mentally dull; they neither hold, nor particularly want, nor are equipped to hold, jobs; and they rely upon government benefits while leading this lifestyle.
It’s essential to appreciate the obvious fact that none of this does even the smallest bit to justify racism. Because none of this is in any way because these individuals are black. None of this is universal to all black people, or even close to it. None of this lets you make reasonable inferences about a new black person you encounter. And none of this gives any shred of an excuse for unjustly saddling a black stranger with prejudices or biases along these lines.
But… all this is the closest that racism comes to having support, or justification. It is, again, what racists hate and fear, right? It sets up conditional justifications: If all black people acted like this, then racism would be justified; if blackness caused such actions, then racism would be justified. These are, of course, counterfactuals, which do not obtain! But the behaviors of the subset mentioned above nonetheless remain the closest things that racism has to support or justification, and relatedly, a strong psychological contributor to racism.
Let’s now turn to President Barack Obama. Any observer of American politics knows that Obama has faced lots of racism, both implicit and explicit. And in addition to the normal liberal aversion that I have to this, my experience with my thuggish students makes it sickening on a whole new level. I consider that hard core of violent thugs. I consider loud, belligerent, criminal, ineducable Daylon. And then I consider eloquent, professorial, Harvard Law Review President, United States President Barack Obama. And when I consider how racism inexplicably links the two, and tries to impute the flaws of the former to the latter, I am simply at a loss. Because whatever the faults of Obama, it’s exceedingly clear that they are not those of Daylon.
It confirms my belief that the human brain is an evolutionary kludge, neither built by God nor built to reason well. And it makes me wonder how long our species can hope to survive.
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1) But maybe this is largely because of the manifold ways that our society gives the concept of race currency. Perhaps without those societal emphases and reinforcements, we’d be considerably less likely to answer our questions that way?
2) If you want to suggest that this is due to my own bias rather than to actual student behavior—please punch yourself in the face. Then please trudge through all those referrals that I’ve posted, and see if you still want to suggest that.
3) Nonstandard English, sagging pants, and rap—these should probably seem out of place in this list. But notice that we’re talking about what “racists hate or fear.”
All or most of the other items on the list have rather obvious social costs, so they seem deserving of any antipathy they get; whereas nonstandard English, sagging, and rap seem to be innocuous cultural preferences, toward which antipathy is not justified.
I’d like to add just a bit of gray to that distinction, though. As much as I agree with it in principle, it gets a little fuzzy in practice. The intrinsically innocuous cultural preferences seem to get quite bound up with the more socially costly ones. E.g. when students rap to a teacher’s face lyrical threats of gun violence, or refuse to take their headphones out of their ears when a guest speaker has come to visit.
As for nonstandard English and sagging pants, these are perfectly fine cultural practices, but problems arise when students practice them exclusively. When around peers and in social situations, it’s obviously quite common to speak and dress in ways that would not be embraced by all people outside of that social group. But when one place where such practices fail to be embraced is in “professional” settings, e.g. by most employers; and when a person never modifies the practices; then this greatly limits the person’s prospects for employment. (As well as in endeavors like political advocacy, banking, housing, etc.)
Our reflexes of liberalism or political correctness may inspire excessive defensiveness or caution here. But the basic dynamic seems the same across cultural groups. I curse and wear t-shirts in social settings but not professional ones, and this imposes no limitations on me. If you want to similarly avoid undue limitation, you can speak nonstandard English and sag your pants in social settings but not professional ones. It’s as simple as that.