Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Racism and Prejudice

So there's this Donald Sterling thing happening. If you haven't heard, there's this old, slimy guy who also happens to be the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team, who said some pretty horrible stuff about black people in a secretly recorded private conversation. He's since been essentially stripped of his team (with a ten figure payout), lost his legal sanity, and potentially his will to live.

The guy's been a bad dude for a long time. He's badgered and won and paid off a lot of sexual harassment and racial discrimination suits over the years, but everyone knows he's slimy. He insists he's not a racist.

He does date women of color fifty years his junior. He was among the first NBA owners to employ a black executive. He gives millions and millions of dollars to the NAACP. And, as the old trope goes - he can't be racist because he has black friends.

I wonder if he isn't right.

Do we have far too low a bar for racism these days? I could be wrong and I very likely am, but I always associated racism with a strict hatred for a particular group of people (without exception) based solely on skin color. Under this definition, Donald Sterling may not be a racist. He's certainly a bigot and a jerk and completely prejudiced, but he may not be a racist.

I think the difference between prejudice and racism is where fellow NBA owner, Mark Cuban, was going in some unfortunate comments he made at a conference some weeks ago.

Cuban essentially addressed stereotypes. He talked about avoiding a hoodie-clad black teen when alone at night on a dark street, in the same breath he talked about equally avoiding a white guy with lots of tattoos. He never got around to a point, really, other than to remind us that we've all got impressions of other people based on a lot of factors completely unrelated from their individual identity.

This is prejudice. Literally: judging before.

I don't think its outrageous to say, be a little more intimidated by a big, leather-clad dude of any ethnicity than you would be by a gray-haired lady. We really can't control the judgment calls our brain makes in any given moment. This is what Cuban was talking about. Some people just seem scarier - sometimes because of choices they've made, other times through no fault of their own. I imagine this cognitive assessment is part of our evolutionary DNA; it's important for us to spot and evaluate potential threats.

What Cuban didn't mention, though, is that we do have a choice. We do not have to operate on instinct, no matter how deeply embedded in our DNA it might be. We should be evaluating such input and choose to respond with some sense of rationality. I don't have to assume every black man I see on a dark street is a threat and I certainly don't have to act like it.

Now, I imagine a lot of people, through rational thought, will still choose to avoid some people and make themselves close to others based on stereotypes. In fact, I think we likely all will do this. Even if we're open, trusting people, there is some line at which we decide it's not worth the risk to investigate.

Donald Sterling's line is very short. In fact it's miles shorter than is even socially acceptable in our society. His prejudice is outrageous in its ignorance. He certainly deserves whatever consequences come his way. I have no doubt Donald Sterling likes some black people. He probably likes some Hispanic people and some Asian people - his real problem, though, is assuming the ones he likes are the exception to the ignorant, unfounded stereotypical conclusions he's come to about people who look different from him.

That's the rub, though, isn't it? Racist is a strong word, probably overused - but when we do use it, we can separate ourselves from "the other," the bad guy, them. We an use racism as a wall to prevent any inspection of our own prejudices. Prejudice is a much more malleable term, and one that likely cuts deep.

Yes, Donald Sterling is a sad, comically-extreme example of prejudice, but he's an example nonetheless. I don't know how often I meet someone and assume my stereotypical perception of them is correct until proven otherwise, but I know its not zero.

What's more, even when I avoid making generalizations about people, they still form over time. My perceptions of blind people are likely colored by the blind people I know and interact with - whether that experience is indicative of the whole or normative for blind people at all. Past experience is no guarantee of future reality. I am no more likely to meet an Hispanic woman who matches my expectations because I've known other Hispanic women than I am if I knew none.

People are people and people are different, unique, individual. Yes, we often resemble each other in appearance or habit or personality. There are commonalities and generalizations to make. I'm not sure it even matters if those stereotypes pop into our heads - so long as they don't determine our actions.

In the end, though, prejudice is challenged by meeting new and different people.

Donald Sterling has met some black people he likes - I'm sure he's got a list of them if you'd ask him to name some. To him, those people march against his prejudice and stereotypes. I imagine, though, if his life, friendships, and sample size were much bigger, if he actively sought to include more people on color in his life, he'd recognize the immaturity of his views.

Relationship matters.

It was real easy to be racist in 16th century Europe. Black people were mostly five thousand miles away and if you saw one, it was likely from a great distance. As those of different skin colors were integrated into the same society (albeit on far different social positions) it became more difficult to simply apply a racist line across the board. It's impossible to believe all black people have inferior brains when the guy who drives your carriage clearly possesses a cunning mind; you must reassess your notion (perhaps most, not all, are intellectually challenged). As the process continues so does the reassessment - until you reach a point where the diversity of any one group becomes too obvious and immense to draw specific generalizations at all.

I suspect this Donald Sterling thing is a wake up call to many people in a variety of ways. I hope, at the very least, we give the universality of this problem enough respect to allow it to address the prejudice in our own lives - that we take the opportunity to examine those areas where stereotypes dominate our thought and action - and give us impetus to make changes.

One of the unique features of humanity is that we're not trapped by our own evolution. We do not have to run on instinct. We can intellectually analyze our responses and act against them. By all means, let's condemn Donald Sterling and his terrible examples of prejudice, but, please, let's not stop there. Allow the light to be turned on ourselves and let's be the better for it.

1 comment:

Eric Clark said...

Interesting read, I'm glad I stumbled across this post. Keep up the good work, and I'll be back!