Tag Archives: Henry Louis Gates

Talking to whites about their (our) racism: a question for anti-racists

Memphis, TN, is one of the few American cities where a critical aspect of white privilege is almost impossible to sustain—namely, the part that means almost never finding oneself in the minority. In Memphis, whites are outnumbered 2 to 1 by blacks, and other demographic factors can make the ratio “feel” much higher. (The city provided my first experience of being the sole white person in a filled-to-capacity venue. This was at the Applebee’s down the street from my house—hardly the Apollo fucking Theater.)

My wife and I spent a year there as part of her (pharmacy) grad schooling. The UT Health Services program attracts a large crop of students each year. Of course, many of these students are white, and as grad students who can afford to relocate—future doctors, dentists and pharmacists, at that—are privileged even among whites.

A quarter of the pharmacy students must complete their final three years at a satellite campus in Knoxville. My wife and I made this move, and naturally drew many acquaintances from this smaller “expat” community.

Among the white classmates, there are frequent expressions of “relief” to be out of Memphis due to the tangible “racial tension” there. When pressed, this inevitably reduces to anecdotes about how some (or a lot, or most) black people there were rude or standoffish toward them. (Note that the alleged cases are typically ones in which the white person is the patron of some customer service the black person is providing them; buying shit is really the extent of the “victims’” experience with local, non-school-related African-Americans.)

While they accuse these blacks of poor behavior, I have never witnessed overt racism attending these accounts. However, I strongly suspect that these impressions are due to latent racism on the part of the white students. (Shit, I know it is.) And naturally I have the urge to “prove” this to them.

I have tended to argue in the following way:

(1) My own experience has not matched theirs. Note too, my data set is probably far larger and more representative: Not being a student, I was more in “the real world” than they. My friends, neighbors and coworkers were likelier to be drawn from the general population, rather than the grad school community.

(2) Studies strongly suggest that high majorities of whites who do not perceive themselves to be racist tend to hold latent racist views. I like to say: “If an open, avowed racist—a klansman or something—relayed a string of negative encounters with blacks, wouldn’t we suspect his racism had something to do with these impressions?; but then, why not suspect a latent racist’s racism as responsible for the identical class of impressions?”

Specifically, those studies indicate that whites tend to rate the same ambiguous behavior as more aggressive or “personal” when performed by blacks rather than by fellow whites. (The evidence is broken down in sect. (ii) of this post; the citations are in Tim Wise’s blog, my original source.)

None of this really “works,” despite my confidence that my associates are overall decent, well-intentioned types. To them, as to most whites (most people?), “racism” always refers to bald, deliberate nastiness toward people of color; knowing they don’t feel this way about blacks, they resist the attribution of racist ideas. (Though I always include myself in the charge.)

Finally, to myself, I entertain a completely different defense angle:

(3) Assuming the white complainants are accurately recounting these exchanges, the “inhospitable” behavior could be perfectly justified. The fact of generalized white racism—or rather, the fact that blacks are aware of generalized white racism—can engender perfectly rational “trust issues.” (None of these are very exotic in kind; they are the sort of thing each of us has dealt with in some relationship or another.) One is reluctant to bestow much effort on someone who is not sure to appreciate it, much less to sincerely reciprocate; or to bend over backward in a service capacity for someone who is likely to think it is his or her “proper place” to do so in the first place; etc. (If you already see me as a clown, the last thing I’m gonna do is tell you a joke.)

(Note that “erring on the side of niceness” is not a risk-free option here. Acting within a trust deficit is no zero sum game. Turning out to be a sucker—or in this case, wondering if you’ve been one—takes a psychic toll.)

I haven’t pressed this line of argument for fear it concedes too much to the whites’ accounts; I don’t wish to reinforce a belief that blacks are standoffish. (Again, that hasn’t been my experience.) I’m only saying that if this is the case, there may be a good reason.

* * *

To conclude with a question:

This issue points well beyond what to tell my friends in isolated conversations. Any anti-racist work will encounter the “rude/unruly black” meme soon enough.

For example, during the 2009 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. flap, anti-racist advocates such as Tim Wise and Michael Eric Dyson were afforded public fora on the matter. They had to address the routine charge that Gates needlessly escalated the confrontation.

Some responded to the effect that, given the prevalence of racist ideas, racial profiling, etc., “it isn’t a crazy idea to ask if racism had to do with the incident.” And I agree—just as I contend it “isn’t crazy” to ask whether racism accounts for these impressions of those white students.

But this answer seems unsatisfying. My burden is how we might go further and actually answer the question with a, “yes, it was indeed racist” in a given case—especially in a way that might impress a (decent, well-intentioned) white critic.

So is the case I make to the white students even a good one? Is it the best sort of case one can hope for? Or what?

The flaw in “racial profiling” for terrorists

Watching old footage of Ann Coulter turned up an argument heard in this country many times since 9/11. Coulter begins by citing patterns in the terrorist demographic. She lists bombing attacks in which Americans have died, concluding, “The perpetrators have all had the same eye color, hair color, skin color and half of them have been named Muhammad…This is not racial profiling; it’s a description of the suspect.”

Of course, she is being characteristically cheeky. She advocates “racial profiling” by name on the basis of this demonstrated pattern. In short, a terrorist is more likely to come from x-racial-group than from y or z groups; therefore, we are warranted in searching for terrorists among that group particularly. This might include singling out men fitting this description for random baggage or ID checks in subways, or funneling them through a separate check-in line at airports.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that Coulter’s data on terrorists is correct (though it isn’t); it is the form of the argument that is most suspect. It gives too much weight to the (statistical) relationship of racial groups to one another—that is, to the relative percentages of terrorists within each group. If we’re thinking properly, what should matter instead is the relationship of terrorists to their own racial groups.

The important point is not what percentage of terrorists are ‘middle eastern males with funny sounding names,’ versus males of some other group—but rather, what percentage of ‘middle eastern males with funny sounding names’ are actually terrorists.

Analogy #1: For all I know, men named George are .000003% more likely to be serial killers than men with other names. This would this hardly mean that shaking down a bunch of Georges would be a wise deployment of police resources. Shit, even if 100% of serial killers were named George, those Georges who actually commit serial murder are such a tiny minority among men named George that the strategy would still be suspect.

Analogy #2: Imagine we have a haystack which has some probability of containing a needle. (That is, there is some probability that one of the straws is a needle.) Let this probability match that of a given, random Arabic man’s being a terrorist; drawing a random straw is as likely to yield a needle as “drawing” a random Arabic man is likely to yield a terrorist. Let us assume this method of finding needles is ineffective, counterproductive, even immoral; also, that we have some far better method of finding needles in haystacks—using magnets, X-ray, floating the straw on water so the needle sinks, etc. We still want to root out needles, but have long abandoned the strategy of drawing random straws.

Now, imagine we discover that all along there has been a second haystack nearby which has an even lower probability of yielding a needle than our haystack. Perhaps we discover several more, each with some probability lower than the original, but still more than zero. It has become clear that a needle is more likely to come from the first haystack than from any of the others. Still, it would be irrational in the highest to conclude that we should, on this basis, resume our random straw draws. The simple fact that a less promising haystack exists does not magically make checking this stack a good idea, if it wasn’t a good idea before.

Similarly, the simple fact that terrorists are more likely to come from middle eastern men than from some other group doesn’t mean that the likelihood of randomly finding them among middle eastern men is very good at all.


The obvious question is just how good that likelihood is. I haven’t exactly crunched the numbers; you can do the math if you like. But there are millions of men in the world who fit Coulter’s “profile” and very nearly zero of these commit terrorist acts against Americans. Even fewer do so in those stereotypical ways that profiling would address. Even fewer operate in the U.S., where ours laws can actually penetrate. Clearly, we are dealing with numbers akin to those Georges who commit serial killing. It is quite likely that if we incarcerated every other Muslim male in the world, it would register nothing in practical terms to diminish the odds of the next terror attack. Yes, we can theoretically halve a .000003% chance of something. Getting married later in life will halve one’s chances of committing suicide someday. Buying a second ticket will double one’s chances of winning the lottery. There is shit you could do right now to halve your chances of being brainwashed by a cult or eaten by a mountain lion. Who gives a shit? Differences of this infinitesimal grade should no more drive policy than they drive anybody’s consideration of anything else in the real world.

This is not to mention that radical Islamists come in all “colors” and (duh) will easily work around any profile we make. Plus, racial profiling is counterproductive; it alienates those communities which are most critical for intelligence on the potential attackers that move and live among and gain cover from them. “Profiled” individuals tend to avoid law enforcement as much as possible.

Finally, as with finding needles in haystacks, we have a much better alternative strategy for fighting terrorism. Granted, jihadists will cite a number of gripes against the US if you ask them. Some of these concern cultural factors like our women’s liberation and sexy music and movies. But according to the evidence, these aren’t the “root” reasons they turn to terror. As I’ve argued elsewhere (link below), the violence is a response to US foreign policy in and toward Muslim countries and populations. Thankfully, these concerns are quite reasonable, technically solvable, and are morally “overdetermined”—that is, they should be met for a host of reasons even aside from fighting terror.

[See the last boldface section of the post here.]