Racism compared to Anti-SameSex Marriage

CrookedTimber is one of my favorite blogs because of the depth and breadth of thought and discussion that occurs on nearly any topic imaginable.

Anyhoo, in the topic “Let’s bury – I say, let’s bury the hatchet, but not in anyone’s head, boy” (by John Holbo on April 19, 2014), the subject is: is anti-same-sex-marriage stances comparable to racism?

I appreciate John’s attempt to establish a starting point for behavioral, political, traditional, and psychological discussion of racism. He basically starts by saying racism is about hierarchical dominance and bigotry is about hate.

Bigotry is an inherently negative attitude. But racism is, essentially, just a hierarchical notion. It really has nothing inherent to do with hate. Bigotry says someone is bad. Racism says ‘I am better’. Which implies someone is worse. But it doesn’t necessarily dwell on it, darkly, let alone violently. Racism can walk on the sunny side of the street, in its mind.

What he [Senator Sam Ervin] felt was love of hierarchy and order and preservation of social status. [not hate for Negroes]

Pulling it all together: animosity towards blacks – wishing them ill, for ill’s sake – is not the center of the picture. What is important is that good things for blacks should flow down from a morally and socially hierarchical peak, inhabited by the likes of Ervin. There is also an intense just world hypothesis-grade refusal to admit anything really bad could be happening, and have happened.
Civil rights need to be resisted, not because good things for blacks are bad, but because good things cannot come to blacks in a way that suggests that bad things came to them before.

That is, Ervin does not want bad things for blacks but wants it to be the case that things that are (we see so clearly today) bad for blacks, are good for blacks. This is a very normal type of racism. But it doesn’t fit with our paradigm racist case: hate.

But I think that the dichotomy presented as a preliminary scaffold for discussion routes our thinking to aspects or manifestations of racism rather than the -ism itself.  In fact the pages and pages of awesome comments to the post seem to rest on one of two sides of a fence: either super-reduction to a simple facet (say, bigotry) or a super-complexity that so explodes the notion of racism that it becomes un-analyzable in a coherent fashion.

Unfortunately, commenting was closed before I had a chance to weigh in, but here is what I would contribute.

To try to do what John attempted — identify a good starting scaffold — what can we use that provides us with a simple workable starting point while acknowledging complexity?

-ism, to me is really the place to start. I grant that that this is more on the psychological side of things, perhaps, but getting mired coming out of the gate with complexity that includes “unbiased” social-structure preservation isn’t providing us with a trajectory for discussion.

-ism: theory, condition, characteristic, doctrine/belief, manner, system, act.  (See examples here.) These terms represent expressions of -ism — the form the -ism takes.  They are aspects of -ism.

I think, however, that nothing would exist without a foundation, so what would that premise be.  How about: fundamentally, racism is (any sort of) distinction (or discrimination?) made between races that affects or becomes any one of the expressions of -ism.

More recently, I wrote this with regard to the Black Pastors declaring people who support same-sex marriage as enemies of God and therefore their enemy:

The primary element in racism is the -ism part: the segregationist & elitist beliefs and laws. It’s in the struggle against -ism where the true comparison lies.  Race is the pretext.  Blacks weren’t the only slaves in the world — slavery is not a “black” thing.  “Black” was a characteristic of the enslaved, not the vital node in the concept of  ‘slavery’.  Rac-ism was the necessary attitude for the U.S. brand.

It illuminates a bit more on the manifestation of an -ism.  But there’s more than just expressions of -ism; there is the cognition of -ism.

I found Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion in Chapter Three of his book, “Blink,” revealing about what the atomic structure of the -ism premise is. Here is a sample:

Over the past few years, a number of psychologists have begun to look more closely at the role these kinds of unconscious—or, as they like to call them, implicit—associations play in our beliefs and behavior, and much of their work has focused on a very fascinating tool called the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

These are our stated values, which we use to direct our behavior deliberately. The apartheid policies of South Africa or the laws in the American South that made it difficult for African Americans to vote are manifestations of conscious discrimination, and when we talk about racism or the fight for civil rights, this is the kind of discrimination that we usually refer to. But the IAT measures something else. It measures our second level of attitude, our racial attitude on an unconscious level— the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we’ve even had time to think. We don’t deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes. And as I wrote about in the first chapter, we may not even be aware of them. The giant computer that is our unconscious silently crunches all the data it can from the experiences we’ve had, the people we’ve met, the lessons we’ve learned, the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen, and so on, and it forms an opinion. That’s what is coming out in the IAT.

The disturbing thing about the test is that it shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values. As it turns out, for example, of the fifty thousand African Americans who have taken the Race IAT so far, about half of them, like me, have stronger associations with whites than with blacks. How could we not? We live in North America, where we are surrounded every day by cultural messages linking white with good. “You don’t choose to make positive associations with the dominant group,” says Mahzarin Banaji, who teaches psychology at Harvard University and is one of the leaders in IAT research. “But you are required to. All around you , that group is being paired with good things. You open the newspaper and you turn on the television, and you can’t escape it.”

The IAT is more than just an abstract measure of attitudes. It’s also a powerful predictor of how we act in certain kinds of spontaneous situations. If you have a strongly pro-white pattern of associations, for example , there is evidence that that will affect the way you behave in the presence of a black person. It’s not going to affect what you’ll choose to say or feel or do. In all likelihood, you won’t be aware that you’re behaving any differently than you would around a white person. But chances are you’ll lean forward a little less, turn away slightly from him or her, close your body a bit, be a bit less expressive, maintain less eye contact, stand a little farther away, smile a lot less, hesitate and stumble over your words a bit more, laugh at jokes a bit less. Does that matter? Of course it does.

Suppose the conversation is a job interview. And suppose the applicant is a black man. He’s going to pick up on that uncertainty and distance, and that may well make him a little less certain of himself, a little less confident, and a little less friendly. And what will you think then? You may well get a gut feeling that the applicant doesn’t really have what it takes , or maybe that he is a bit standoffish, or maybe that he doesn’t really want the job. What this unconscious first impression will do, in other words, is throw the interview hopelessly off course.

Anyway, I side with the implication that raceism comprises race-based judgments that can both translate to tradition, social structure, and laws and lie along a continuum of extremes from a clinical (“sophisticated”?) attitude to a mostly emotional one (hate), such as reacting with revulsion upon touching.

I would also extend Gladwell’s atomic structure of association to include what one considers value and valuable.  It’s still “association” in the sense that I ascribe value to certain positions about which I’m particularly partial; and the valuable things I associate with myself compose my identity (singular or group) as being distinct from “you” (in either a good or bad way).

In fact, in all of the slander against gay people, you see an attempt to create associations, both in what pairs with being gay and what not to be associated with.

Control of any type, then, is more about structuring one’s environment to reflect attitudes (granting that there is a feedback loop) and associations and about asserting authority toward the end of conserving values.

It is in the -ism way that anti-SSM and racism are the same.

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4 Responses

  1. John Holbo:
    Bigotry is an inherently negative attitude. But racism is, essentially, just a hierarchical notion. It really has nothing inherent to do with hate. Bigotry says someone is bad. Racism says ‘I am better’. Which implies someone is worse. But it doesn’t necessarily dwell on it, darkly, let alone violently. Racism can walk on the sunny side of the street, in its mind.

    What he [Senator Sam Ervin] felt was love of hierarchy and order and preservation of social status. [not hate for Negroes]

    Pulling it all together: animosity towards blacks – wishing them ill, for ill’s sake – is not the center of the picture. What is important is that good things for blacks should flow down from a morally and socially hierarchical peak, inhabited by the likes of Ervin. There is also an intense just world hypothesis-grade refusal to admit anything really bad could be happening, and have happened.
    Civil rights need to be resisted, not because good things for blacks are bad, but because good things cannot come to blacks in a way that suggests that bad things came to them before.

    That is, Ervin does not want bad things for blacks but wants it to be the case that things that are (we see so clearly today) bad for blacks, are good for blacks. This is a very normal type of racism. But it doesn’t fit with our paradigm racist case: hate.

    Comments >>>
    > If the policies this person enacted were knowingly and deliberately racist, and had racist effects, who the hell cares what was in their heart? Similarly, if you’re actively working to deny gay people a simple human right, who the hell cares whether you hate them the way good ol’ boys hated black people, or in some different, more sophisticated way?

    > Since we want to understand racism as an institutional feature, there is a certain sense to this. But being so strict about it leads to absurdities. For example, suppose we decide that Bull’s Connor’s tactics backfired. He single-handedly advanced the cause of civil rights, with his dogs and firehoses on the TV, more than he ever managed to set them back in all the years he worked to set them back. Surely it doesn’t follow that Bull Connor wasn’t a racist, after all, if functionally he turns out to have helped the cause he tried to hurt.

    I know you didn’t mean that, Abigail. But this is a simple illustration of why you can’t leave the psychology clean out. And, in general, there just isn’t a way to understand the effects of racism – that is, the machinery that produces those effects – without considering what people are thinking and trying to do – what really matters to them. The machine is more than what people think and feel. But what they think and feel is part of it. So it matters what they think and feel.

    > Part of the point to see here, I think, is that these two errors travel together and are mutually reinforcing. Conor Friedersdorf starts from a poor sociology of racism (what John Holbo calls P1) and derives from it a poor moral theory of why racism is bad, allowing him to conclude (validly, from his flawed premises) that our social condemnation of racism shouldn’t apply to sophisticated justifications for discriminating against LGBT people. Other people make the converse inference, starting from a poor moral theory (“Racism and homophobia are bad because they involve conscious malice directed at other people, or an abstract denial of people’s equal moral worth”) and assuming that that, therefore, must be all we’re talking about when we talk about racism and homophobia.

    It’s fairly obvious how this comes into play in conservative thinking. But it comes into play among American liberals too. Take, e.g., the common claim that there is no non-bigoted reason to oppose same-sex marriage. Of course this is not true–any more than there was no non-bigoted reason to support segregation, or “anti-miscegenation” laws. Human beings are smart and sophisticated enough to generate arguments in defense of long-standing (and thoroughly unjust) systems of inequality that don’t depend on clearly bigoted premises. The incompatibility between a commitment to equal worth and a social system of inequality is not psychological, nor even conceptual, but substantive: it emerges in practice, through social change, often through social struggle, as people try to make that commitment real.

    The bottom line is this. If, in trying to avoid participation in racism and homophobia (etc.), you think searching your heart is enough, you are wrong. If you think doing a lot of careful conceptual analysis is enough, you are also wrong. Part of the way out is real, reflective engagement with the world. But part of the way out is also realizing that we are all products of an unequal world, and we don’t know what an equal one looks like. And that’s why this discussion of Sam Erwin seems useful to me: not because the psychology of people who perpetuate inequality is the appropriate focal point of a struggle for justice, but because, without grasping how that can work, we can’t really grasp ourselves, and our own positions.

    It is also true that racial segregation was inherently and necessarily tied to a social system of white supremacy, both as cause and effect. And that makes justifications for racial segregation racist: racist in their effects, but also racist in their source, in the sense that they could only ever be socially plausible in a society already built on white supremacy. (Today, we–even conservatives–generally recognize these arguments as racist immediately, because their race-essentialist premises no longer have much social plausibility. But we still live in a social system of white supremacy and other kinds of racism have more contested social plausibility–e.g., the idea that racial inequality is due to “black culture,” or to genetic influence on IQ.) But that doesn’t mean that, if you looked beneath the surface of every defender of segregation, you would have found that their arguments were just camouflage for animosity. Nor does it mean that you would have found a sloppy or unsophisticated thinker. To think this is to oversimplify the social dynamics of racism.

    > I think these affective differences make the two hatreds analogous but not identical. Friedersdorf’s solicitude for anti-gay conservatives is, I think, totally misplaced and certainly completely off the mark as far as historians go (liberal and left historians are nothing if not dedicated to the idea that reactionaries ought to be studied sympathetically, as in the Klan literature of the last 30 years, and the new literature on the Right). So, one thinks with one’s enemies, understands that the politics is motivated and coherent, in its way, and not simply “paranoid” (though I think we ought to call it “paranoid” when it is). But beyond that history remains the site of these shabby and degraded ideological projects and ugly schema of domination and exploitation. I find the presentation above unconvincing to the degree that it abstracts from this basic truth.

    > I’m just resistant to defining a term like ‘racism’. Necessary and sufficient conditions and all that. As Nietzsche says: nothing with a history can be defined. It’s too complicated and mixed up with social and institutional factors. Racism may be extremely different in societies and institutional contexts, depending on other beliefs and factors etc. But I do think it’s important to try to impose some conceptual order on the domain, at least to start us out; and it seems to me that hierarchy – superior/inferior – is a better candidate for a core than hate.

  2. From http://crookedtimber.org/2014/03/05/principled-bigotry-is-still-you-know-bigotry/ :

    We all have working assumptions. We have to. The question is whether these working assumptions are correct, or plausibly based on the evidence.

    This is an interesting thought, and falls right into place with the “associations” concept. Say you have a faction whose desire is to protect marriage and protect children. What are the assumptions held that provide that gay marriage is harmful to either? How is the institution of marriage threatened? How are children harmed by being raised by gay parents?

    On the children issue, the assumptions are homophobic and bigoted, stemming from a belief that homosexuality is evil (by virtue of being unnatural).

    Assumptions, no matter how sincere or deeply held (and typically unexplored) are the nutrients for bigotry. They are often placeholders for what one imagines is fact or some god-given, a-priori truth.

  3. From http://crookedtimber.org/2014/05/01/political-correctness-a-proposed-definition/#more-32816

    On the other hand, you may define racism as “a configuration of the world in which ethnicity determines outcomes”. Under this definition, we can divine the existence of racism simply by observing reality. We don’t need to identify any actual racists in white hoods, we just need to know that some hidden variables are causing racially-biased outcomes. It would seem absurd to claim that racism is over, when racial inequality remains so obvious.

    (comment #28)
    ~

  4. […] -ism in order for it to be a valid comparison, you display deliberate obfuscation and arrogance. The primary element in racism is the -ism part: the segregationist & elitist beliefs and laws. It’s in the struggle against that -ism where […]

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