Saturday, December 01, 2007

My Reluctant Confession of Racial Prejudice

As I walked from my car to my workplace, a woman approached me. She was clearly in distress. She said she'd just learned that her mother had suffered a massive heart attack and was in the hospital somewhere, and could I help her with bus fare or any other way to get there. I'm new to my job. I didn't want to be late. I couldn't take her to her mom or even spend a lot of time questioning her about her situation and get to work on time. I could have quickly given her money. But I didn't trust her to be on the level.

A big reason why I didn't trust her was that she was black. I hate to admit it but have come to the conclusion that it's better to be upfront--at least in a blog boldly titled "Naked Reflections"-- than to hide or sugarcoat it: I'm prejudiced against black people as a group, which makes me suspicious of any particular black person if I see anything in that person's demeanor or behavior that reinforces this prejudice, such as manner of dress or speech.

Intellectually, I agree with Martin Luther King that we should judge people, to the extent that judging must be done, by the "content of their character" rather than by the color of their skin, but emotionally I tend to feel that a hugely disproportionate number of black people are of dubious character and trustworthiness. Not because the color of their skin or the genetics behind it makes them that way, but because a complex series of interacting social, cultural, psychological, and other factors have predisposed black people in this country to have poor character. Certainly, there are many black people of shining character and many others of at least no worse character than most of the rest of us, and I don't claim to have anything approaching unimpeachable character myself. But an awfully large percentage of black people in this country seem to me to be apathetic if not hostile toward improving themselves through education, and they also seem to be involved in crime, substance abuse, or other illegal and illicit behavior and to think that society owes them the right to continue indulging in this way of life.

I wrote that this was an "emotional" "feeling," but actually, as I read what I've just written, it seems to involve more than just the emotions. I am talking about my perception of reality and expressing it in a fairly rational manner, although a rational statement doesn't have to be a true one. I could construct a rational syllogism that says:

All dogs are cats,
Fido is a dog;
Therefore, Fido is a cat.

This syllogism or argument is rational or logical in the sense that if its premises were true, its conclusion would also have to be true. But it's ridiculously false in its first premise and; therefore, in its conclusion.

So, I wonder. Am I intellectually rationalizing, after the fact, an emotional feeling toward black people? And, if so, where does this feeling come from? Or does my feeling arise from experience and intellectual reflection of some kind upon my experience involving black people as a group? If so, is my conclusion or, at least, hypothesis that black people as a group are of dubious character true?

I wish I could say that it isn't. But, in my heart of hearts, I'm inclined to believe that it is, and I don't know what to do about it. I don't want to think what I do about black people as a group if I'm wrong or even if I'm right but have come to my belief without sufficient justification. Yet, first of all, how do I determine if my belief is true, and, second, how do I determine, in the absence of complete certainty, if I'm justified in thinking that it's probably true?

Anyway, I don't remember how this woman was dressed except that it seemed to be rather respectably, but I had the feeling that she might well be lying about her mom, and, given my prejudice toward black people, my determination to get to work on time, and my lack of faith in my ability to think quickly and effectively in situations requiring it, I more or less reflexively said, "I'm sorry, Mam, but I can't help you" and kept walking. As she walked on to approach someone else, I heard her say bitterly, "I'm sorry, Mam, but I can't help you, what is THAT?"

If that woman had been dressed the same way and acted the same way but had not been black, would I have given her money? I doubt it, but I think I might have been slightly more inclined to. The fact that she was asking for money in the way that she was and was black more or less sealed the deal. She did seem genuinely distressed. Her voice sounded desperate and her mouth had an odd contortion as she spoke, but I think I subconsciously made the snap judgment that she was more likely to be mentally ill than telling the truth about her mom and that her being black may have contributed to behaviors that plunged her into her current predicament and that my giving her money was not really going to benefit her but just further lighten my already uncomfortably light wallet.

Nevertheless, I felt guilty as I walked on. Had I done the right thing? Or could I have done better? What should I have done? In so many unexpected everyday situations, I don't know what to do and my mind just goes blank under the pressure of the moment, and I have little confidence in my ability to think on my feet and quickly figure it out. Even afterward, when I have the luxury of being able to take my time and reflect on what I should have done with no one watching me or waiting for my answer, I don't really know what I should have done. But that's another issue too large and complex to address at length here. I've already raised one issue that is more than sufficiently large and complex enough for one post. That issue is my prejudice toward black people.

I remember how I used to argue passionately against what I perceived as my grandfather's strong prejudice against black people. He would rail against the Black Panthers or the blacks rioting in Watts and say things like, "Most blacks are just no damned good," and I would angrily tell him that he's wrong, or I'd make fun of how he'd say that black people were bad except the ones and their families with whom he worked or bowled league. They were all nice people, but other blacks were bad apples. He'd reply that there were a few good apples in the barrel of mostly rotten ones, a few exceptions to the rule regarding black people. "You just keep your eyes open and wait," he declared. "You'll see that I'm right."

And now I see that I think all too much the way he did. I know black people, including my supervisor at work, whom I like a great deal and for whom I have nothing but deep admiration and respect. They're bright (far more so than I am) kind, decent, friendly, hard-working, and scrupulous. But, in my heart of hearts, I see them as "exceptions to the rule."

I'd like to overcome this way of thinking and feeling, because I want to believe that it isn't true, and that, in any case, expecting the worst of a group of people will do nothing to help them do their best. But I don't know how to overcome it except by, for starters, admitting my prejudices to the world and proceeding from there.


Tom said...

I think before anybody buys you a white hood for Christmas, we should examine this closely.

Everyone has certain elements of prejudice. For example, I love mushrooms, but won't eat wild ones found in the woods. Why? Because my ignorance of species of mushrooms leaves me open to being fatally poisoned. [This example, btw, came from Mr. Banks, my high school sociology teacher who was also black.]

It is not prejudice, however, to notice, as you might, that a tough-looking twenty-year-old male you pass on the street is more of a danger to you than a frail eighty-year-old woman.

A current government document gives us this statistic: As of 12/13/05, "About 8.1% of black males age 25 to 29 were in State or Federal prison, compared to 2.6% of Hispanic males and 1.1% of white males in the same age group."

The disproportion of blacks, compared to whites, in prison is much improved since 35 years ago when you and I were in high school, but it is still alarming. Certainly prejudice on the part of law enforcement and juries adds to black imprisonment, but it is also an element of greater impoverishment, and a cultural thing.

Much as we whites are crazy, black culture has its own, unique and very troubling antisocial aspects.

I think that Martin Luther King's point was that we should judge people as individuals, not as classes of people. AND, that we should get TO KNOW people as individuals and not as stereotypes. You can't get to know people you bump into for a minute on the street, so we all must forgive ourselves for falling back on the current stereotypes.

America is still only part of the distance in working its way through its racial problems, equalizing access and opportunities for all groups of people. I think we're doing great, but we still have a distance to go.

I judge you to have OUTSTANDING character. Please give yourself a break.

-- tom

Tom said...

Hey, Steve, another thing:

You are likely to ride the light rail around our shared metropolis, as I do, from time to time.

I don't think that anybody who rides the light rail a bunch of times can fail to gain the impression that the black people are ruder, hog more space, louder and mistreat their children more often in proportion to the white riders.

It's not Politically Correct to say so, but impossible not to observe.

This doesn't mean black people are more prone toward being evil; it merely means there are sociological reasons for the disparity.

I would say that you are aware of disparities in behavior between the black and white groups and this has affected your reactions relating to people you don't yet know. I would say that this is normal, understandable and typical.

It is a kind of thing we all have to work on, however, otherwise society is stuck forever in a Catch 22: Equality among the races goes unachieved for many reasons, including the fact that we whites aren't treating black people as well as we do others of our race.

Nagarjuna said...

Tom, I'm sorry to say it, but I believe that you're right on all counts, except the part about my "outstanding character." :-) Interestingly, my wife, who came here from Thailand six years ago, has a very poor opinion of black people in general based on what she's seen since she's been here. I try to persuade her that she can't judge all black people by the ones of whom she's formed such a negative impression, and she, like me, acknowledges this intellectually. But she's seen so many black people around her behave in crude and downright ugly ways that she, like me, has become quite prejudiced against toward black people in general emotionally, or at least toward those who have grown up here as opposed to those who came here from other countries and cultures.