In high school I had a beautiful white cocker spaniel named Champ. When an African American would come to the house he would bark furiously. Was Champ a racist dog? Can dogs even be racist? The explanation of Champ's racial bias was pretty simple. My family is white. We weren't terribly social. My mom had few friends come over, and the ones that did were probably all white. I had few friends over, and the two or three I regularly did were all white. The only African American (or non-white) people Champ experienced were there in a role which dogs inherently hate: meter readers, mail men, and delivery people. I didn't realize my dog's bias until I invited a friend over who was African American and Champ absolutely would not stop barking at him, which was totally uncharacteristic of his normal behavior with white strangers who come over. So again, was Champ a racist? By the literal definition I suppose he was, his reaction to a new person was based on race. He was using race as a mechanism for judging people. But I would argue that this sort of racism, if it really is to be considered racism at all, is somewhat unavoidable, and not in the same class as a bias which has no contextual explanation or basis. If Champ had gone on to have numerous positive experiences with non-white people and persisted in his negative reaction to non-white people, then I think he can more confidently be labeled a racist dog. But that may not entirely be the point.
The reason I bring all this up is because of my own experience the other night,and my attempts to understand it. The other night I went out to walk another dog (this one shows no sign of the earlier one's race bias). It was about 1:00 am. My neighborhood is usually completely deserted at that time, I never see anyone. On the other side of the street, heading towards the front of a small condo complex was a young, early-twenties African American. If I had merely factually noticed his existence and his physical features, that would be the end of this blog post. But, I did more, and I'm still trying to understand what and why. I've been over-analyzing those milliseconds for the last few days and along the way I've surely begun to lose some clarity on what flashed through my mind, but I'll try to relay it as accurately as I can.
My reaction seemed to be something along the lines of suspicion, the feeling that he didn't belong, and that he might be a suspicious character. The big question I asked myself immediately after realizing the flash of reaction I had was to wonder if I would have thought anything of him if he had been white? or Asian? or...? And the answer appeared to be no. Without any context my reaction sure seems like a racist one. But, was it really? Am I? On some level I think we're all guilty of erroneous and unfair biases, but picking apart the reasons for my reaction makes me a little unsure about whether my particular reaction crossed that most important line.
As with Champ, there are contextual bits of information that may be relevant.
- Having seen them come and go for years, having interacted personally with quite a few of them, I knew everyone in the small condo complex of 6 or 7 units. The owners have been all in their thirties, forties, or fifties, and there have not been any African Americans living in the units. Seeing a younger African American approaching the complex was, therefore, unusual. But, does that absolve me of the crime of thinking he was out of place? I'm not so sure. Clearly in this case the only information available to me to form any sort of reaction his race, his age, his dress, and the lateness of the hour. His dress was normal and his age was a little young for the complex.
- The street on which I live has lots of whites, quite a few Asians, a number of people of Hispanic descent, but only one house two blocks down that has African Americans.
- The only African Americans I routinely see on my street live are a group of regulars who come through this neighborhood to get to the liquor store adjacent to my house, where they buy those single serving cigars which they then seem to fill with marijuana and smoke in the alley right behind my house.
So, like Champ, my experience of African Americans in my immediate neighborhood is very slight, and where it exists at all it is primarily negative (the drug users in the alley). I would argue that our brains, which are engineered specifically for the task of looking for patterns and trying to extract meaning from what can be meaningless or misleading data, are very prone to making unreasonable and unfair conclusions which may linger in our subconscious before occasionally bubbling up into our conscious mind. It was not right that I should see a person and make any assumptions about him based on his race, but is it necessarily racist? Or can it merely be unconscious pattern recognition spewing out erroneous notices? Is it racist to merely have such a brief reaction of suspicion in this situation, or does it only become racist when you accept that suspicion as valid?
I found the incident troubling because I knew I had felt something unfair towards a man who did not deserve my suspicion, and that my suspicion was most likely based primarily on his race. And all the context in the world doesn't remove those facts, though it might explain it.
I saw the same person the next day and had the urge to go up to him and apologize. But I instantly realized that I'd only be doing it to make myself feel better and in the act be burdening him needlessly with the awareness that he had been the object of my suspicion; sometimes I have well meaning but very stupid ideas.
Most of us strive to be better than we are, kinder than we are, fairer than we are, and I was disappointed with myself the other night. Hopefully this disappointment and my thinking about it will inform my future reactions.
(Note: I never expected this page to be widely read. Somehow, perhaps because of a paucity of public discussion on the topic, this page is highly ranked in search engines and receives more hits than any other page on my site. I say all this to try and explain what this page is and isn't. I am not a scholar, I am not trying to convince anyone of anything, I was simply trying to document my own experience of the topic and its various arguments. I leave the comments open as people seem to be interested in sharing their views and often adding potentially relevant information.)
Back when I was 16 a famous CBS sports commentator, Jimmy the Greek (aka Jimmy Snyder) destroyed his lifelong career with the following comment:
"The black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way — because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs. This goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trading, the owner — the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid."
A furor erupted. He became instantly anathema. Everyone got very angry, screamed that his statement was racist and deeply ignorant. But despite all the television and print coverage of the issue no one seemed to actually discuss what he had said, no one would actually explain to me or anyone else what the factual errors were in his statement. Did slavery (by way of selective pressure in intake, purchase, transportation, or breeding) make African Americans better athletes? The question was so offensive that it didn't apparently deserve an answer. Everyone seemed to already knew why it was racist and deeply ignorant, and if you didn't know, then you were probably racist and deeply ignorant, too. And that was a horrible thought since racism requires heaping doses of idiocy and dishonesty, and I didn't want to be an idiot or dishonest. But I suspect I wasn't alone in feeling very confused by this situation, very confused that we couldn't talk about it, couldn't educate ourselves about it. I'd never consciously wondered about African Americans in sport, never wondered why there were so many in sport, why they were doing so well in sport, never wondered about any possible genetic implications of slavery. But suddenly I'm presented with a very interesting riddle (why are African Americans dominating in most American sports: basketball, football, baseball?) and the only solution to the riddle anyone will openly share is Jimmy the Greek's. Nobody else is saying anything, nobody else is saying what specifically is wrong with his solution to that riddle. I tried to talk to people about it at the time, to understand what the "real solution" everyone else seemed to already know was, but the universal response I got from the enlightened around me (friends, teachers) was that everyone seemed very uncomfortable talking about the topic, seeming to feel my even bringing up the topic hinted of racism or ignorance.
So yesterday, after 23 long years I finally found the answer I had been looking for. And surprisingly, after the excitement of having a definite answer, I had to admit I was feeling pretty angry that nobody told me sooner. I don't like being actively denied answers to questions. I don't like being encouraged to remain ignorant and discouraged from trying to get answers. I don't like people hinting that I'm a racist or ignorant when my trying to discuss a topic is an attempt to eradicate whatever ignorance or racism I could have. If everyone wants me to be informed, inform me! And, now that I know what seems very likely the correct answer, I'm also pretty pissed because I suspect the vast majority of the people unkindly refusing to enlighten me had no idea what the answer really was. I think many weren't refusing to tell me the answer because it was a stupid question, they were refusing to tell me because they didn't know the answer, and were simply satisfied repeating what they knew society wanted to be the proxy answer, which was, "Don't ask such a stupid and racist question." Obviously some may have had the real answer, but I'm sure many didn't, or at the very least couldn't explain it.
Fortunately I found a great discussion yesterday where some poor fool asked the question I could easily have asked, and he received profoundly thoughtful answers, though similar to my experience the answers were delivered with an air of irritation and condescension.
Just to try and reiterate my own position, or lack thereof, I've never claimed that slavery contributed to the superiority of African Americans in sport. I have (I think) always admitted that I have no definite answers, but that it seemed plausible to believe that the slave trade could have altered genetics and unless someone told me why that couldn't be, then I'd continue suspecting it might be. But suspecting something might be true is not an actionable position, and shouldn't be viewed so harshly anyway; I suspect capital punishment is wrong, but I wouldn't cast a vote for or against it because I have not yet devoted the time/energy to come to a definite conclusion.
My inherited false line of reasoning went this way:
- Selection occurs gathering slaves in Africa (selection for strength, perhaps)
- Selection occurs transporting slaves to market in Africa (selection for strength, survival, perhaps)
- Selection occurs by traders in markets in Africa (selection for strength, perhaps)
- Selection occurs in transportation to the New World (selection for survival, strength, perhaps)
- Selection occurs by slave masters controlling resources and forcing or encouraging sexual matches (selection for strength, docility?, perhaps)
To a person with very modest knowledge of biology/genetics, a coffee table/cultural knowledge of evolution, that surely sounds perfectly reasonable. We see all sorts of variation within species, and under extreme pressure we see many of these variations introduced within a very, very short span of time. I am forever reminded of the program that completely transformed and domesticated Russian silver foxes in less than 40 years. So, all I wanted is for someone to tell me where that chain of reasoning failed.
And here is the answer I finally found...
- Selection in Africa was largely the result of tribal conflicts and war. Those who became slaves were not selected for strength but were merely the survivors of conflict. Even if the people choosing who became a slave was selecting for apparent strength/health the basis of that strength/health was NOT genetic but was environmental/opportunistic, that person just happened to not be suffering from randomly acting disease/injury/malnutrition.
- Survival on the way to the slave markets was similarly not genetic but had to do with the slave's health at the beginning of the trip and specific events (disease exposure/nutrition/etc.) during the trip.
- Traders in markets in Africa may have selected for perceived strength/health, but again the basis for this selection was not primarily genetic, it had more to do with the "luck" of the slave to that point.
- Transportation to the New World was like the previous transportation, survival was primarily controlled by the environment and initial health conditions of the slave
- And while some slave masters did engage in eugenics their efforts were ineffectively crude, being incredibly limited in scale and inexactly uncontrolled. Further, even with a more controlled and widespread eugenics program, 250 years would not have been enough time for major genetic differences to emerge.
That is all the answer I wanted. It is perfectly reasonable, makes absolute sense, and therefore I believe it. Why couldn't someone have just told this to me 23 years ago? If the goal on everyone's part is to stamp out racism and ignorance, it really doesn't help when everyone refuses to share the details of their enlightenment.
Why do some topics have to be viewed as so god damn touchy that people refuse to discuss them?
Back in 7th grade we learned about the Coriolis Effect. If you don't remember, the rotation of the earth causes hurricanes in the norther hemisphere to rotate clockwise and in the southern hemisphere counter clockwise. A few years later I hear someone say, "The water goes down the drain clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counter clockwise in the southern hemisphere." I accepted the statement as true. I knew nothing to disbelieve it, and it fit well my understanding of the Coriolis Effect. In senior year in high school I was in a physics lab and at some point had the occasion to relay this drain comment to my lab partner. The student had never observed this and as the teacher was passing asked him if it was true. The teacher helpfully explained that while the Coriolis Effect effects hurricanes it is too weak to influence water going down a drain, that the direction in that situation is controlled by random chance and subtle asymmetries in sink/tub shapes. Why can't we expect all of our ignorances to be similarly corrected with alternative information, without being made to feel stupid for asking the question, without being made to feel stupid for wrongly believing or suspecting something else was true, most particularly when the unchallenged errors fit other facts/theories as best as we know them?
I do appreciate, to the degree anyone can when an issue does not directly effect their identity, that the suggestion of a genetic advantage for African American athletes could be driven by a racist attempt to deny African Americans their achievements, that it could be driven by a racist attempt to suggest slavery was a "positive" for African Americans, that it could be driven by a set of racist assumptions that African American achievements in sports are related to strength and not intelligence, but the person asking the question should not be suspected of having those motivations, consciously or unconsciously, without other evidence to the contrary. In this case, I did not create the question. I only asked for it to be answered because other people claimed they knew what the "right" answer. And even left without their answer, I never treated my "wrong" answer as fact. Why can't we dispassionately discuss these things, so that those who are educable can become educated?
It surprises me the degree to which so many people seem to insist on an irrational parity between races, genders, suffering, achievements, etc. Parity is rare. How likely is it that any two things in the same class are equal? Most commonly identically classed things have a unique and subtle tendencies across their group which make them, in sum, noticeably different while being in each incarnation able to exceed the other. But that's not the reality people seem to like, it's not the one most people, particularly those who tow the politically correct line, seem to acknowledge. And I'm forever surprised by this ridiculous falsehood of parity.
Yesterday all over the news was a blog post made to Psychology Today by one of their unsolicited writers revealing his "study" proving Black Women are Less Attractive than Whites, Asians, and Native Americans. The blog post included a number of graphs, claimed research over a seven year period, and having supposedly excluded body mass index (BMI) theorized that black women were less attractive because they had more testosterone which made their features less appealing. If you're a student of the world you won't be surprised to learn that Satoshi Kanazawa's "study" was met with disgust, shock, anger, and his post was quickly removed by Psychology Today. But what surprised me in the response, what always surprises me in responses to these sorts of situations, was the refusal to refute (or even discuss) the actual subject matter. The party line seems to be, "All races are equally beautiful. Any attempt to suggest any one race [particularly a minority] is less attractive is racism." Now let me be clear, Satoshi Kanazawa's blog post is not a study; it is missing just about everything one would expect to find in a serious, rigorous academic examination of the topic. Opinions he says he has captured and explanations he has offered for them are, without further evidence and details, wholly unconvincing. But, most who condemn him don't know this or care about this. Most people were just deeply offended by the idea. But, surely the idea must be true, on some level. The idea being not that black women are less attractive than women of other races, but that people (and therefore the society to which they sum) have attractiveness preferences, which are often (if unconsciously) racially based. The true reality of societal attractiveness and therefore racial preferences I don't know and wouldn't dare to hazard a guess, but I am sure society has them. And why on earth would we be surprised? And why on earth would we deny it. For many the refusal to consider the topic seems to stem from a belief that the question is fundamentally flawed or otherwise invalid. You see lots of comments in response, "What is beauty?" "How can one measure attractiveness?" "He's trying to compare apples to oranges." And those arguments are fine things, but they are ultimately nonsense, because they require us to believe that the world's behavior doesn't depend on the real answer to Kanazawa's real question ("How does attractiveness rank by race/gender?"). If you've lived any amount of years you've surely figured out that people's perception of another's beauty matters quite a lot. Beautiful people have a social advantage over their homelier but otherwise identically schooled, motivated, gifted friends and coworkers; and this social advantage can be an advantage in business as well, though also sometimes a detriment. So understanding attractiveness preferences is useful: to understand, compete, and combat the inequities. And inequities are everywhere, and nothing to focus on lamenting. Surely no one would be much surprised by studies indicating female preferences against shortness, against balding, against... Each individual should be and largely is seen as an individual, the sum of his or her particular merits. Tom Cruise is short but has enjoyed the adoration of millions. Bruce Willis is bald yet continues to enjoy the adoration of millions. So why then the surprise and fury that preferences might correlate to race tendencies when individual variation is always available. Again, this man's study appears to be pure bunk, but there is an answer to the question he asked, and it is a useful question, and we shouldn't be afraid to let someone ask it, or to help them find the answer.
And I don't have time to fully go into it, but in the news out of the UK today was fury over their justice minister Kenneth Clark's on radio comments to a rape victim regarding a plan to give reduced prison terms to those who readily admit they committed rape. I won't get into the meat of the story, but I will mention one curious quote at the end of the article:
When he was quizzed during the show on why rape sentences were on average only five years, Clarke said: "That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds.
"A serious rape, with violence and an unwilling woman, the tariff is much longer than that. I don't think many judges give five years for a forcible rape frankly."
Asked if he thought date rape did not count as a "serious" offence, he said: "Date rape can be as serious as the worst rapes but date rapes, in my very old experience of being in trials, they do vary extraordinarily one from another and in the end the judge has to decide on the circumstances.
It isn't very well highlighted in this passage, but time and time again I've seen discussions where people toeing the politically correct party line seem to insist that all rape is equal, and I think that reflects a similar refusal to accept that reality is far more complicated and messy. Each case of rape must be examined and the punishment affixed based on the individual crime, but we shouldn't be afraid to speak about overall impact of varying classes and types of crimes. Far from the exercise being futile, it's necessary and vital for appropriately responding to the problem, particularly in a world where problems are often tackled via governmental budgets. Targeting resources at reducing the occurrence of sexual crimes, appropriately allocating resources for their prosecution, and for treating its victims requires a complete understanding of its incidence and impact. Again, we cannot be afraid to ask any question, dive into any subject, and get whatever answers might be there (accepting the answers only after thorough review).
We can improve our reality most efficiently if we acknowledge it.
And one final tangential note... I really struggle to understand our justice system. The notion that you lock someone in a jail complex for a fixed period of time as punishment is so curiously ineffectual. The prisoner is left with his free will in tact, able to wile away his months or years without any serious reflection or self help and then release him as though we assume him to have changed. And of course he rarely has, most often his mind has retained its felonious nature, and he'll find his way to new victims. And these new victims exist because we failed to act to protect them. Why are we releasing anyone who we have very strong reason to suspect retains their criminal mind? If a rapist is likely to rape again (has done little or nothing to demonstrate a radical change in thought/behavior) what on earth are we doing releasing him in 5 years, or 10 years, of 50 years? Our society seems to be stuck in this useless middle ground. We punish but not so much that any real satisfaction is achieved through vengeance, and we provide only very limited resources in prison to rehabilitate because we require free will participation. And at the end of the day we're all worse for it, with a currently incarcerated population approaching 1% of US residents, and people of felonious minds on the outside no doubt being 10x higher. I'm not suggesting we move towards a Chinese-style reeducation camp model... but I can't believe in a world where we bend free will almost to the point of breaking through commercial advertising, and through political and religious indoctrination, that we are in the area of criminals so incredibly impotent.