Aversive and institutional racism

“He isn’t racist; some of his best friends are….”

Common definitions of racism make it an issue of affect—you have the wrong feelings about some group. Some common definitions emphasize an intent to judge on the basis of race, or an avowed feeling of hostility. But that isn’t how racism works.

I remember a racist telling me, “I’m not racist. Racism is the irrational hostility toward a group, and my hostility is perfectly rational.” As an example, he said “Normal Germans would have their shop windows broken by Jewish communists, and then have to go to a Jewish bank to pay for the repairs. That is why Germans were so hostile to Jews.”

It’s false on every level—that isn’t where anti-Semitism came from, most bankers weren’t Jewish, few people had their windows broken by communists, most communists weren’t Jews, most Nazis weren’t shopkeepers. But it’s a narrative that made this racist feel as though antisemitism was justified. (By the way, some of his best friends were Jews–really.)

“Aversive” racism is the term used for racism that comes from an aversion to being close with members of that race. It’s often assumed that aversive racism is conscious and universal. So, if you’re nice to some members of that race, you don’t have aversive racism. But everyone has their “good Jew” as Himmler called them; slaveholders claimed (and probably sincerely felt) affection for many of their slaves; advocating genocide of Native Americans not uncommonly went along with praising Native American culture; George Wallace was very nice to his black aides.

I remember people saying, “I have nothing against colored people; they’re very good with children, and they have excellent rhythm. I just think we need to live separately.” Or read F.L. Baum’s argument for genocide—racism with a compliment.

There might be a person with a black neighbor, who is really nice to that neighbor. So, is she free of aversive racism? Not necessarily. She might still call the cops every time that neighbor has relatives over, or not ask the neighbor’s son to house sit while she’s out of town, or mentally exempt that family from her generalizations about “that kind.”

More important, she might even like that family and use her affection for them as evidence that she doesn’t need to examine how she treats other members of that race. She might be completely unaware that she applies different standards to resumes where the applicant seems to be African American, but tell herself she can’t be racist because she’s buddies with that family.

Racism is unconscious, and doesn’t necessarily involve hostility. There are various studies of resumes and pieces of writing, showing that white people judge the writing more harshly if they think the author isn’t white.

For instance,

Sixty partners from 22 law firms who agreed to participate in a “writing analysis study” received copies of the memo. Half were told the memo was written by an African-American man named Thomas Meyer, and half were told the writer was a Caucasian man named Thomas Meyer. Fifty-three partners completed the task. Of those, 29 received the memo supposedly by a white man and 24 received the memo supposedly by a black man.

The reviewers gave the memo supposedly written by a white man a rating of 4.1 out of 5, while they gave the memo supposedly written by a black man a rating of 3.2 out of 5. http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/hypothetical_legal_memo_demonstrates_unconscious_biases

There are innumerable studies along those lines, about how teachers respond (especially in regard to discipline), how juries make decisions (the “blacker” the defendant, the more likely a conviction, even in the face of bad evidence), how people hire, rent, and sell.

One test of how “racist” someone is is to look at implicit biases. There’s a great set of tests here (be prepared to be disturbed): https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

Institutional racism is different from aversive racism, and it comes about in several ways. One way is that a lot of people are a little racist, and it adds up. It also happens because people assume “people like us” are the norm. So, we start from our experience, and assume everyone has it.

You can see it in some areas where there is no intention to discriminate. For instance, a lot of classroom rules established by PTA end up significantly discriminating against working parents or working class parents. There’s no intention to do that—just an assumption that all the parents have a lot of time and money. When I’m teaching, I’ll point to the building we’re in—what would it be like to be on crutches or a wheelchair? Then students often notice that there are steps with no function other than aesthetic. Did the architect put them just to discriminate against people with mobility disabilities? Probably not; probably, s/he thought it looked good and literally did not imagine anyone unable to navigate the steps. Discrimination is often a lack of thought.

But, did the architect harm people with disabilities? Yes.

So, can you hurt people on the basis of race without ever intending to, or even feeling hostility? Yes.

For instance, standardized tests discriminate against people who speak stigmatized dialects. If a person makes admissions decisions on the basis of standardized tests, when there is no evidence that standardized tests predict success for that program, that’ racist. No intent, no feelings of hostility, but discrimination and harm.

Or, let’s imagine a school that is making decisions about curriculum. If the curriculum only values authors and figures of one race, then it is sending the message that only members of that race can be valued. Intent? Feelings of hostility? Probably not, but serious harm.

It’s easy not to see the harm if we benefit from it, but that’s a different issue, about privilege.

But, the short, short version is: think about all the ways we discriminate against people with disabilities. There was a time when that discrimination was deliberate because people strongly believed that anyone with a disability should remain out of view of others. That was deliberate aversive discrimination. There remains a muddled aversive discrimination, but much of it is simply that being able-bodied is a privilege, and one of the main components of that privilege is that we don’t have to think about what it would be like to get to work, or the grocery store, or rent an apartment, or see a movie, or do any of hundred other things if we were in a wheelchair.

You might be very, very nice to the person next door in a wheelchair, and regularly take her to the grocery store. But if you vote against a bond issue that would expand services for people with disabilities you have some explaining to do. You might be nice on a personal level and discriminatory on an institutional one.

That’s why, to determine racism, people ask about whether someone is willing to acknowledge that it exists. If you think it doesn’t, that’s racism. It isn’t aversive (at least not the deliberate kind), but you probably would score pretty high on the IAT, and you definitely got the gold ring on institutional racism.

One thought on “Aversive and institutional racism”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *