It isn’t about a person being racist; it’s about doing something racist

When I was wandering around pro-Trump pages and groups prior to the election, I found a large number of people who said, “I don’t like being called racist, and so I’m voting for Trump.”

While I do believe that all racists voted for Trump, I don’t think all Trump voters were racist. And, really, whether they are racist or not doesn’t matter as much as whether we can talk about racism rather than racists. What’s interesting about that argument is that it isn’t just a pro-Trump argument–not all the people who object to being called racist voted for Trump after all–but why people would vote for someone with an obvious record of very racist statements and actions because they themselves feel unjustly accused of racism.

And, so, really, this is about how to talk about racist statements and actions.

Sure, some of the people who come out regularly to support Trump’s racists statements, are avowedly racist—the neo-Nazis who support Trump wholeheartedly [1].  But I want to talk about supporters who aren’t Nazis, don’t like Nazis, and don’t like being called Nazi (or racist).

Being a racist person in our culture (especially media) is associated with all sorts of horrible things—with being vicious, immoral, evil. If you think in terms of good and evil being absolute binaries—something is either good, or it is entirely evil–and you think of racism as evil, then saying that someone is racist is telling them they are entirely evil. And their response is, quite reasonably, they aren’t entirely evil. In fact, they’re good people because they think racism is evil.

This whole situation is complicated because of how racism is a natural out-growth of three conventional ways of thinking—what sociologists call in-group favoritism, what social psychologists call “faith in group entativity,” and what cognitive psychologists call “confirmation bias.”

In-group favoritism

We tend to think in terms of “people like us” and “people not like us.” And, completely unconsciously, we tend to think that “people like us” (the in-group) is better. So, if an in-group member does the same thing as an out-group member, we’ll explain them differently. The in-group member did it because of being a good person (if it’s a good thing), and an out-group member did it for bad reasons.

If I steal a parking place from you, and I appear to be in-group, you’ll either explain my behavior (she was in a rush, she didn’t see me) or make me not in-group (she looks like an LSU fan). There are all sorts of things that factor into your decision as to whether I’m in- or out-group—what bumper stickers do I have on my car, what kind of car am I driving, how am I dressed, what race/ethnicity am I. Racism is simply the tendency to make race, completely unconsciously, one of those factors. Being racist doesn’t make you evil; it makes you human. [2]

If you’re twitchy about people who appear to you to be transgender, and I am otherwise entirely in-group, you might be slightly more hostile in your interpretation of why I took the place than if I were in-group in terms of your ideas about gender, but still less hostile than if I were out-group in every way (a liberal transgender LSU fan). But you would never think, “Oh, I liked that person till I thought gender was not an issue, and now I don’t.” Biases happen in moments of perception—it’s not easy to see when we’re being biased.

People think of racism as a self-aware pure hostility to every member of every other “race.” If that’s what racism is, then you couldn’t do it without knowing, and you couldn’t be friends with anyone of other races, and you would never do anything kind to any member of any other race. The kind of people who support Trump think that’s what it means to be racist—to hate every member of every other race, and so they think they’re being accused of being like that. And so they’re mad. And, if someone in their in-group (especially a person they see as representing their in-group publicly) says something that might be racist, they’ll find ways of excusing it, largely on the grounds that “He isn’t racist, so he can’t have said something racist.”

But that has never been what racism is—it’s never been pure hostility to every other race. Let’s start with the premise that genocide is racist—all advocates of genocide, or race-based slavery, could think of members of other races for whom they had affection. Adolf Eichmann, who relentlessly pursued the eradication of European Jews, emphasized that he had Jewish friends (and he did). Slaveholders talked about their affection for some slaves, advocates of segregation claimed that their stance came from concern for non-whites (see Bilbo’s introduction to his racist book arguing for getting all African Americans out of America, or David Duke, an actual Nazi, talking about his affection for his African-American maid).

So, simply having kind feelings toward people of other races doesn’t make us not-racist. Racism isn’t about feelings that individuals have for others.

In our culture racism is bad, and we have a hard time thinking of acts as bad without immediately jumping to the actor being equally bad. That was a complicated sentence. Here’s what I mean: I spend a lot of time in the courses where racism comes up (courses on racism, free speech, demagoguery, going to war, Hitler) and I say that “being racist doesn’t mean a person is evil.” And some students hear me saying that racism is okay, and they’re shocked. And that isn’t what I’m saying. Not-evil people say and do racist things. We all do racist things, and we aren’t all evil.

Racism is very bad, but not every act of racism is equally bad, and the worst kinds of racism are the consequence of institutional practices, that don’t necessarily involve anyone being deliberately hostile to someone else.

Think about this in terms of disability. My campus is really bad for anyone with even mild mobility issues—lots of the larger classroom have stairs such that you can’t get to the stage if you are on a scooter or in a wheelchair (and it would be really difficult on crutches), there aren’t enough ramps or curb cuts around campus, elevators are wonky and small (and there aren’t enough), there are buildings with stairs in the middle of hallways and at most entrances, and some ramps are too steep. The people who designed those buildings didn’t do so because they were trying to make it hard for anyone with disabilities to navigate campus—they didn’t say to themselves, “Wow, I sure hate people with disabilities—I’m going to put a stairway here.” Instead, they were designing at a time when the style was to have entrances have a few steps—the idea is that they look more elegant that way. The architects didn’t think of what it would be like to navigate the building or campus with a mobility disability (or any other kinds, really) because that concern was invisible to them. They didn’t think. So, what they did was bad and discriminatory, but it didn’t come from evil intentions; it came from a lack of thought.

So, culturally, we need to talk about the harms caused by actions, policies, and institutions, and not whether the individuals involved are good or evil. The next time Trump says something racist, we need to stop shifting the stasis to whether he’s racist—what matters is that thing was a racist thing to say. As long as we allow the stasis to shift to whether he is racist, then his PR people can point out a single non-racist thing he did, or some relationship he has with a non-white, or condemn the people who quote him, or some non-white says he’s okay, or point out that he didn’t do something even more racist.  What he says matters more than who he is. If someone comes back with a “Well, it was an unfortunate comment,” then we can point out he’s got a lot of comments like that. He says a lot of racist things, and that matters, not because of what it means about his soul, but because what he says matters.

People want to believe that our group is basically good, and we are drawn to someone who tells us that. When people are told that someone they believe represents the in-group (when they identify with that person) then they feel that they have been accused of being racist, and that means they feel accused of being evil.

I think it would help if we imagined people as more like those architects—not evil, but thoughtless.

And yet there is a moment when you can stop calling the architect unintentionally thoughtless. If an architect has a history of designing buildings that are inaccessible, and it’s pointed out, and they keep doing it, then we can condemn their architecture as being discriminatory—it doesn’t matter if they have a friend in a wheelchair, or don’t make jokes about disabled people. We can say they shouldn’t design any more buildings.

We can say that a person with a long history of racist statements shouldn’t be in a position of decision-making in which race might matter. That isn’t attacking a group, and it isn’t attacking the person who likes Trump; it’s criticizing Trump. (Of course, charismatic leadership makes this complicated.)

Group entitativity

Social psychologists talk about “group entativity”—that is, the degree to which someone thinks about groups as Real Things. For some people, groups are just ways of grouping things that could be grouped in other ways—you might take a group of college students and group them by year, astrological sign, writing skills, major, paper topic. The value of that way of grouping would depend on what you were trying to do. If you were trying to put students together for group writing projects and wanted to make sure that each group was balanced in terms of skill, then grouping them by astrological sign wouldn’t make any sense. It would make more sense to group for diversity of writing skill. If you were going to have student groups work with a research librarian, then grouping by paper topic would probably make the most sense. That way of seeing groups is as functional and pragmatic.

That pragmatic way of thinking about groups makes some people nervous, since they want to see social groups as Real—they want to believe that people in this group are Really Different from people in that group. They believe that all you need to know about someone you can know by inferring their group memberships, and they reason deductively from that—if you’re a woman, you must be bad at sports. (If you’re a woman, and good at sports, they’ll often invoke the No True Scotsman rule.)

Some people, in other words, strongly believe in group entativity. Sometimes they’ll work to make the groups absolutely perfectly distinct—such as prohibiting African Americans from learning to read, so that they could maintain their belief that African Americans aren’t intellectual, or prohibiting Japanese or Jews from owning land, and then condemn them for not being grounded.

People who believe in Real groups often believe that the fundamental Real distinction is between Good and Bad people. So, when you say that someone in their group is racist, they hear you saying that their group is made up of Bad People. And they know that isn’t true, because they know they do good things.

It’s the same problem with hearing someone say that white people have an advantage—some (white) people hear that as saying that they didn’t work at all, or work for anything. They hear that as a claim that white people are lazy. And that means their group is bad.

They hear it that way because, if groups are Really totally different from one another, then either a group earned what it has achieved through good things or it didn’t.

The notion of white privilege also threatens the Just World Hypothesis, which is central to the Prosperity Gospel. So, saying that the playing field isn’t even, and not everyone who succeeds worked harder than anyone who didn’t, threatens some people’s sense of their group, themselves, and their sense of the very world. That’s why they get so mad.

Confirmation Bias

I’ve written about this a lot, but it’s central. People who believe that groups are Real, and that only Bad People are racist are also likely to believe that you can just look and see if someone is good or not. In other words, they don’t recognize that we are all subject to confirmation bias.

But, if they think in black or white terms, then the notion of confirmation bias is really threatening. If things are either completely good or entirely bad, and research suggests that our perception is flawed, that must be saying that we can never tell whether someone or something is good or bad. It must mean we have no judgment at all, and they can point to lots of times they had good judgment, so their judgment is good, so confirmation bias is wrong.

A sweet case of confirmation bias.

Demagoguery and the “That thing you said was racist” problem

When you have people who reason from identity (people in this group are good, and people in that group are bad), it’s really hard to get them to see that their in-group information sources are giving them bad information. They will believe things that come to them from the in-group because the in-group is good.

If you’re in an echo chamber, as it’s called, it doesn’t look that way because you’re very aware of all sorts of in-group disagreements. You can see disagreement, so you think you’re in a world of dissent. And, if you equate in-group membership and reliability, then you also believe what your in-group information sources tell you that the out-group is saying about you.

Right now, our media world reminds me of the world described by Queen Bees and Wannabes, in which manipulative people create solidarity by repeating nasty things other people (are supposed to have) said about you.

The most damaging aspect of demagogic media, and this is just as true of Fox as it is of OccupyDemocrats, is that it normalizes demagoguery—that is, making every issue an us vs. them issue.

Whether someone said something racist isn’t an us vs. them issue. It’s a what did they say issue.

So, telling someone that they said something racist, or that someone they like said something racist, involves keeping a clear eye on the stasis—it isn’t about which group is better. It’s about what they said. Keep the stasis there.


[1] It doesn’t bother Trump supporters that neo-Nazis like Trump; they think revolutionary Marxists liked Obama, and they think that evens things out. Of course, revolutionary Marxists hated Obama, as they hate all third-way neoliberals.

[2] I’m not saying that all forms of in-group favoritism or out-group aversion are the same, equally bad, or anything along those lines. They are wildly different in impact depending on things like social structures, history, power.

[3] It’s important to be careful about how class is factoring in to this—so, if it’s a poor Lithuanian family, don’t ask whether you would judge a rich Moravian (because you’re Moravian) family the same way. Ask whether you would tell the same story about a poor Moravian family.

Leave a Reply

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