Liberals are furious with conservatives for “blaming the victim” in the discussion of events in Ferguson. The left and right are assuming their usual positions, with liberals emphasizing that African-Americans are disadvantaged in America today, and conservatives emphasizing that they are suffering from deeper problems within their own culture.
Actually, it’s both. American society is not systematically structured to keep the black man down. Cultural breakdown is a much bigger problem. That breakdown may be rooted to a significant extent in historical injustice; in fact, I think it is. (Of course, misguided Great Society attempts at do-gooding are also part of the problem, but why was the black community in particular so devastated by that? Mainly, I would argue, because it was especially vulnerable and lacking in resources following centuries of slavery, segregation and racial oppression.)
Insofar as racial minorities do face “structural challenges” in our time, these are mostly themselves a byproduct of cultural decline. That’s why conservatives are so anxious to talk about “black on black” violence, and so forth. It’s not just about blame-shifting. It’s centrally relevant to our society’s growing problem with racial resentment.
To put the point simply: the problem with negative racial stereotypes in this country is that, owing to the cultural breakdown that conservatives lament, they’re too often justified. Racial minorities are not systematically torpedoed in their efforts to achieve. In general, the elite class is thrilled by ethnic-minority success stories. But African-Americans in particular can truly be subject to demoralizing negative judgments, just in the course of their day to day lives. They start feeling that they are mistrusted and expected to fail just based on their racial background.
It’s a painful situation. It’s even more painful to realize that the main reason this happens is that, too often, those snap judgments are justified. No amount of “awareness raising” will stop people from embracing stereotypes that turn out, as stereotypes go, to be fairly useful.
What do I mean by “useful”? Some months back, I wrote a piece on this for The Federalist, explaining why the ideal of “colorblindness” is unrealistic for daily life. You can find the long form here. But the short version is that stereotyping is a regular part of day-to-day living. We can’t get away from it just for the sake of political correctness, because it’s too important to our survival.
To be sure, stereotypes are often unfair to particular individuals. That’s why fair-minded people try to be tactful about them, and also to be open to recognizing when particular people break with general trends. But forming snap judgments on the basis of superficial characteristics is sometimes (often!) necessary in life, for the simple reason that superficial characteristics are readily observable, whereas the depths of the soul are not. Quite frequently, we have to deal with people we don’t know intimately. Stereotypes enable us to do that.
An African-American friend of mine once opined bitterly that race is practically the only totally “non-voluntary” basis on which people can be negatively judged. He granted that people are often judged on the basis of their dress or manner of speech, in ways that are not completely fair. (Any kid who was forced to wear K-Mart jeans to a school filled with yuppie kids could testify to the unfairness of the judgments that are often formed on the basis of dress.) Nevertheless, people do generally have some control over the way they dress or talk. They can’t control their racial background.
I sympathized with my friend’s feelings, but I have to say that he isn’t 100% correct. Age and sex are other clear examples of non-voluntary characteristics that factor into stereotypes. Other things matter too, like body type or physical attractiveness (both of which are only very partially under our control). We all have to live with an external “profile” that affects how people treat us, and the material we work with (our physical body) isn’t infinitely malleable. Sometimes you’re just stuck with it, and by extension, with the stereotypes that are foisted on you in virtue of your physical form.
Now we get to the rub. Because race is connected to culture and identity, individuals can be negatively affected if their ethnic background ties them (in a readily identifiable way) with an unhealthy or dysfunctional culture. In a sense this really is unfair, because a given individual might be viewed with suspicion when he himself is a model of virtue and upstanding character. But it’s the sort of minor injustice that can’t entirely be avoided in an imperfect world, and we should at least recognize that stereotyping is not precisely the same as racism. It isn’t rooted in bigotry. It’s rooted in common sense.
Once again, we can hope that people will be fair-minded, and not draw on stereotypes any more than immediate circumstances require. We can insist that some baseline of rights and courtesies be guaranteed to everyone regardless of background. And individuals can sometimes be coached so as to better project the persona they would like to have. When it comes to stereotyping, context is enormously important. A well-groomed, well-dressed person strolling into the symphony is unlikely to be viewed with suspicion, regardless of other features or observable characteristics. Sometimes there are things you can do to improve your image, and I do think it’s possible for a person from any background to win respect, status and opportunity in this country.
Even so, people are understandably liable to get resentful when they feel like they’re regularly viewed with suspicion, just in virtue of external characteristics that they can’t control. In that sense, I think it can be unpleasant to be (say) young, black and male in America today. You’re a lot more likely to get police officers asking you in sharp tones why you’re loitering on a corner. Gas station attendants get jumpy when you come in at 11 pm to buy a Coke. And then you read about incidents like this one in Ferguson, and you think, huh, am I in danger of being summarily shot just for walking down a dark street wearing a hoodie? What kind of country is this?
It’s a real problem. I don’t believe in “white privilege” per se, but I do believe that people can be regrettably burdened by stereotypes which are, however, basically rational and not rooted in bigotry. We should have some sympathy for people who are in this situation. But it’s also important to see that the problem isn’t really soluble through “dialogue” or “awareness campaigns” or the like. The only real way to cure negative stereotypes is to attack the foundation that justifies them in the first place. And that brings us right back to the issue of cultural breakdown. Over to you, Ta-Nehisi Coates.