How We Talk About Race

More often than every now and then, someone who has discriminated makes it worse. After their prejudice is pointed out, they attempt a justification.

Here are two excuses I would like to laugh at. But I realize it is better to try to explain what is wrong. Dialogue is the foundation of democracy.

The first response about a stereotype is "but it's true." A person generalizes along the lines of race or ethnicity. They urge government policies on the same basis.

They dismiss concerns. For them, racism is unconscionable only if it is also foolish. They demand the impossibility of total innocence. If no African-American has committed a crime, and all African-Americans are blamed, that is to be condemned. But if an African-American has committed a crime (or more than one individual has), and another African-American (or most) are blamed, that is to be condoned.

The problem is our prohibition on prejudice is intended to apply exactly when it is rational or at least not stupidly irrational. The reason is simple. Either as an individual or as a society, we do not need a rule for thinking and acting that states, "Do not discriminate," as to the cases where doing so would be stupidly irrational. For those situations, we have a more general guideline about behavior, which enables our own success and the very existence of civil society, to the effect, "Please avoid being stupidly irrational." In other words, we add the regulation against discrimination for just those cases where we have a plausible basis, such as statistical, for the temptation otherwise. (I leave aside the complication of exaggerated numbers.)

For example, a business that discriminates in a silly manner will be disciplined by the marketplace. Its competitors that do not hamper their operations will succeed as it fails. It might not occur immediately. But everything else being equal, it will happen soon enough. There isn't a need to dissuade the businessperson who wishes to be mad. Idiocy is usually its own undoing. Say the owner of an ice cream stand decides to serve only people who are between five feet tall and six feet tall, because she believes those shorter and taller don't tip well. She will be punished by the loss of customers, even in the absence of law. She also has enough rivals where those she would exclude will have their options. (An issue arises only if there are enough consumers with the same preference, who will support the proprietor with the fetish about height, and not enough alternatives available.)

By definition, principles cannot be compromised by calculation. They are not dependent on cost-benefit ratios. If we care about individual rights (and perhaps we don't, or not to that extent), it is irrelevant if an invidious assumption about a racial group is true as to some members. It adversely affects, in violation of our ideals, other members. Yet race holds a peculiar power over us.

The second response about unfair status is the inappropriate role reversal. A white American is unsympathetic to an Asian American. She says, "Well, if I went to China, I would face the same bias."

The analogy is inapt. The offender might have in mind traveling as a tourist, which is quite different than settling, assimilating, and putting down a stake with the intention to stay. We can set that aside. Suppose she actually has in mind that a white person who emigrates to China, learns Mandarin, and converts to Buddhism would not be accepted, any more than an Asian person who immigrates to America, learns English, and converts to Christianity. Sounds fair.

Except that the New World and the Old World are not the same. America, since Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address if not earlier, has welcomed people of every background. We reject racial nationalism, the notion that only "die Volk" belong to a country as it belongs to them.

The true parallel is whether an Asian who journeys to America is treated as a European who does likewise. How a white American is received in Asia has nothing to do with it; the quip about the price of tea in China applies. For that matter, a white American traveling as a tourist is likely to be fawned over as an Asian American who "returns" to an ancestral "homeland" is not, in the sense that if the former is able to exchange pleasantries they are congratulated on their fluency and cultural sensitivity while the latter is chastised for what is interpreted as cultural estrangement.

People who insist that bigotry is mere ignorance are mistaken, albeit hopeful. If bigotry were mere ignorance, its practitioners would reform upon being educated. But there are too many troubling instances in which bigots prove incorrigible. Their angry response to being called out belies the proposition that they only need to be given facts, because they must be engaged beyond being provided with information. They are acting on impulses, even if they are not quite aware of what is rattling around in the back of their heads.

I could well be wrong. It may be that current events compel us to confront ourselves. Do we mean what we say? Or have we declared a consensus that is based on an illusion? Do we really subscribe to the principle that racial stereotypes, and practices that rely on them, are wrong? Do we really envision that any person who is dedicated to the unique experiment of America can join the project as an equal in rights and responsibilities, even aspiring to become a leader?