Race: Maybe It’s the Other Way

We want it to be one way, but it’s the other way, according to a meme from the television show The Wire, about as good a guide to race as any in contemporary culture. If you landed from Mars, or, for that matter arrived from China, and looked around, you might come to various conclusions about race, ethnicity, and diversity that show both the power of stereotypes and the problem with generalizations from single bits of data. You cannot watch one episode of The Wire and expect to comprehend what is happening. Context and subtleties matter so much. Words can have multiple meanings, even the opposite of the literal, depending on how they are used — and by whom.

Here are a few examples of how you could get the wrong idea about discrimination, which I offer from my own life, appreciating the limits of inferring from one’s own experience. I encourage others to share. Our stories are how we make sense of the universe.

Most of my career was at Howard University. The leading historically black college/university (the “capstone”), it was founded after the Civil War as part of Reconstruction efforts. It remains predominantly, and proudly, black. (Although I am not black, I was asked more than once if I was, by white people perplexed by my affiliation. “Truth,” as my students taught me to say.)

A critic might, and some have, attacked the school as “racist,” suggesting it is the equivalent to an exclusively white institution. That is an inappropriate analogy, because its creation was compelled by the de jure (mandated by law) and de facto (existing in fact) racial segregation of the era that meant African Americans had few, if any, opportunities to pursue higher education no matter how smart and hard-working. In any event, Howard was never exclusively black. It welcomed people of all heritages from its inception: it is named for a white Union Army General; its initial leaders were all white, and it did not even have an African American President until three generations into the enterprise; some of the students who enrolled in the nineteenth-century were Native Americans (and there were even a few from China, Japan, and Korea); and many of the students coming now are of mixed lineages, including ancestry that is WASP, Jewish, Hispanic, Asian, and Arab. To the extent its population reflects intolerance at all, it is due to self-selection of whites away from a black institution, since there is a lingering stigma to such associations.

We cannot process life without the background. This framing we impose on our days usually is invisible to us, what social scientists have identified as “heuristics,” including “implicit bias.” We walk down the street assessing risk. That person there is harmless, the other to be avoided. We are barely aware of the mental shortcuts we are performing. If we analyzed every detail before acting, we would be paralyzed.

It is easy to reverse cause and effect. Family Day at the National Zoo, for example, looks as if it favors African Americans. On Easter Monday, it is traditional for African Americans in Washington, D.C. to visit the zoo. In a majority minority city (boasting, as is attributed to JFK, Northern charm and Southern efficiency, but clearly lying below the Mason-Dixon line), today the custom has attracted controversy. While the exact origins of the phenomenon are obscure, everyone who has studied the matter agrees that Jim Crow is important to the explanation. African Americans were not allowed to partake in other holiday activities. Those in domestic service, i.e. to wealthy whites, apparently were given the day off after the Sunday festivities.

There are myriad examples that we don’t notice. At the St. Louis airport, which I pass through often because my wife is from there, a mural features all African American aviators, such as the Tuskegee Airmen who fought in World War II. The reason for the wall is the earlier painting of important figures in flight — recall Charles Lindbergh’s New York-Paris transatlantic journey was aboard the “Spirit of St. Louis” — had none. So it isn’t as if African Americans banded together to keep out whites but the other way around. African American leaders who chipped in for the remedy were deliberate even if the original omission is declared to be unintentional.

In San Francisco, where my wife and I live, the Chinese Hospital advertises itself as for all. Again the past explains the present. Even though the city by the bay has had a substantial Chinese and other Asian population since it started as a boomtown, Chinese were boxed in to Chinatown. They faced violence if they strayed past the ethnic enclave’s invisible borders. Chinese also were blamed for plague and ordinary disease. The 1882 Exclusion Act had many motivations, all racist, but the arguments included the claim that the Chinese, as heathens, were dirty, unclean, impure. The Chinese were deemed inassimilable by nature. A literal germ of truth was distorted and exaggerated, as it became racialized. Most others, with exceptions such as missionaries, were not sympathetic to the Chinese if they suffered any sickness. Thus if Chinese wanted health care back then, they had to provide it for themselves. Ironically, nowadays, without Asian immigrant doctors, nurses, and other professionals, mainstream American medicine would be unable to function.

Among my indelible memories of my hometown of Detroit is an evening encounter at the downtown Renaissance Center. The symbol of stop-and-go urban renewal in the Motor City, the set of mirrored towers, seemingly protected by a concrete bunker, is the venue for various celebrations. In one of those moments you could not make up, I was staying there on a Saturday evening just before the municipality declared bankruptcy, and simultaneously occurring were some sort of leathers and tattoo convention and a high-society African American wedding. I was in an elevator, a glass one with fussy decorations that represent a bygone era, and there was a skinny, pale guy with a studded vest and inked arms, and a group of black women in ballgowns, the type that would not be out of place with gloves and hats. He also was smoking a cigarette against the rules. The rest of us stood there uncomfortably for the ride up to our rooms.

It occurred to me in that moment that if you could see only that single scene, you might well form impressions about race whether you wished to or not. They would not conform to conventional prejudices. Yet if that was all you witnessed, of course you would believe the ocular proof. Perhaps we are convinced of much else that has a similar foundation.

So I always try to see it the other way around.

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