Racism and the Culture of Denial

November 26, 1994
By Tim Wise

Alcoholics commonly go to great lengths to deny their drinking problems. So too, the perpetrators of domestic violence. Excuses for destructive behavior are many, and rarely does one overcome denial without considerable coaxing and a mountain of evidence. Often, even that fails. So it is with racism: America's collective psychosis. The one we still refuse to acknowledge, 375 years after the arrival of the first African slaves. The one we so badly wish to expunge from our memories and cast into the dark recesses of our past, that lately it has become fashionable to blame the problems of black America on anything but racial discrimination; be it the direct, old-fashioned kind, or the more covert, institutional type.

To wit, the recent release of a book touted as "daring" for its ill-conceived conclusion that race and IQ are related, and that blacks are generally less intelligent than whites a recapitulation of 19th century sociobiological nonsense no more "brave" than a book claiming the Holocaust never happened. Its principal author, Charles Murray, is the same self-proclaimed intellectual who, ten years ago, penned Losing Ground, which eschewed genetic explanations for black failure, and instead blamed "cultural pathology," presumably bred by the welfare state, which, in Murray's estimation, encourages dependence, laziness, and an intense desire to have children out-of-wedlock.

Forget for a moment that neither Losing Ground, nor the recently-released Bell Curve, adhere to generally-accepted rules of statistical interpretation; or that its supporters have an obvious problem distinguishing between the concepts of causality and correlation; or that Murray and co-author, Richard Herrnstein rely on the research of such crackpots as Phillipe Rushton, of Ontario, who postulates that blacks have smaller brains because they have larger penises, and "you can't have everything." Forget all this for now, and ask only what the popularity of the biological and cultural pathology theories says about our nation's unwillingness to face up to the possibility that bias against people of color in employment, housing and education may still be a problem.

We so badly want to absolve our nation of the charge of racism, that we will say anything, believe anything, come up with any excuse for the conditions faced by persons of color. It is telling, indeed, that Murray's critics seem most upset that by placing his intellectual eggs in the basket of pseudo-scientific racialism, he might lose credibility as a leading light in the "culture of poverty" school a school attended religiously by many of these same critics.

One might expect Murray's detractors to begin questioning his veracity and scholarly competence, given that he has gone from virtual certainty as to the importance of culture on racial inequity, to militant championing of the notion that genes are the primary culprit, all in the course of a few short years. Both books are heavily footnoted. Both feign intellectual certitude. Yet, instead of being laughed out of policy circles for his inconsistency, Murray's most vocal critics seem as though they would be content were he simply to give up all this IQ foolishness so he could get back to the really neat stuff about welfare queens in Cadillacs, poppin' out young'uns, and sucking down all that government cheese. Now there's a social scientist we can live with!

That other explanations for poverty among persons of color like structural economic dislocation, regressive tax and fiscal policy, or continued discrimination go ignored, indicates how narrow is the spectrum of allowable thought on this matter, the monolithic "liberal" media notwithstanding.

Those who allude to the loss of over four million manufacturing jobs from our nation's central cities over the past fifteen years, and propose that such capital flight might have some effect on the economic and social fortunes of the mostly black residents of those areas are seen as purveyors of "doom and gloom" perhaps even socialists for believing, horror of horrors, that "big government" might have some role to play in remedying the conditions of deindustrialization. And to suggest that the employment exodus might be viewed as a form of institutional racism, whereby race-neutral economic patterns exact a race-specific impact on people of color, is seen as beyond the pale of polite discussion altogether.

Those who point out that our nation's schools are largely funded by local property taxes, and thus poorer (and usually blacker) census districts have less revenues with which to work, and that this might impact the quality of education received by Blacks and Latinos relative to their white counterparts are reviled as radicals, for believing that equal educational opportunity should mean something more than the equal opportunity to be born to rich parents who can afford tutors and private schools. Again, to suggest that unequal funding patterns exact an institutionally racist impact on kids of color, is dogma non grata in mainstream discussion.

Those who dare point out the figures on mortgage discrimination, which demonstrate that people of color are rejected for home loans at two-and-a-half to three times the rate of whites, even when they have comparable incomes and credit records, are called "professional victims," "whiners," and arbiters of the culture of complaint.

Those who mention the poll from the National Opinion Research Center, indicating that between 50% and 75% of whites believe Blacks and Latinos are lazier, more violent, and prefer welfare to work, are called "fear-mongers," who see racists behind every personnel directors door.

Those who note that Black criminals receive harsher sentences than whites, even for the same crime, and with the same prior records, and that those Blacks are 30% less likely to receive early parole, are accused of advocating prison and execution "quotas." The real problem of racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice system is sacrificed to an arcane policy debate and is quickly forgotten.

Even a new report from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which indicates that Black government workers are fired at twice the rate of their white counterparts, even when they have identical educations, seniority, and performance records, fails to inspire those who proclaim the demise of racism to rethink their positions.

The cry of "I'm not a racist, but..." could be a new stanza in the national anthem. It is America's collective cliche. No one is a racist. Black and Latino poverty couldn't possibly be the consequence of economic decline, wage stagnation, or discrimination. Everybody gets a fair shot so if they can't cut it, the fault lies not in our institutions, but with theirs: their ghettoes, their penchant for Malt Liquor and crack cocaine, their lack of a work ethic, and now perhaps their defective, intellect-starved DNA.

What will it take to make white folks believe that racism is still a persistent social phenomenon, albeit more subtle and concealed than in years past? When Rodney King was beaten, the voices of denial told us it was just a few bad cops, and anyway, he was speeding and "lunging around like some animal." When police in Virginia Beach assaulted African-American collegians during spring break a few years back, the voices of denial said "it wasn't racial, and anyway, a lot of those kids were looting." Indeed, whenever white cops kill or assault people of color, or even other "minority" cops, it's never racial. It was an accident. Bad judgment. And anyway, it's a jungle out there. The police are under a lot of pressure. But isn't it strange how we never hear about Black officers "accidentally" blowing away white teenagers during routine traffic stops? Are they somehow immune to the pressure which seemingly sends so many of their white colleagues over the edge?

Even when David Duke got nearly 60% of the white vote for U.S. Senate and almost 55% of the white vote for Louisiana Governor one year later, the voices of denial assured us Duke's supporters weren't racists. They were just "tired of business as usual," and wanted to "send Washington a message." That the message they had in mind might have been a bit more sinister than "gee whiz, here's a great guy who supports term limits," was entirely overlooked as a possibility.

Sometimes the denial gets downright silly. In 1989 (during my senior year of college) when a cross was burned on the lawn of a Tulane University fraternity, the very night that fraternity had issued its first-ever bid to a Black student, many white students and administrators said they didn't think the incident was racially-motivated, especially since "it was only a two-foot cross"(?) Four months later, when members of another fraternity burned a cross in their backyard, after nailing a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard sign to the structure, the perpetrators actually claimed that the two pieces of wood had "just kinda' fallen into the bonfire in a cross-like position." As for the street sign? Nobody knew how that had gotten in there. Some even claimed, as proof of their innocence that they would have been forced to go to the black part of town had they wanted to steal an MLK Boulevard sign, and that, after all would have been too dangerous! No sir, no racism in these here parts.

I suppose it will take the emergence of a new Hitler, complete with a little mustache and a revised "final solution" for the darker-complexioned types before we'll finally own up to the national sickness. Come to think of it, it could happen. After all, with Charles Murray churning out eugenic swill like The Bell Curve, we wouldn't even have to take out an ad in the paper for another Joseph Goebells. He's already on the job.

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