It is quite possible for someone who has a seemingly spotless record on matters of race, who has said all the correct things, who associates freely with people of other groups, to take political actions that have a disproportionately harmful effect on other races. And often such people’s actions are not closely scrutinized because they are seen as not being racist.
For example, take former President Clinton. Because he seemed so at ease with black people, he was welcomed by many black leaders, even being occasionally referred to as ‘America’s first black president.’ He seemed quite at home in black churches and showed no awkwardness at all in interacting with black people. I am quite willing to accept that he is not a racist. And yet he was the architect of a so-called welfare reform program that had a huge and negative impact on the lives of poor people, disproportionately black. But because he was perceived as not being personally “anti-black,” he was able to enact these policies and escape the kind of criticism that would have erupted had the same thing been done by someone like George Bush, whose bona fides on race are more suspect.
Another example is that of former Education Secretary William Bennett. On his radio show, in response to a caller, said: “[Y]ou could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” It was clear that he was making a hypothetical case and not advocating this as policy because he immediately followed this by saying that such an action “would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do.” But his statement created an uproar, with charges that Bennett is a racist and should be taken off the air, and he and his supporters vehemently denying it.
Is Bennett a racist? I don’t know and frankly, I don’t think that that is an important question. It is the policies that he advocates and implements that concern me. And there is evidence that have nothing to do with his private beliefs about race that he was exactly the wrong person for the job of Education Secretary. Reed Hundt, the former head of the Federal Communication Commission recently recounted the following story about Bennett:
When I was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (1993-97), I asked Bill Bennett to visit my office so that I could ask him for help in seeking legislation that would pay for internet access in all classrooms and libraries in the country. Eventually Senators Olympia Snowe and Jay Rockefeller, with the White House leadership of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, put that provision in the Telecommunications Law of 1996, and today nearly 90% of all classrooms and libraries do have such access. The schools covered were public and private. So far the federal funding (actually collected from everyone as part of the phone bill) has been matched more or less equally with school district funding to total about $20 billion over the last seven years. More than 90% of all teachers praise the impact of such technology on their work. At any rate, since Mr. Bennett had been Secretary of Education I asked him to support the bill in the crucial stage when we needed Republican allies. He told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education.
To me, this story is a far more damning indictment of Bennett’s suitability for public office, especially that of Education Secretary, than his speculations about the relationship between race and abortion and crime. It is truly appalling that he so badly wants public schools to fail that he is willing to withhold important resources from them. If public schools are to be deprived of resources and pushed along the road to failure, this has a huge and disproportionately negative effect on poor and black children. So his actions in this case, his unwillingness to support this measure and the reasons for doing so, are a much better measure of his suitability for public office than whether he hangs out with black friends in the evening. And yet, this particular story from Reed Hundt has attracted next to no attention, while everyone looks for clues to see whether Bennett is ‘really’ a racist or not.
Conversely, during the last presidential election, there was a minor fuss made about the fact that Howard Dean had few black people in his cabinet when he was governor of Vermont. The attempt was made, and was marginally successful, to use this to portray him as somehow unfriendly to black people. But on the other hand, as governor he had instituted health care reforms that opened up access health care to almost all the population of his state. This meant that the poor, who are disproportionately black, had more access to health care than before. To my mind, those are the measures that are important, rather than appointments to cabinet offices, which can be symbolic and not substantive.
It is hard for us to get rid of the prejudices we have. One of the things that my many years of teaching have taught me is that the beliefs that students bring with them into the classroom are the most powerful beliefs of all, and have a far stronger hold on their minds than the new things they learn from their teachers in their formal classes. This is because the things we learn informally are based on our life experiences and are what our minds have worked out for themselves, even if not done consciously. Our stereotypes and prejudices have been constructed over many years, starting when we were very young. They are a kind of theoretical model based on bits of actual data, things we were told by the peers and adults in our lives, conversations we have had, books we have read, and films and TV that we have watched. Our minds have taken all these things and created a network of ideas. And it is precisely because we have created this mental structure ourselves that it is so powerful. We cannot simply will them away. As the economist John Maynard Keynes said: “The difficulty lies not in new ideas but in escaping from old ones.” (The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936)
Stereotypes and prejudices are part of our own constructed knowledge structure and we may never be able to get rid of them completely however much we wish to. But rather than trying to hide their existence, we need to bring our prejudices out of the subconscious and unconscious where they usually exist so that we can more effectively deal with them. Then we can let our intellectual commitment to deal with people fairly do battle with our instincts.
The battle between our intellect and our instincts will always be an ongoing one. Race is a very sensitive topic and people shy away from it. What I have written this week on the topic may have caused discomfort and even offense to some and if so, I apologize.
But if the battle is fought in the arena of our conscious minds, and in open dialogue with others, we are more likely to be able to defeat racism. Can we ever have such a frank discussion about race? I don’t know. The real question is whether we can afford not to try.
POST SCRIPT: Some Friday video fun
See this video where people are interviewed about which country they think should be invaded next in the “war on terror.” One person even suggests Sri Lanka.
JibJab also has a new video where they take on Walmart. Take a look.