The self-justifying loop

I’m re-reading Mistakes Were Made, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. That’s the one about self-serving bias aka cognitive dissonance, and all the exciting ways it plays out.

One item –

…if we have enslaved members of another group, deprived them of decent education or jobs, kept them from encroaching on our professional turfs, or denied them their human rights, then we evoke stereotypes about them to justify our actions. [p 60]

Thunk. Yes we do, don’t we. Consider racism in America. Doesn’t that just exactly describe our history?

  1. Slavery
  2. Grudging emancipation, with compensation for the slaveholders and penury for the former slaves
  3. Restoration of slavery in all but name through Jim Crow laws
  4. Segregation throughout the country, with attendant underfunded schools and infrastructure
  5. Barring from most decent jobs throughout the country

So how do we make ourselves feel Okay in the face of all that? How do we go on seeing ourselves as okay people in a pretty good country? We evoke stereotypes to justify our actions.

It’s not just that racism leads to bad treatment, it’s also that bad treatment leads to racism. It’s a horrible loop, and it’s taking us way too long to get the hell out of it.


  1. freemage says

    Add to #5 a system of ingrained racial taxation. In any encounter where negotiation is part of the price-setting (such as buying a car or a house, or getting a raise), African-Americans fare worse on offered selection, initial pricing, willingness to negotiate and so forth, resulting in higher prices across the board. (Women also suffer from similar acts of discrimination, of course.)

    This system helps perpetuate cyclical and generational poverty, simply because people of color are given fewer resources and higher demands for them.

  2. says

    That too. I could also have added prevention of wealth accumulation because of redlining, as I’ve learned recently from Richard Rothstein and shared here. There’s also the prison conveyor belt. It’s a long, dreadful list. The long dreadful list makes a lot of racist stereotypes necessary, lest we think really really ill of ourselves.

  3. says

    It’s a simple formula: Ensure people can’t succeed, preferably by stealing success from them. Then pretend you have taken nothing. Look at them and see that they have achieved less. From inside that carefully-curated ignorance, which we built a culture to train us in from a very young age, it’s clear that those people just aren’t good enough. Maybe we mistreated them in the past, but we “fixed” all that in 1865, 1954, 1965, 2008, or some other year. The date doesn’t matter as long as it’s far enough in the past that we don’t feel implicated. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people literally tell me that black Americans are entirely to blame for their state, usually by some thinly-veiled proxy like “culture” as if that wasn’t just another way of saying that one’s skin color makes one inferior.

    It’s like the people who did the things we wish to be seen condemning were just some strange force of nature. They came, they pillaged, and vanished. They can’t have passed their ideas on. They can’t have had kids to inherit what they looted. They can’t have built a remarkably durable system for extracting wealth from the lives of others which not only outlasts them but also co-opts future generations into it. They certainly can’t have had a vested interest which inspired all of this. They must be some kind of white-hooded Satans, beings of incomprehensible evil which permit no explanation and so absolve us. They were irrationally evil, but we are innocent.

    But they did have that interest. White Americans built a nation of great fortunes on the backs of slaves, among others, and it still pays out today. Every mistreatment and indignity drops at least a few pennies in our accounts. Being white makes us free from those abuses, immune, able to stand tall not despite the horrors we have inflicted and continue to inflict upon others but because of them.

    It builds solidarity, because we know in our hearts that what happens to those people could never happen to us. It’s never our problem. There’s something Christian about it, though of course it speaks to far more universal conditions than a particular religion: by their torments we are made free. The planters invented Herrenvolk Democracy to maintain their control over poor whites as much as enslaved blacks. From that one can read it as absolutely self-serving and imagine the small farmers as just the victims of a con. I think that’s a mistake. The ideas did serve the planters individual selves, but also a kind of generalized white self in which all with the right skin could partake.

    The yeoman farmers knew full well that they were not actually social equals and did not live in the kind of classless society which proslavery theorists extolled (This is where John C. Calhoun gets his nickname: Marx of the Master Class.), but they also knew that their culture had a rank infinitely below them. Their white skin spared them the lash, the rapes, the spectacle of loved ones sold away on a moment’s notice. It’s a nasty, mean kind of freedom and did not enrich most of them materially, but delivered a generous helping of cultural returns. We don’t do this in all the ways we used to, but we continued many of them in different forms. Why wouldn’t we? We still get paid.

    I don’t know a way out of this without white Americans losing both the literal and figurative plunder we extract from black Americans. Our ill-gotten gains are, after all, the point of the system. Proposed solutions always come with an escape hatch that lets most of the privilege remain, from sharecropping and convict leasing on down through Jim Crow and private segregation academies and their public equivalents. Most of us don’t even want to admit that we have a built a nation where we have tremendous advantages and scream bloody murder at even the slightest challenge to them. It’s who we are and it’s always easier to keep on as we have than to ask ourselves the hard questions. No amount of individual virtue or personal introspection will change that, but I don’t think most of us have ever even gone that far. We prefer to take our white supremacy like the wind and rain, just something that happens rather than something we do.

    No need to speculate as to what the runaway feedback loop produces; we live there. We are the people that took fifty years and nine lives to move a flag that we’re still lying about.

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