Unicorns and Stuff
Unicorns and Stuff
April 22, 2011
I wonder if any old-time racists still exist. I knew a few racists when I was a kid, back in upstate New York. In my adult life, I don’t think I’ve met one. I wonder, does such a person exist who can watch President Obama on the news, then meet an unfamiliar African-American guy and assume in advance that he’s less…what? I might be able to draw comics better than President Obama, but only because he hasn’t tried. On every other comparison I wouldn’t do so well. I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t mean to insult you, but if I’m picking teams for chess, debate, Scrabble, or basketball, I’m picking Obama before you. And I don’t even know you.
Who among us watches Julliard School graduate Jamie Foxx win an Academy Award for playing Ray Charles in a movie, while doing his own singing and piano work, then doing some standup comedy, then performing his new hit single on the Grammys – the one he wrote, and then thinks “Those black people are so one-dimensional”? Is there a racist somewhere thinking that?
I think there was a time in our history when intelligent people could be racist because the anecdotal evidence was ambiguous. Today, I’m almost positive that no one watches Oprah, eats a potato chip, and thinks, “I wonder if African-Americans can succeed?”
I wonder what kind of boss hires a less qualified white candidate over a more qualified black candidate and thinks that his decision will work out well for him. I make fun of management intelligence for a living, and even I haven’t seen that behavior. I’ve never even heard of it from someone else who witnessed it. I certainly understand if you’ve witnessed it, or suffered from it. I’m just saying I haven’t seen it where I live. Clearly that sort of activity is distributed unevenly around the country.
Just to be clear: I’m only saying I haven’t personally witnessed overt racism in my adult life. I accept that you have seen it firsthand, if you say so.
Classic racism of the old-timey variety is probably only possible in people who don’t own television sets and haven’t gone through grade school. I’ll grant you that racist prison gangs and neo-Nazis exist. But obviously something else is going on with those guys. Let’s call them the exceptions.
In my sixteen years of corporate life I never witnessed or even heard secondhand that anyone had ever been denied a promotion or a raise because of ethnicity or gender. I will grant you that your own experience is just as valid. I assume discrimination must be going on someplace. I’m just saying I’ve never seen it firsthand, which probably has a lot to do with where I live in the San Francisco Bay area. Any party you attend in my part of the world looks like a United Nations general assembly. When I travel to a more white bread part of the country it’s a bit jarring.
Perhaps we need to evolve our language to keep up with the times. Racism is certainly happening with prison gangs and Neo-Nazis. Everyone else might be guilty of something closer to profiling or insensitivity. And the conviction rate for those thought crimes would be running around 100%.
This brings me to the recent Internet tweets and headlines crowing that I’m defending the Republican woman who emailed her friends a picture with Obama’s head on a monkey body. Reading that charge out of context, people assume that I think forwarding the photo was acceptable behavior. Um, no. It was shockingly clueless behavior. But I think the most likely explanation of events is the one she gave – that the photo didn’t register to her personally as a racist photo. We learned that she’s deep into birther conspiracy theory. My assumption is that she probably forwarded every Obama birther email she ever got. To her, this was just another.
The principle that makes stage magic work is that a person who focuses on one thing will be blind to another no matter how obvious it might be on its own. That phenomenon predicts that a rabid birther is far less likely to notice the potential for offending people with the racial aspect of the photo because it’s in a birther context. The birther sees it as a birther joke. The non-birther sees it as a racist joke. I believe you could recreate this experiment with a control group and get that result.
If you object to my theory of events on the grounds that no one could be dumb enough to miss the racist suggestion in the photo, remind yourself that the Republican in question is a birther. If you think all birthers are blind to the obvious, it’s hard to assume that obliviousness is limited to questions of birth certificates. Be sure you are consistent with your opinions.
You might think the birther issue itself is racism in disguise. But I can’t imagine Republicans ignoring this sort of an issue if it applied to John Kerry. If Kerry’s mother had been doing some traveling at about the time he was born, and he didn’t have a proper birth certificate, it’s all you would have heard. While it might be true that all white racists are birthers, it’s absurd to think that all birthers are racists.
I’ve also noticed that many people have conflated this woman’s story with some other story of an entirely different person who forwarded a photo of watermelons on the White House lawn. This is a great example of confirmation bias. As soon as you start believing she’s a person who sends racist emails, you see all evidence as confirmation of that belief.
Cluelessness is always a competitive explanation with just about any other theory. This story made the news precisely because overt racism has become somewhat rare. In contrast, cluelessness is everywhere. We’re swimming in it. And as long as there are at least two viable theories for this Republican woman’s actions, I oppose crucifying her based on the theory that some of you can see into her soul. It’s bad enough to punish a thought crime. It’s a thousand times worse to assume that the thought police can read minds. I don’t want to live in that country.
Having said all of that, Republicans need to put some distance between her and their party for practical reasons. That’s a separate decision. And if new information about this situation pops up, I’m open to changing my opinion.
And if racism is a big problem in your part of the country, consider moving to the Bay Area. We have excellent parties.