I bridle when I hear talk of persistent American racism. Sure, there is some. And, yes, after-effects of past racial injustice. But real racists today are marginal to U.S. society. The bigger picture I see is one of astonishing social change over a very short period – my own lifetime.
I grew up in a society that was indeed very racist (no, not the South), and I imbibed that myself. It took a while for me to grow out of it.
Most whites today see themselves as non-racist. But admittedly, psychologically, true color-blindness is still almost unattainable. Mainly I think this is because race continues to be a focus of issues – Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, etc. – so we’re unavoidably conscious of it. And scientific studies have shown that even most whites who think they’re color-blind have different perceptual, neurological reactions to black and white faces.
I see myself as antiracist (the converse of racist). Knowing too well our racial history gives me more sympathy than antipathy toward blacks. I like seeing them prospering, integrated into society. I try to practice personal affirmative action by treating blacks I encounter nicer than whites. On election night in 2008, even though I didn’t vote for Obama, I felt good for America’s blacks. When the result was declared, and TV showed a black woman jumping up and down, shouting “God bless America! God bless America!” I wanted to hug her. That still chokes me up (despite the disaster Obama has been). And see my post about the “great migration.”
Well give me an award.
So why, the other day, thumbing through the local paper, and glimpsing a photo of a black man and woman, did my brain have a little frisson of negative feeling? Little, fleeting, but definite and discernable. Whoa, I said to myself, What was that? Would I too, after all, flunk one of those scientific tests for unconscious racial bias?
Now, I know I react negatively when seeing anyone – black or white – who, for one reason or another, seems to display some unpleasant characteristic. That’s merely natural. But that didn’t apply here. The black man and woman were well-dressed, serious professional-looking people, seemingly the kind of black success I celebrate.
Or do I, really? Was my subconscious mind making a different judgment?
Well, I’ve thought about it, and here’s my conclusion. I think my negative brain frisson was political, not racial. Though I didn’t know the pair were state legislators till I later read the caption, the photo was evocative of such a political context, and I could have guessed it. Black politicians in New York are overwhelmingly Democrats, and my blog readers know my opinion of New York’s Democratic political establishment. That’s what I think my brain saw, and reacted against, in the quick glimpse of the photo – not race, but politics.
Or am I just whitewashing myself? Maybe it isn’t that simple. Certainly race and politics are inextricably entwined. I do welcome black political involvement – but not when black politicians divisively play the race card. I see that too often (one black local pol in Albany was a repeat offender). Al Sharpton’s ubiquity doesn’t help. The guilty shouldn’t tar the innocent; but maybe the unconscious isn’t given to such fine discriminations. If not biased against blacks in general, perhaps I do have a reflex bias against black Democratic politicians.
Last night we watched a documentary about the comet landing; a woman scientist was speaking. And when I registered that she was black, I perceived in myself another frisson, this time a positive one.
Now that’s more like it, I told myself.