“It Wasn’t Me!”: Post-Intent and Correlational Racism
“Today, there is no longer any single articulating principle or axial process which provides the logic required to interpret the racial dimensions of all extant political/cultural projects.” —Howard Winant
“Americans generally disavow a belief in an ideology of racism. But we must understand the terms of that disavowal. What, precisely, is being disavowed? What is the definition of racism that we have rejected in our purportedly racially egalitarian society? In U.S. race talk, we generally define racism as comprising two components: intentionality and determinism. More specifically, racism requires both the intent to disadvantage someone on the basis of race and the belief that a person must necessarily be a particular way or have particular characteristics because he or she belongs to a specific racial group.”
“To say ‘I don’t see color’ not only is likely to be inaccurate but also reveals a central anxiety about race. Indeed, it is perhaps the fact that ‘no one wants to be called/considered a racist’ that animates our mainstream sense of racial justice. And yet the disparities and distinctions between groups are so visible that they cannot be denied. As a result, no groups explanatory frameworks for the ‘seeing’ and ‘not seeing’ of race emerge. In this vein, one deeply troubling trend is the proliferation of what Howard Winant has identified as a civil privatist vision of racial equality. This ‘civil privatist’ vision is one in which ‘equality is strictly a matter of individual actions, of striving, merit, and deserved achievement on the one hand; and of intentional discrimination against specific individuals on the other.’ Hence, the apparent disparities appear not because we ‘see’ race in ways that lead us to act in a racially discriminatory fashion but because of the accumulation of behavioral failures in the underachieving ‘group’ or the accumulation of behavioral successes in the achieving group.
“But, as shall emerge over the course of this book, social scientists continue to demonstrate that in fact people do act in ways that reveal both ‘seeing’ and distinguishing and advantaging or disadvantaging on the basis of race. And so the civil privatist vision is clearly false.
“In truth, the racism we see in the United States is more appropriately called ‘correlational’ racism, in which disfavored qualities or, for preferred groups, favorable qualities are seen as being highly correlated with membership in certain racial groups and dictate the terms upon which individual members of those groups are treated, as well as the way we evaluate the impact and goals of policy, law, and other community-based decision making….
While there are distinctions between biological/theologically rooted racisms and other kinds of racial bias, there is a murky space in which “behaviors” are attributed to racial groups without accounting for whether the cause is found in biology or in culture. Here is a sphere in which correlational racism exists and even draws in believers with widely divergent political perspectives. The stereotypes of Black people as lazy, stupid, amoral, loud, violent, and out of control have been in circulation for many years even as popular explanations for these traits have changed. Even those who believe that such behaviors reflect social inequality may be likely to believe that social misbehavior has greater currency among African Americans or within African American culture than in the majority population.”
“There have been many theories developed about “new racism,” including symbolic racism [(Sears and Kinder)], modern racism [(McConahay)], subtle racism [(Pettigrew and Meertens)], racial resentments [(Kinder and Sanders)], ambivalent racism [(Katz, Wackenhut and Hass)], laissez-faire racism [(Bobo, Kluegel and Smith)], and aversive racism [(Gaertner and Dovidio)]. And these theories have their critics. One line of criticisms has questioned whether racism today is actually any different from what it was in the past, suggesting that those with racist attitudes have simply learned to superficially mask their attitudes. Others have said that focusing on the sentiment behind the racism is a troublesome diversion, because it doesn’t matter whether the racism is rooted in biological or in cultural arguments if the negative impact of the racism is the same. This approach is philosophically consistent with the “victim-centered approach” to problems of racial discrimination espoused by the critical race theorist Alan Freeman as early as 1978. It suggests that the immediate causal explanation for the discrimination is less relevant than the impact of racial inequality and the structure of racial hegemony, which may take different forms at different moments but ultimately supports one particular ideological position—the superiority of Whites.”
“While impact is of paramount importance, if we want to move through remediation and ultimately achieve a society where racial fairness and equality are the norm, we have to look at how to stave off the perpetuation, the practices of inequality. And we have to do so in both practical and informed ways…. Given that no one wants to be called a racist and that few will admit to being racist, why would we remain committed to a definition of racism that is dependent upon a self-consciousness about racist beliefs? Do we try to force people to admit they hold racist beliefs that they don’t believe they possess because we have an inapt definition of racism? Do we encourage people of color to always assume that inequality has conscious malice associated with it? As an ethical matter, if we imply that the practice of inequality is nothing more than a contemporary manifestation of old-fashioned racism, then we run the risk of accusing millions of Americans of deliberate hypocrisy, rather than developing opportunities to revisit how we define and respond to racism.
“Another problem with holding fast to the concept of old-fashioned racism, and even the term ‘racism’ generally, to describe practices of inequality is that it limits our interpretive frame. Dave Chappelle’s ironic skit about the blind black racist is satirical as well as instructive. We consider it absurd for a black person to be racist against black people. But, in fact, it is not so unusual for African Americans to hold negative in-group stereotypes about African Americans. African Americans have countercultures around race but are part of the larger project of racial socialization and so participate in the practices of racial inequality even as their efforts have been key to eradicating many of the most egregious forms of racism.”
“If we identify racial inequality exclusively in terms of impact, institutional formations, and unconscious bias, we limit our belief in our capacities to change the society in which we live. If we locate the problem outside our conscious actions, we also move it beyond the realm of individual or small-scale community intervention. In order to advance racially democratic principles, we have to maintain some belief in will, deliberation, and agency.”
“The demands of addressing race today are distinct from those of a previous era. It is clear that the civil rights generation understood that the terms of the particular social, cultural, and historic moment had to be considered in strategizing action. For instance, the movement changed significantly after the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Supreme Court decision because, for the first time in nearly sixty years, advocates enjoyed the prospect of having the law on the side of racial justice. Likewise, part of working for racial justice in the twenty-first century is developing a nuanced understanding of the politics of race in this particular moment. That said, the fact that I am arguing that we should look beyond intent and determinism as signature elements in the definition of racism does not mean that intentional racism and racial determinist ideas are gone from the American consciousness….
“We should no longer frame our understanding of racially discriminatory behavior in terms of intentionality. It is too unsophisticated a conception of discriminatory sentiment and behavior. It doesn’t capture all or most discrimination, and it creates a line of distinction between ‘racist’ and ‘acceptable’ that is deceptively clear in the midst of a landscape that is, generally speaking, quite unclear about what racism and racial bias are, who is engaging in racist behaviors, and how they are doing so….
“rather than say that racism is now unintentional, I am saying that intentionality isn’t a good measure any longer, in part because the notion of intentional racism truncates the realm of intent. An employer can intend to hire a particular person and make that decision while being highly influenced by racial stereotypes and yet not intend to be ‘racist.'”
“Our cultural logic allows us to easily distance ourselves from both the people who make mean-spirited racist remarks and the inequality of the society we live in. The problem is that such a neat package neglects a great deal of research that has been accumulating for decades about the persistence of race-specific inequality, its operation, and its meaning, research showing that our habits, attitudes, behaviors, entertainment, and a plethora of choices we make actually work to support racial inequality. The question with regard to this evidence can no longer be ‘What is wrong with the Black and Brown poor and how can we fix it?’ Rather, the question must be ‘What is wrong with a nation where people act against the racial equality we trumpet, and how can we fix it?'”