Monday, April 06, 2009

Justifying Prejudice

The image to the left is a postcard that someone sent to PostSecret, an online website that asks people to write their "secrets" on one side of a postcard and mail them in anonymously. (I've written about PostSecret before on this blog.) It is the brainchild of Frank Warren, who now travels all over the country talking about the phenomenon of secret-sharing that is PostSecret.

I found this postcard particularly striking, because it seems to clearly illustrate so many things about the subtleties of racism. As someone who has waited more than my fair share of tables, I'm very familiar with the stereotype of "ghetto people" (read: African-Americans) being bad tippers. I imagine if I showed this picture to one of my classes, many of them would silently nod in tacit agreement, even if they wouldn't come right out and say as much. Of course, there are all kinds of explanations for why people don't tip (or don't tip well) that have absolutely nothing to do with the racial identity of the patrons. Maybe they got bad service. Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe they actually couldn't afford a tip. (With the recent dowturn in the economy, this last explanation seems the most reasonable assumption.) But what is clear from the waiter's scrawling on this receipt is that he or she is quite sure that the customer's misanthropy was an emandation of some kind of racial "essence." Ghetto/black people are "cheap," the waiter presumes, and THAT is what both creates and justifies the waiter's racism.

On the contrary, what makes the waiter a racist is his or her belief in racial "essences" in the first place. Or, more accurately, his or her belief that some racial essences are comprised of inferior moral or characterological traits. The fact that he or she is able to allegedly "confirm" these beliefs by appeal to his or her experience as a server is, of course, a post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. This reminds me of one of the themes in an excellent book by Lewis Gordon that I read some time ago, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, in which Gordon uses Jean-Paul Sartre's structure of "bad faith" (from Being and Nothingness) to show how racism often involves a kind of lying-to-oneself in order to avoid both freedom and responsibility. For the nameless waiter in our case, the lie of "racial essences" allows him or her to avoid taking responsibility for the prejudice he or she is adopting. "It's waiting tables that makes you racist!" the waiter would no doubt protest, in an attempt to show that the facts of the world leave him or her no choice in the matter. But the "facts" of the world don't show anything at all by themselves. They must be filtered through some paradigm of meaning and interpretation-- in this case, the paradigm of antiblack racism. Unfortunately, in a culture like ours where this paradigm is institutionalized and thus concealed, bad faith racism is easy to practice and very difficult to own.

In my classes, I tend to focus on much larger issues of institutionalized racism in an attempt to debunk the elision of facts and values that we practice in ignorance. I think it's much easier to demonstrate, for example, that the stereotype of young black males as essentially "violent" or "criminal" is not "proven" by that population's higher rates of incarceration, but rather that the structural inequalities (social, political, economic, juridical) between races in our country in fact produces both the "fact" of higher incarceration rates and the stereotypical evaluation of the racial essence of black men that is meant to explain that fact. There are always some detractors to this argument, who will still insist that their attaching the value of "violent" or "criminal" to black males is really just a fact-- I hear this a lot in Memphis, where people say (like our waiter) "Living in Memphis makes you racist"-- but I still find that most of my students will eventually come around to recognizing that it's not that simple. After all, there is a wealth of social science data readily available to aid in one's shifting of interpretive paradigms. Unfortunately, the kind of justificatory argument that our waiter employs -- perhaps because it's more mundane and, hence, more insidious-- still goes largely unchecked and uncontested...

... which makes me wonder whether or not this is a better "teaching" example to use in the future. Thoughts, anyone?


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Interestingly, I just had a fascinating conversation on racism and "racialism" (to borrow Appiah's term for claims about racial essences in the book we're reading) today in a class that I'm teaching on the Philosophy of Culture --- the level of discomfort that I felt talking about the phenomenon and legitimacy of Standard Black English to a class that's probably 50% black... A level of discomfort that is probably good for all of us to go through at times...

bell.annie said...

I think that there is great benefit in focusing on the larger issue of institutionalized racism. When thinking about race on an individual level it is so easy to disconnect yourself from racism, but when you truly examine the society, and the culture of the society we live in, there are blatant examples of structural racism that cannot be denied. But the challenge here is getting people, especially "intellectuals" to understand how these structures disenfranchise and continue to oppress minorities. I think that when you begin to point out the structures of institutionalized racism, people get nervous. Nervous because of what that implies about the privileges they are afforded based on these structures. Then the really tough question becomes what are you willing to sacrafice and give up for the true equality?

steventhomas said...

Just for fun, I'm going to try to play the devil's advocate, just because I'm curious how you'll respond.

You mention sociological data, and I think this can get tricky. There is a lot of sociological data that supports contradictory positions -- there is data that supports racist claims (which is why police continue to do a kind of profiling, which they claim isn't racial profiling, and which they claim is justifiable because it works) and there is data that exposes racist claims for what they are. In addition to police profiling, the other obvious example is standardized tests for elementary and high school students, which are supposed to be neutral in what they measure, but aren't. A good test would do far more contextualization, and it seems to me that sociological models are always incomplete (and most sociologists know this.)

So, getting to your example, the even harder question (and this is something some of your students might think but be afraid to ask) is this: what if the server is right? What if his/her experience is typical of the national average... or even the neighborhood average? What if, statistically speaking, on average, African Americans tip less? Or in this case, are more likely to refuse to tip at all? Let's go back to the racial profiling example. The argument for it is that it works (because if it was ONLY a racist delusion, then the politice wouldn't keep doing it), and that seems to be the same argument the server has. They are aware that their theory is racist, and that it's incomplete, but it seems to them to work.

Certainly, it's clear that the server is generalizing behavior based on racially marked features rather than recognize all the other factors in play, such as economic conditions. You seem to suggest that poor people are more likely to tip less, though I'm not sure that's any more generalizable than the racial generalization. And in this case, it's possible that the "ghetto people" gave him/her a zero tip because of some perceived hostility that was already between them.

But that said, it's also possible that there is a deep structure of not just socialization but also anti-socialization. The ettiquette of tipping is a learned thing, and it's learned in a context of perceived reciprocity and commonality... of "imagined community" (a terminology I hate, but I suspect everyone knows of Anderson's book.) And though we can recognize the extent to which our society is broken and that imagined community a total mess, I don't think it's completely fair to the server to ONLY critique her.

So, now, if it's true (or somewhat true, and please note that I'm writing in hypotheticals, because I personally have no idea about how people other than myself tip), then it's possible that many in the African-American community might already be quite aware of both sides of this story -- the one side being the server's racism that you noted, and the other side being the greater likelihood of an African American stiffing a tip than a white American. Isn't it possible that many black community activists would see their job as confronting both sides (if there were any truth to them), and not just the one?

Anyway, just playing devil's advocate here. I know my students in my race/ethnicity class would never ask me the question I'm asking you. They'd be too scared of my wrath.

Mark Wadley said...

Retort via Dinosaur comic.

Well, really not so much a retort as funny and sort of relevant.

DOCTOR J said...

Steven: I'm glad you asked this. And you're right, this is PRECISELY the sort of question that students would want to ask, but wouldn't because they can somehow intuit that the question is "racist," though they may not know how or why.

Just to be clear, here's what I think you're saying (or the "devil's-advocate-you" is saying): What if the characteristics that we reject applying to people because we know they are racist stereotypes were in fact actually true of those people? Is it "racist" to acknowledge "facts" in the world, especially those facts that seem to be proven by social science data or experience?

There are, of course, milder versions of this same claim (that there are racial "essences" that explain the behaviors of raced groups). For example, when people claim that "all black people can dance" or "blacks are better athletes." The attribution of those characteristics doesn't seem to imply the "inferiority" of blacks in any way-- and they don't even seem to imply the "superiority" of blacks as a people, just superiority in particular activities (dancing, basketball, whatever)-- so they seem to be examples of what Ideas Man (and Appiah) referred to above, namely, racialism. That is to say, claims like these recognize that people are different and have different strengths/weaknesses. Some of those strengths/weaknesses, apparently, can be correlated to shared morphology among "groups" of people that we call "races." Ergo, it seems reasonable to claim that there is something like a "racial essence" that explains these characteristics.

Of course, this is obviously an example of a bad inductive argument. If the sun rises every morning when I wake up, that doesn’t mean the sun rises every morning because I wake up. It’s easy to test this, because I could just take a mega-dose of sleeping medication one night, sleep in the next morning, and realize upon waking in the afternoon that the sun rose without me. Can we disprove the waiter’s experience in the same way? Probably not, and for a lot of reasons. (1) We still haven’t located anything like a “race gene” that would allow us to scientifically segregate a race of people who we could perform experiments on to test whether they share behavioral similarities. (2) We know that the brain develops for the most part by practice, so even if we could isolate “racial groups” for study, and even if we could demonstrate physical differences in their brains or brain activity, we still wouldn’t be able to demonstrate that the ultimate causes of behavioral differences aren’t still social rather than biological. (3) There are just too many counter-examples. If a racial essence is really a racial “essence,” then we would need a reasonable (and reasonably scientific) way to explain all the people who don’t act “stereotypically.”

Of course, it could still be the case that the waiter isn’t conceiving of racial essences in any kind of “biological” sense. Perhaps he’s completely willing to concede that the behaviors of black people (e.g., not tipping) are socially- or environmentally-caused. As you point out, maybe the “deep structure of socialization or anti-socialization” in our society conditions blacks to adopt a battery of “learned behaviors” that is different from (and perhaps antithetical to) the learned behaviors of whites. This is where the sociological data would come in to prove or disprove the verity of the waiter’s experience—and I have no idea what such data would prove—but then we’d have to embark on a whole other discussion about the methodology and hidden prejudices of the social sciences. Even still, let’s say that we had such data that DID prove that, on the whole, blacks tip less or don’t tip at all more often. If we’ve already dismissed the idea of a biological racial difference and conceded that this behavior is socially-caused, then we ask: does experience with this behavior make one a racist?

No. Or, at least, it shouldn’t. In fact, it should make one an anti-racist, because what has been acknowledged is that the (anti-black) social structure of our society conditions some people into learned behaviors that are (at least in the dominant paradigm) anti-social. So, the real culprit here is racism, not the inherent faults or inferiority of any particular race of people.

Ditto all of the above for racial profiling. The trouble with racial profiling is that it confuses an effect for a cause. Legitimizing the practice of racial profiling by police doesn’t reduce the amount of crime committed by non-whites; correcting the racialized, structural injustices of the legal system does.

Imagine if we lived in a society in which every non-white couple, before eating a meal at a restaurant, had their waiter spit in their food (in front of them). Over time, I think we could expect non-whites to stop tipping (if they didn’t just stop eating out altogether!). Now, skip ahead 100 years. If I’m a waiter who notices that non-whites are bad tippers, can I say that they must do that because they are non-whites and, hence, I am justified in my prejudice against non-whites? Instead of being a self-congratulatory racist, shouldn’t I be an Anti-Spitting-Waiters-ist?


[POSTSCRIPT: All this assumes that the waiter is actually correct in his assessment that “ghetto people suck” at tipping, which I’m not really willing to concede.]

emma b. said...

2 things.

1. That receipt looks like one of mine. I always write zero, then tip in cash because then it doesn't have to be declared for taxes.

2. Living in West Philly on the boundaries of Penn has made me aware of some deep-seated racial animosity here... fully class-based, a symptom of extreme, dripping, wealthy privilege shoved right up against generations of grinding poverty entrenched by racism (the only thing that has apparently changed since DuBois's _The Philadelphia Negro_ is that the Center City neighborhoods once occupied by blacks are now white and wealthy).

I would be fucking pissed too, and might well not participate nicely in that bizarrely American contractual ritual of "good tip for good service" in which somehow emotional labor well rewarded serves to oil the wheels of a sensation of a benevolent and benign socius.