December 01, 1998
Following is a dialogue that might have occurred – indeed should have occurred – had President Clinton and his Advisory Panel on Race taken seriously the complexity of race relations and civil rights in America.
President Clinton: How do you feel about black people?
America: We try not to generalize about racial groups. Some black people are good, some aren't, same as with whites.
President Clinton: Come on! Be more honest. Say how you really feel.
America: Look, here's the dialogue you want. You want someone to say, "Sometimes when I see a young black man, I feel afraid. I'm afraid he will try to rob me. And sometimes when I see a young black woman, I think she's probably promiscuous. And sometimes when I see anyone who's black, I think they may not be as smart as I am." And then you'll say, "But you shouldn't feel that way. You should judge people as individuals."
But you know what, Mr. President? Americans already know that. We already had this dialogue. And the good guys won. We know that you're not supposed to make generalizations about people based on skin color. That's what we said to start out with.
So what's the point of having this dialogue again? We'll tell you the point: It's so you can feel like a great leader and tell us something we already know. It's so some so-called minority leaders can act like white people who didn't already know that racism is wrong. That's the point of this dialogue.
But the result is going to make race relations worse, not better. Because the whole pretense of this dialogue is that Americans don't already know that racism is wrong, that there isn't already a national consensus that race should be irrelevant. The whole pretense, in other words, is that black people can't trust white people. But that's not true, and it's poisonous.
President Clinton: But Americans still make generalizations based on race! We are still a racist society!
America: Look, define "racist." Do Americans see a person's race when they see the person? Of course. None of us is literally colorblind. Do Americans make generalizations based on race? Most probably do sometimes. Even Jesse Jackson admitted that he is relieved when the youths he hears walking along the street behind him turn out to be white, not black.
Is all this a bad thing? Yes, since generalizing about a person's likely behavior based on his race is very likely to result in inaccurate and unfair judgments. It's not irrational to make those generalizations when we have no other information and we have to make a judgment -- the Reverend Jackson has to decide right away whether to cross the street -- but sometimes people don't have to make a judgment based on race and still don't bother to gather the additional information they easily could.
So we are certainly not yet a totally colorblind society. But that doesn't make us racist. Do Americans believe that racism is a bad thing? Yes. Do most Americans believe it is immoral to mistreat someone because of his or her race? Yes. Do they deny that race is the central and defining characteristic in a person's character and ability? Yes.
According to a Gallup poll a year ago, a majority of whites say they would prefer living, working, and sending their children to school in a mixed environment; would not object if blacks "in great numbers" moved into their neighborhood; and would have no problem with their child attending school with mostly all blacks. Only one percent said they would move if a black family moved next door, versus 44 percent in 1958. Most whites (59 percent) and blacks (75 percent) say they have a close friend of another race; among whites, that figure climbs to 66 percent among those age 18-34 (and 72 percent among Southerners). Six in ten whites approve of interracial marriage (the figure is eight in ten for blacks), versus only one in four in 1972. And among those age 18-34, the approval rate is 86 percent for blacks and 83 percent for whites (within the statistical margin of error). (By 1993, 12.1 percent of all marriages contracted by African Americans were interracial.) Blacks (88 percent) and whites (82 percent) also each said they would prefer working with a mixed group of blacks and whites than with mostly members of their own race. The number of Americans who say they would vote for a black presidential candidate is "now nearly universal"; it was only 35 percent among whites in 1958. The three most admired people in the United States, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, are Billy Graham, Colin Powell, and Oprah Winfrey. General Powell is the top choice of Americans age 30 to 49, and Ms. Winfrey for those 18 to 29. This is a racist society?
It is one thing when the owner of a jewelry store keeps a special eye on the black male teenager who walks in -- because he is a teenager, because he is male and, yes, because he is black -- and another if he refuses to serve that same youth when he comes up to the counter. A society in which the latter happens on a systemic basis is racist; to call a society in which the former happens racist is, at best, an exaggeration. By the way, the Gallup poll concludes that "[t]he experience of perceived discrimination by younger black males stands out as being distinctly different from other groups of blacks" since they are "much more likely to say they have encountered discrimination than any other segment of the black population," particularly "in terms of shopping and in terms of interactions with police."
President Clinton: But you have admitted that we haven't eliminated all racial mistrust and discrimination. I want to do something!
America: The first rule of governments and doctors is to do no harm. The government has already made it illegal to discriminate in just about any public transaction. The government cannot do much more that it already does to pressure and educate people against holding racist views. The preferences that your administration defends are themselves discriminatory and unfair, and they make matters worse, not better.
But there are things that individuals can do. Fortunately and unsurprisingly, the racists who are still around are in fact disproportionately older folks, according to the polling data, and that cohort will shrink over time. Social pressure, individual soul searching, and God will help with younger people.
And so, to put it bluntly, will lowered rates of black illegitimacy, crime, and drug use, as well as more commitment among black parents to forcing their children to achieve excellence in academics. We're not saying that it's right to generalize based on race, but as long as statistical disparities exist among races, some people are going to do that. The truth is that that's the main reason for the residual racism.
Getting rid of those disparities is where Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume should be spending their time, rather than mau-mauing gutless corporate types who are already scared to death of them. One last tidbit from the Gallup poll: a majority of blacks and whites say that blacks should focus on improving themselves rather than "changing the system."
But these pathologies reflect moral failures, and they will require moral leadership. You can't have morality without religion, and so probably the leadership is going to have to be by churches, especially churches in poor, inner-city neighborhoods.
President Clinton: So I don't need to lead a national dialogue?
America: Now you're talking.
Roger Clegg, a regular contributor to the Civil Rights Newsletter, is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank.