I have a black friend whose experiences with fairly blatant racism I've witnessed some of firsthand. I've been with him when a cabbie did not stop to pick him up, though my friend was dressed in a suit and tie; the cabbie then picked someone else up further down the block. And I was at a party in a New York City apartment one time when my friend knocked on the front door, and a girl wouldn't open the door for him after seeing him through the peephole. In both instances, the person was obviously reacting to his race. And I'm sure these two incidents constituted a very small fraction of the petty humiliations he's endured in his life.
If I were in his shoes, I sometimes wonder, would I become bitter? I probably would. When those types of experiences happen often enough, it's difficult not to retreat into a hardened us vs. them attitude. At the same time, I hardly blame either the cabbie or the girl for their actions. About a decade ago the actor Danny Glover made a cause celebre out of the fact that cabbies often didn't pick up black men after he had a similar experience. The newspapers picked up the story and there were several editorials expressing dismay at this situation. Within the next few months I noticed three stories in the paper about slain cabbies, all three of whom had been shot after being robbed in predominantly black areas. After that I heard no more of the Glover cause. It's easy for newspapers to wax self-righteous about how hard it is for a black man to get a cab, but editorialists are not the ones putting their lives at risk. The chances are, of course, that any random black person is probably a safe fare. But the odds of being robbed or even killed by a black are still much higher than by a white, so why would any sane cabbie not play the odds? Likewise, any white girl who opened her door to an unknown young black man in New York City in the mid-80's would also have been taking an unnecessary chance.
The question then becomes, whom should my friend be angry at, the whites who instinctively regard him as the Feared Other, or the young black men who commit crime and thereby instill that fear? Logically, he should be angry at those young black men, though I have to admit that in his shoes I'd probably also resent whites. My friend, by the way, doesn't show any overt hostility towards whites: he has plenty of friends who are white, and he is generally extremely congenial. But when you see whom he roots for in sports, and listen to him talk politics, it's obvious which team he's on. Would he still be rooting for his own team if he hadn't had those experiences? Probably, but perhaps with a touch less passion.
In an earlier post I alluded to the subtle racism that Colin Powell has presumably experienced. When whites are in the presence of blacks they are usually a little more polite than they would be with other whites, a little more guarded, and a little more ill at ease. And there are all sorts of ways they can unwittingly and unintentionally emphasize the gap between the races. These range from the outright insensitive ("Can I touch your hair?" or "You people...") to any excessive friendliness or flattery which rings false. I've seen a fair amount of this type of behavior (the latter usually exhibited by liberals), and it always makes me wince. Such awkwardness is in its way just as corrosive. While it doesn't indicate hostility, it does indicate a sort of fear, and emphasizes black peoples' otherness just as much. Every American black has been made to feel patronized this way. Worse, it's the type of racism which a decent person can only respond by silently stewing.
Again, one must ask why whites behave this way. I'm 54 years old, and for as long as I can remember I've been around whites who are absolutely terrified of being accused of racism, and blacks who feel much less need to censor themselves. Why the terror? Because all their lives whites have had drilled into them that the most despicable thing they can do is to discriminate on the basis of race. This message is drilled home again and again in school, in the newspapers, on TV shows, and in the movies. And it's hard to be cool when you're terrified. (Blacks are not similarly terrified because the racism depicted only goes one way.)
This raises another point, the definition of racism. Traditionally it has meant discriminating against someone on the basis of race. More recently, the definition has grown to include the belief that one's own race might be "superior"; superiority at what is rarely specified. Any fair-minded person would agree that to judge people by their race is patently unjust. However, the distinction which is never made is that judging a race by its people is entirely different from judging people by their race. If a black person thinks that blacks are superior at, say, sprinting, does that make him a racist? I doubt that any levelheaded person -- black or white -- who has watched the last few Olympiads could come to any other conclusion. This is one component of human abilities which can easily be graded on a superior to inferior scale. And while no reasonable person would ever conclude that all blacks are faster sprinters than all whites, it's hard to escape the conclusion that at the top levels, blacks are, to put it bluntly, superior. Does noticing this fact of life make one a racist?
Of course, and most of you will have anticipated where this discussion was heading, the far more sensitive topic is racial differences in intelligence. There the salient fact is pretty stark: the average white IQ is 100, and the average black IQ fifteen points lower. (The average Jewish and East Asian IQs are supposed to be somewhere in the 110 range, but I've never heard anyone take offense at their mention; these are evidently less sensitive topics.) The only real controversy attached to the subject of IQ is the extent to which the differences are due to genetics rather than upbringing, the classic nature vs. nurture debate. Most of the evidence (the separated monozygotic twin studies, the separated sibling studies, regression toward the mean, etc.) points to a strong genetic component (in addition to an environmental one). Does being aware of this evidence make one a racist? A mere statistic hardly seems to have a moral value, but any politician who dared mention this would be called upon to resign from office. The few individuals who have dared broach this subject in public -- James Watson and Richard Hernstein come to mind -- have inevitably paid for it. Or how about the differences in the rate of violent crime? Does noticing such statistical disparities make one a racist? The new definition of racism seems to be, the ability to be empirically observant.
Of course, there are subtleties involved here: a white acquainted with the IQ statistics is morely likely to assume that any black he meets is dumb. This then fits the original definition of racism, to judge someone by his race, which virtually everybody would agree is unfair. How then does one balance an acquaintance with the statistics with an aversion to judging people by their race? My own experience is that if you're merely polite to everyone you meet, they will inevitably give you enough information within a minute or two for you to be able to judge them individually. I think this is all anyone can ask. If I had jumped prematurely to a hard conclusion -- as opposed to just weighing likelihoods -- I would never have gotten to know the abovementioned friend, who, by the way, scored an 800 on his Chemistry AT at age 14, an 800 on his physics AT at age 15, and is one of the most broadly knowledgeable -- as well as charming -- people I know.
If my friend represented the average black, I would be the first one to say that on average, blacks are far, far smarter than whites. But that's just not the case. My friend's existence doesn't negate the statistics, nor, in general, my life experience. And the history of sub-Saharan Africa, and for that matter, the entire world, is pretty clear proof of those statistics. I don't think my recognition of this makes me evil.