Sunday, May 24, 2015

Why Debate Exists About Systemic Racism and Sexism

Language is a fickle beast. It is as slithy and brillig as the toves gyring and gimbling in the wabe. We all perceive words and meanings in a unique way and many people use words in ways that are not even accurate. When this happens often enough and for a long enough period of time, the dictionary definition is forced to change. I speak about language here because I believe it is the key component to the disruption of this conversation regarding racial bias. Not only do words hold different meanings to different people, but certain phrases might elicit interpretations that were never even intended by the original speaker. Compound these issues with the complexity and touchiness of the subject and we are ripe for debates, controversies, anger, and even riots and murder.

The many issues in discussing this topic make it quite nearly impossible to have a valid discussion regarding it and hoping to make any useful steps to coherence, understanding, and unity between the differing camps of thought. In order to have this conversation, we need to begin with definitions. What is racism exactly? Pulling a dictionary definition is only partially useful because many people do not adhere to the dictionary definition and our word-choices are only as good as the ability for others to interpret them. I propose that there is a significant population of people such as myself that view racism as a belief in the inferiority of another race. It is to say that all people of a particular race are inferior as a byproduct of their genes which make them up. Other people believe it is racist merely to mention race in relation to an idea. To some, it is racist to believe that black people often enjoy watermelon and fried chicken more than white people. For me, this is not racism but a potential statistic. I truly do not know the numbers, and for all I know it is a downright lie to begin with, but let's say 90% of black people like watermelon and fried chicken while only 50% of white people do. If these numbers were accurate (which they most assuredly are not) I do not personally believe it is then racist to plan a black gathering and providing these two food items in hopes for it to be well received. Other people would disagree and call this racism. This is why we must define our words.

This disagreement in the meaning of racism will clearly have a distinct effect on whether or not an individual believes in the existence of this concept of "systemic racism." When I, and I presume many others, hear the concept of systemic racism, we hear "the system hates black people and believes they are all inferior and thus treats them unfairly." When other people hear of system racism, they hear, "most everything in our day to day affairs is harder for a black person." Hopefully nobody believes in the first, and with some simple data hopefully everyone can understand the truth of the second. Understanding that it is true, however, is only the first step. Then there is the issue with blame and how to solve the issue which fuels even more debate.

When I hear about racism, I immediately perceive "whites hating blacks." Perhaps it is the "system" that makes be feel this way. Other people simply hear "life is harder for minorities." There is a distinct problem between these two phrases. The first condemns white people while the second is merely the recognition of a statistical fact. Similarly, when talking about sexism, I presume many people hear, "men are pigs and treating women like objects" while others hear, "life is harder for women." Thus, the simple words of racism and sexism will entirely garble the conversation. Because of this, I argue that we ought to do away with them all together and instead focus more on the actual issues at hand. It is useless to say that we have systemic racism or sexism. It is more useful to say that it is more difficult to succeed in life for black people and women. Nobody feels threatened by this. Nobody feels accused. These phrases, for me, elicit merely a question and a desire to solve a problem. I immediately wonder if it is true, how it is true, or why it is true rather than perceiving I am being called a monster for treating people unfairly.

This same issue arises with the phraseology of "white privilege." This phrase easily elicits an "us against them" concept. It focuses on white people as being a problem rather than on the issues surrounding the struggles of black people. The solution may have a lot to do with white people, but if we use such phrases that make white people appear as the problem, we are going to have fewer white people trying to help. Instead, we will get many upset white people for being accused of something even if that is not the intention of the person speaking the white privilege phrase. We must be exceedingly careful with our language if we wish to make a significant impact.

All these things being said, it is easy to see how it might be harder to succeed in life for a black person or a woman. We may have a black president which, to me, indicates that the majority of America is not "racist" any more than the "system" is by my own understanding of the word, but this in no way indicates that life is somehow easier for all of the black populace. Just because one black person makes it big does not mean that all black people have a similar chance or ease of ascension. It will be no more indicative of the easiness of life for a woman if Hillary Clinton becomes president in 2016. These individual accounts are known as anecdotes and they do not help in any way in understanding the overall situation of blacks or women.

When it comes to understanding why success does not come as easily for the black person or female as it does for the white person or male, there are a multitude of things to look at. We cannot simply leave it as if racism and sexism are the cause. Given my own use of such words, they are certainly not the cause. Given how some other people use the words, it becomes fairly redundant and meaningless. We could say that life is harder for blacks because people or the system think black people are inferior, but we cannot say that life is harder for blacks because people or the system make it harder for blacks. Well, we could say that, but it is not very useful. With the first, we could devise a plan to educate the people that blacks are not inferior. But with the second, it tells us nothing as to the true cause. It is simply hard because we make it hard. We need to dive deeper into what makes it harder and why these things exist. We need to look at the cause and not the symptoms.

If we know that cancers are causing deaths, we cannot simply say that cancer is the problem and leave it at that. We need to figure out what causes the different cancers. If it turns out that sugar causes one cancer, we could eliminate sugar. We could also dive deeper into determining how sugar causes this cancer and maybe find a way to eliminate that reaction. The same goes for the difficulty for blacks to succeed. Whether or not these following things are true, I am not positive, but I believe they might be. Either way, true or not, they should at least serve as an example. Part of what makes it more difficult for blacks to succeed could be education. The educational facilities in predominantly black neighborhoods might be sub-par. They might be sub-par because the cities might be poor. They might be poor because richer people stay out of them. Richer people might stay out of them because the crime might be too high. The crime might be too high because the education is not good enough and because the people are poor. If these things are true, it is easy to see that the problem is circular and self-sustaining. If each of these things cause each other, there is seemingly no good way out. We cannot simply tell them to get a job so that they are no longer poor so that they can have better educational facilities and get better jobs any more than we can shame a depressed person into being happy.

Apart from my own hypotheticals, there is certainly also the problem of racial perception as I may have just demonstrated. True or not, my perceptions remain. I would not consider these perceptions racist from my own definition, but they are indeed perceptions of a race which others do take to be racism. Again, this is why the word is useless for this discussion and these perceptions is where most of the discussion regarding systemic racism lies. Studies have shown that managers are less likely to call back an applicant with a black-sounding name over candidates with white-sounding names. This study has a limitation given that the scientists applied only to newspaper ads which limits the study to a certain type of person who would post a job in a newspaper at this day and age, but we can run with this anyway and show that it is at least more difficult for black people in this one regard. So it is harder for black people to get a job when the listing is found in a newspaper. This is certainly scientifically true. At least, it is true for two cities in Illinois where the study took place. But we still need to ask ourselves why this is the case even if not for the entire nation and for all jobs which may or may not be the case without bringing in further studies. I believe this discrimination is likely due to perception of likelihoods regarding a race which once again brings us back to the definition of racism. Some will call this racism which elicits a feeling of accusation and is entirely unhelpful in resolving the issue.

If the managers listing ads in the newspapers perceived consciously or unconsciously that, on average, black people are less qualified for the job and thus call white names first, then this should clearly be seen as a bad thing even if it is statistically more advantages to take this sort of shortcut. Despite its truth or myth, we have decided as a country that it is not right to make decisions based upon the averages of a race rather than on the merits of individuals themselves. Men commit the vast majority of murders and rapes and thus it is far more likely that a male applicant would be a murderer or a rapist than a female, but we certainly should not take that to mean that men should be given less precedence over women when choosing applicants to interview. I would be willing to bet that few people actually take this into consideration, but this is exactly what we do when we consider blacks or women to be less likely qualified for a position over a white male. As a culture we have decided it is not only immoral, but illegal, to take such generalities into consideration when judging an applicant. Each individual must stand or fall on his or her own merits, accomplishments, and qualifications. Of course, even these might be more difficult to obtain as a black person or female and thus could still be unfair in the end.

The solution probably does not lie in the arresting of all people who were less willing to give a call to a black or female name. In fact, many of these people might not realize they are discriminating in this way which is a significant problem. I may not know the solution myself but I know that it starts with discussion. Of course, we clearly have a hard time discussing this very topic which is why I will sooner discuss the solution to the difficulties of the discussion. As I have reiterated throughout, I contend that the solution starts with a careful consideration of our word-choices. We must remove any and all hindrances that might prevent honest discourse and give rise to emotions. The discussion is emotionally charged enough without adding in words meant to evoke such emotions.

After we have chosen our words carefully to frame the situation, we need to be willing to look at any and all causes and for each one to ask why, how, and whether these things are true or not and whether or not they themselves have another underlying cause. If the underlying cause of the discrimination is mere perception, then we may need to change the perception. If the perception is built around truth then we can either build a false perception or else try to somehow change the reality. If it is not perception but merely a byproduct of humans who biologically favor those within their subgroups, then we have an entirely different set of potential solutions. None of these, however, are solved by using emotionally-triggered words that bring up defenses or encourage anger and resentment. This needs to be discussed without the words of racism, privilege, and sexism. I would even argue that we need to nix the word systemic which sounds too much like a conspiracy theory as if someone has designed it all this way from the deep pockets of their evil britches.

Communication is key. Be respectful and inquisitive of the perspective of others and be sure to fully understand the perceived definitions of words that are used. Get clarification of intent and meaning behind the words. Assume nothing. I believe it is far more likely that there is a mere misunderstanding than that your opponent is an outrageous jerk-face with poo for brains bent on the complete destruction of humanity through the hatred of all others unlike themselves. Often, the difference comes down to experience, worldviews, and education. Such things will be overcome with respect rather than with accusations of intolerance and especially not with one of our most shaming offenses of racism or sexism. These words have become ingrained in many of us from our youth that even the perception of being racist is worth jumping through many hoops to avoid. There is a deep fear of such allegations and accusatory remarks will make the conversation impossible.

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